Lifting the Veil on the Mysteries and Madness of Planning a Wine Country Wedding.
While Chris Kraft was attending a conference for Microsoft in downtown San Francisco, his girlfriend Stacey Yamaguchi spent her time visiting vineyards. When she returned from her excursion, she told him that they absolutely had to get married at Gloria Ferrer’s winery and vineyard in the Sonoma Valley.
Kraft’s initial reaction had nothing to do with the fact that his girlfriend was making wedding plans—he already had a proposal in the works. No, Kraft, a software product manager in Chicago, was more practical: “I was like, ‘You’re crazy! All the way out there? It’s so expensive.'” Once the couple got engaged and announced their plans to wed at Gloria Ferrer, his Midwestern family reacted just as he had: “They said, ‘What, are you crazy? Why are you not having it in Chicago?’ We said, ‘Just wait. You’ll love it.’ Ultimately, once everyone got out there, they understood.”
What they eventually understood was not just that the natural beauty of a vineyard is as romantic and elegant a setting as you can get, but also that many of the nation’s wineries have expansive facilities to accommodate your big day, from “Trumpet Voluntary” to the last dance after dinner.
Why Wed at a Winery?
You might think that the people who get married at wineries must all be crazy about wine. Although that may be true for some couples, most brides and grooms interviewed for this article said that an attractive outdoor location was their top criterion for a wedding or reception site. Others coveted vineyard settings for more personal reasons. Alyson Levy of Elk Grove, California, admits that she and her husband “are not very religious,” and didn’t think that a ceremony in a house of worship would be appropriate when her parents are Christian and Jewish, and the groom’s are Catholic and Muslim.
While the nondenominational appeal (leaving aside Bacchus) of a vineyard setting appeals to some couples, many of the others who wed at wineries do love wine. Oenophile Michael Snell proposed to Tanya Marshall over a home-cooked dinner and a bottle of the couple’s favorite wine. “He kept toasting me,” the now-Mrs. Snell explained, “and I thought ‘What a weirdo!’ Finally I noticed there was a diamond ring in my wineglass.”
Some couples have vineyard weddings for reasons that go beyond sharing a love for wine. Ben Young is a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who now works in Mystic, Connecticut. His wife, Michelle, says that her husband’s background in food and wine (he has also worked at Millbrook Winery as a winery assistant) was only one reason why they decided to hold their reception at Connecticut’s Stonington Vineyards. The other factor was a sentimental one: “My husband’s father owned the first vineyard in Stonington, Connecticut, and ran it for almost ten years,” she explained. When Ben’s father grew ill, he gave some of his winemaking equipment—and some of his vines—to the current winery.
The Dollar Dance
As Chris Kraft originally feared, organizing a wedding at a winery isn’t exactly cheap. (But then again, what wedding in northern California, or on Long Island, is?) Most vineyards in northern California charge hefty location-rental fees, which usually don’t include much in the way of extras. Some wineries stagger their base fees according to the number of guests you expect, and some do not; almost all wineries charge higher fees from April through November. During high season, Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which has a maximum capacity of 220 people, charges a flat $7,200 rental fee.
|This fees includes only the use of their lawn area, pavilion and Hill House for eight hours (including setup and cleanup, which doesn’t leave much time for the event itself), valet parking, and a “limited amount of tables and chairs.” According to Fogarty’s wedding contract, the event must conclude by 8 pm, and “no glasses, dishes or utensils belonging to the winery are to be used.”|
Other wineries do include a few perks in their location rental fees. Twenty-four-year-old Carlyn Luna, who was married at Geyserville, California’s Trentadue Winery last July, reports that her base fee “was over $5,000,” but at least included “a winery coordinator who helped me find vendors.” According to Trentadue’s wedding contract, the fee for a 150-person wedding is actually $6,250, which includes one bar (service, glasses, linens), tables, chairs and dressing rooms. Chateau Souverain in Geyserville offers guests the option of renting out their entire facility ($5,000), or only parts of it ($500-1,000).
