Celebrating four decades of transformation

Raise your glass—it’s time to celebrate the 40-year journey down Sonoma County’s Wine Road.
The ‘Road to Ruby’ 40th anniversary of Wine Road, Northern Sonoma County marks four decades of promoting the natural beauty, wines and businesses of the region.

Wine Road, founded in 1976, is a member-driven association. It began with just nine wineries along the Russian River and has expanded to include 197 winery members and 54 lodging members in what Wine Road describes as a “heaven condensed” 30-mile radius.

“The entire industry has been transformed in the past 40 years,” Wine Road Executive Director Beth Costa said. “We are no longer the sleepy prune, apple, grape-growing communities we were. We are a powerhouse in the wine industry, with an incredible international reputation for world-class wines, hospitality and scenic beauty.”

The cultivation of the Northern Sonoma County wine region began primarily with the settlement of Italian immigrants, such as brothers Giusseppe and Pietro Simi and Edoardo and Angela Seghesio, astonished by a landscape so akin to their homeland. The Italian-rooted names became Sonoma County-rooted traditions—and history continues to be made as modern, state-of the art and garagiste wineries exist alongside the time-honored settlers. After more than 130 years of transformation, the Northern Sonoma County world of winemaking is now defined by the array of its makers—all of which can be found along the Wine Road.

During the past 40 years, Wine Road’s mission has been to support, market, promote and educate the wine industry of the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. The journey of Wine Road has included the implementation of a full-time staff, the creation of five websites and the hosting of thousands of visitors from across the globe every year.

Wine Road has developed a myriad of programs, events and services reflective of its mission. Among a countless number of monthly occasions are three major, annual events: Winter WINEland, Barrel Tasting and A Wine & Food Affair. In addition, since its beginning, Wine Road has offered free maps of its wineries and lodging members. What started as one map of nine members has expanded to five maps covering the Guerneville, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Healdsburg regions of Wine Road. In addition, visitors can build their own custom maps on the Wine Road’s website and include any members they plan on visiting.

During Costa’s 16 years serving as the executive director, she has seen the successes and triumphs of the celebrated association. One of her proudest moments with Wine Road is not a figure that represents how many dollars they have in the bank, but how many they have given to help those struggling close to home.

For every ticket sold, Wine Road donates $1 to the Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB), which has resulted in a donation of more than $300,000 over the past eight years. REFB Chief Executive Officer David Goodman explained that the bank provides food to 82,000 people a year in Sonoma County and the donations provided by Wine Road equates to $1.2 million worth of groceries.

“For every dollar we spend we get about four dollars of food out into the community,” Goodman said, adding that Wine Road provides “unrestricted contributions” that allow the organization to use the money where it is most needed.

“They don’t have to do it,” Goodman said. “That’s what’s remarkable about them as a donor. They take proceeds after their ticket sales and carve out a place for people in need of food, and they don’t have to do it. It’s quite a remarkable group. It’s a quiet pride type of donor; they just do it. We’re entirely grateful. They say ‘feed hungry people,’ and we do.”

In addition to their regular donation schedule, Wine Road’s 40-year anniversary will include extended fundraising campaigns with a goal to raise an additional $200,000.

“For 2016 we are partnering with some other incredible non-profits with some of our anniversary events,” Costa said. “The Ruby Affair will offer a live and silent auction with funds being split between United Way of Wine Country and Worth Our Weight. Our community festival in Healdsburg, called 40 Years of Cheers!, will benefit Becoming Independent.”

Mark your calendars
Wine Roads plans to hold an event every month in 2016, paired with its regular annual events, to celebrate the monumental anniversary.

The 40-year celebration will kick off with the 24th Annual Winter WINEland, held Jan. 16 and 17. The weekend will be filled with exclusive tasting opportunities, sales and tours.

“We have customers vote for the best winter decor at the wineries,” Costa said. “The wineries really get into it and have fake snow, white lights, fireplaces fired up; they dress up in hats and scarves and create a fun winter feel. There is a perpetual trophy that goes to the winning winery. Chateau Diana has won the last two years—they are in it to win it every year.”

With old traditions like the decorating competition come exciting new events. On Jan. 16, people will have the opportunity to participate in the first-ever Breakfast with the Winemakers at two different locations. “It will be an intimate setting, with a casual morning of Q and A,” Costa said. “This is a great chance to talk with winemakers about the harvest and what’s happening in the winery or cellar this time of year.”

Tickets for WINEland are $45 for the weekend or $35 for Sunday only. Wine Road also offers designated drivers tickets for $5. The organization was the first to implement the safe-driving ticket sale discount. Pre-sales end on Jan. 11.
Snag a deal in February on Wine Road’s “Ticket to the Wine Road” tasting pass. A three-day pass normally costing $60 will be available for $40.

The 39th Annual Barrel Tasting spanning two weekends will be held on March 4-6 and 11-13 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The event gives guests the opportunity to sample wines from the barrel and purchase “futures,” which are pre-sales on the barreled wine that will be bottled in a year or more. Advance ticket sales are from Jan. 19 to Feb. 29.

A complete list and details of 2016 Wine Road events, and information on how to participate, can be found at wineroad.com.

Millie Howie Paved the Way
Meeting such an important 40-year milestone is always paired with reflecting on what it took to get there. In the case of Wine Road, this means remembering a person instrumental in giving breath to the association.

Long before her passing on April 5, 2011, Mildred Howie, known as “Millie,” was a force of will in all areas that she worked. Howie spent most of her adult life putting the Northern Sonoma County wine industry on the map. For more than 30 years, Howie wrote the column, “Wine Words,” for The Healdsburg Tribune, Sonoma West Times and News and The Windsor Times, in which she covered industry leaders, well-known families, upcoming winemakers, growers and, most importantly, all things wine. She also contributed regularly to Discoveries magazine (now Sonoma Discoveries), also published by Sonoma West Publishers, Inc.

Previously, she had a successful career in public relations for various companies in San Francisco and worked as a writer and producer for several media outlets in the Bay Area. She made instrumental strides as a woman in the industry, working as the first female writer and producer for KGO-TV and the first female member of the San Francisco Advertisers Club.

Howie formed the Millie Howie Public Relations firm in 1971 and moved to Alexander Valley. Having never taken a sip of wine herself, Howie tried her first 1976 Geyser Peak Pinot Noir and then undertook the tall task of creating a public relations business for local wines in Sonoma County.

Then came Howie’s idea for a “wine road,” realizing Northern Sonoma County wineries would be able to accomplish much more in cohesion than they could separately. The story of how the organization came to be is teased out in an oral history titled: “Mildred Howie: A Public Relations Pioneer in the Sonoma County Wine Industry.” Carole Hicke conducted an interview with Howie in collaboration with Wine Library Associates of the Sonoma County Library.

In the oral history, Howie recounted the first meeting that opened the dialogue for the association. After years of the concept sitting as a “maybe someday” idea, Howie and the owners of nine wineries sat down for a meeting with then Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ell Henry following the 1971 Healdsburg May Fest, during which local wineries donated all the wine that was served.

“I admired his pizzazz and his smartness,” Howie recounted, referring to Henry. “He called the wineries and asked them if they would please come to a meeting after the Fest. He said, ‘We, the City of Healdsburg, have benefited from this and we feel it’s time to give something back to the wineries.’”
From that point forward the association continued to bloom. Following Wine Road came the Sonoma County Wine Library, another manifestation of a Howie dream. Her original plan was that there needed to be papers and documentation of the Sonoma County wine industry and everything it stood for—in the form of a legitimate library.

“I had always – you know, I get these bulldog things where I grab something and will not let go no matter what, and one of my tenacious things was that the Wine Library had to be part of the library system,” Howie said in the oral history.

Once again, her hard work would come to fruition. The Sonoma County Wine Library is housed in the Healdsburg Regional Library with a collection of more than 6,000 books.
Howie leaves behind an unmatched legacy: dedicated work done in the preservation of a now ever-thriving industry.

“Wine Road formed because of Millie’s perseverance and her ability to bring wineries together for the good of the whole,” said Wine Road Executive Director Beth Costa. “She could see world-class grapes were being grown here and world-class wines were being produced, but no one was hearing about us. She changed that. She got the press to visit, taste our wines and get to know the producers. Millie was the force behind what was formed as the Russian River Wine Road.” SD