Sound like a lot of dough? These figures don’t include any of the wine, catering costs, flowers or music. Nor, in many cases, does it include wait staff, linen or table setting rentals. All told, say Tanya and Michael Snell, their 200-guest wedding at Chateau Souverain cost approximately $36,000 (not including her engagement ring or the honeymoon). The Krafts estimate that their 100-guest wedding at Gloria Ferrer cost somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000. The Youngs got off comparatively easy: Stonington Vineyard’s site fee is only $1,800 for a wedding with 70 or more guests, which includes the use of their kitchen, deck and gazebo.
So, was that expense worth it? “Ten times over,” says Chris Kraft. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Before, my vision was you get married; you did the banquet hall thing.” Kraft is quick to admit, though, that he was easily swayed by his beloved. “Stacey had a totally different vision. After she said, ‘This is the greatest place,’ my vision of what our wedding would look like totally changed.”
Choosing a Site
When the simplest Web research (i.e., plugging “wedding” and “winery” into your search engine of choice) yields thousands of hits, what’s a couple to do to narrow down their location choices? Heed the advice of the many bridal books that advise to-be-marrieds to make a list of their top priorities—to ask themselves questions such as: “Is the live band more important than the open bar?” If dancing ’til dawn or a margarita bar tops your list of priorities, you should rethink having a vineyard wedding.
When it comes to wine country receptions, thinking through these details is especially important, because most wineries are finicky about what can and cannot happen on their property—after all, wineries have neighbors, too. “This is the way all of them are,” Tanya Snell says of her experience selecting her wedding site. “There’s a curfew. At some places, you can’t play music past 10:30 pm.”
At other places, the curfew—the shut-down-the-DJ-and-start-cleaning-up time—is as early as 8 or 9 pm (and breaking curfew won’t get you grounded—it’ll get you as much as a $500-an-hour penalty fee). For the record, warn some newlyweds, some wineries’ definitions of “amplified music” are vastly different from your idea of party music; some venues only allow solo musicians without amplifiers outdoors.
Most wineries require you to serve their wines, not someone else’s, if you’re hosting your reception on their premises—this is common sense and common courtesy. (Those that are generous enough to allow outside wine on their property usually charge a $10-per-bottle corkage fee.) And hard liquor at the reception, or the lack thereof, may be a stumbling block for some couples. Few wineries (whether by choice or by local ordinance) allow beer or hard liquor on their grounds. If you can party within these parameters, press on.
The Run of the Place
|Most wineries can pretty much guarantee you that there won’t be another woman in a white veil parading around their grounds on your special day. But stop to consider—and get in writing—whether other visitors will be allowed on the property during your wedding. A Napa wedding may be more of a headache than a wedding elsewhere in California. “Some more commercialized Napa vineyards are very strict with rules—some told me that all guests, even wedding guests, have to take tours of their vineyard,” Stacey Kraft reports. Wineries are businesses, and most open-to-the-public tasting rooms have the most traffic smack in the middle of wedding season: summer to October, and on weekends. (Wedding guests competing with tourists for parking spots can get tricky, too.) At the very least, time your ceremony and reception to begin in the late afternoon, just as the tasting room activity is winding to a close.|
Once the last tourist leaves, take advantage of the facilities that your chosen destination offers. Chris and Stacey Kraft appreciated Gloria Ferrer’s versatility: They had planned to get married on the balcony, but the staff was prepared to move everything indoors in the event that it rained (it didn’t). Indoors and outdoors, Ferrer’s gabled walkway, patio and indoor fireplaces offer many elegant, comfortable, picture-perfect spots.
Of Kautz Ironstone Winery in the Sierra Foothills, Alyson Levy says, “The facilities are beautiful. There’s a pond, a lake and a brook—you’re married on one side of the brook, and guests can sit on the other side.” The romantic, pastoral property—they can even arrange for a horse-drawn carriage—is a far cry from that of other wineries, she says, where “they put you in dark rooms.” If a subtly lit room is your idea of romantic, though, consider renting Edna Valley Vineyard’s Cask Room, or Mirassou’s Champagne cellars.
It’s certainly important to examine the space in which an indoor reception will be held, but it’s also important to consider the means by which you and your guests will get to that space. Though Luna loved the wines at one winery, she (appropriately thinking ahead to how she’d walk down the aisle on the big day) decided against the site because she would have had to make her grand entrance by walking down a flight of steep steps. The spot she chose, Trentadue, has a special indoor event hall that’s air-conditioned—a must if your wedding is in the summer. Luna also reaped the benefits of the winery’s two events directors, Donna Healy and Jillian Burford—experts, says Luna, “because they do this every weekend.”
For almost everyone who has gone through the vineyard-wedding planning process, choosing a site is as much about choosing a winery’s staff as their lawns or banquet areas. “At Gloria Ferrer, everybody who worked there was so friendly and nice. You could tell that they really loved their jobs,” enthuses Stacey Kraft.
Full-time wedding or events coordinators are the norm at many larger wineries (especially those outfitted with catering facilities); best of all, the coordinators’ services are included in the wineries’ location fees. “We are a phone call away for questions all along the way,” says Healy. “We usually guide them in their rehearsal for the ceremony—lots of people have never done a production like this. It comforts them. They come to the event a lot more relaxed.”
These planning wizards not only make sure that everything runs smoothly on the big day itself, but are also instrumental in recommending local vendors. For couples who don’t live nearby, these resources are godsends. After booking Gloria Ferrer, the Krafts never again set foot on the property until the day of their wedding—they did all of their planning, with event coordinator Laurie Noble’s recommendations, over the phone and via e-mail, from Chicago. The Snells planned their Alexander Valley wedding from Eugene, Oregon.
Toasting the Happy Couple
When I asked couples why they chose the wineries at which they held their weddings, I expected them all to answer, “Well, naturally, because their ’98 Syrah scored 91 points, and it’s only $11!” (Okay, so that would have been my answer.) Instead, most couples admitted that wine quality played a less-than-crucial role in their selection. “I would have gone [to a different winery] that had a lesser-quality wine if I liked the facility more,” admits Levy, but she would have nixed the spot if the wine had been “absolutely horrible.” Luna also required that the wines be at least drinkable, “because most [guests] aren’t going to know if it’s wonderful or if it’s okay.”
Have no fear that your wines of choice will outshine the food—caterers in vineyard-heavy regions nationwide are accustomed to planning menus around the wines that you’ll be serving, and have hosted plenty of off-site receptions like yours in the past. Irene Kihn Wong of Saffron 59, an Asian-cuisine caterer in New York City, prepared a wedding feast at Long Island’s Channing Daughters winery that included a raw bar and Star Anise and Chinese Five-Spice Roast Long Island Duckling. Wong reports that she has also been called to duty for weddings in Tuscany and Amsterdam. Chris Kraft insists that you use the resources provided to you by the winery—he and his wife chose Forks and Fingers, a Novato-based caterer recommended by Gloria Ferrer, and “people are still raving about the sushi.” It must have been good—the Krafts got married almost two years ago.
Even more convenient than having a four-star caterer put on a spread in your vineyard of choice is choosing a winery that has a restaurant on site. Jerry Comfort, culinary director at Chateau Souverain, is proud of what his facilities offer: “We have an in-house chef—it really cuts down on the room for error. It’s a package deal.” And though Souverain’s chef, Martin Courtman, specializes in California cuisine with an emphasis on locally grown ingredients, Comfort says “the chef and the site are open to customizing events. We just did a wedding with an Indian menu. They loved it.” From East Coast to West, it seems, the days of cold grilled chicken breast and rice pilaf are behind us.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to say your vows surrounded by vines, or whatever your dream-day expectations (barring the 4 am margarita bar, of course), there’s a winery that’s stately enough or homey enough to provide the backdrop to the picture that you’ve always envisioned. You may have to wait a bit to score a Saturday in June, but once you’ve found the right partner, isn’t the right venue worth the wait?