It's child's play at some local wineries

I once wrote a serious story about people shopping with their dogs — not little, purse-sized pups, but red-eyed Rottweiler types. The expose ran on the front page of a large, metropolitan newspaper with a photo of a bored-looking St. Bernard in a Banana Republic store.

What I remember most about researching this story (remarkably, never nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) was that dog owners believed their charges were better mannered than those messy, panting kids they saw running around.

Well, that's a perspective I didn't see coming as I navigated a lake of dog drool near the checkout counter. But it got me thinking: Should kids be allowed in public?

It's a timely question with more tasting-room owners touting their family-friendliness. Vineyards are farms, after all, and natural places to spend the day, they say. To attract more parents and grandparents interested in wine education, they are opening their gates to supervised children, inviting them to play for free or for a small fee.

Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley is putting on its traditional Easter Festival April 8. For $5, children can go on an egg hunt, watch balloons being twisted into clown hats and crawl into an inflated playhouse that allows them to fall down and bounce off the floor like … well, let's just leave it at that.

During the summer, Troon's chef creates gourmet pizzas and flaky profiteroles with chocolate sauce. What pampered child wouldn't love that? For more rustic kids, burgers and brats are flipped on barbecues and served at Plaisance Ranch and other ma-and-pa tasting rooms.

Schmidt Family Vineyards has horse-carriage rides, a Frisbee lawn and a new dove aviary that could be either romantic for couples or another way to connect city kids to nature. Farm animals, anyone? Concerts, everyone?

Harvest festivals have Lucille Ball-style grape stomping contests and tractor rides. The family-owned wineries along the Upper Rogue (http://upperroguewinetrail.com) — Agate Ridge Vineyard, Cliff Creek Cellars, Crater Lake Cellars, Del Rio Vineyards, Folin Cellars, LaBrasseur Vineyard and soon Kriselle Cellars — have long hosted free, kid-centric events. On the second Saturday of the month, from April through November, the party could include a summer Olympic-style cork-throwing contest or seasonally appropriate bowling with frozen turkeys.

The family atmosphere is genuine, says Troon winemaker Herb Quady, a father of two: "We started the Easter-egg hunt for fun, with no sense of getting a big financial return. After all, kids aren't buying wine."

But their guardians are. At a recent seminar in Central Point, Napa tasting-room consultant Craig Root told wine producers that parents are so used to being shunned in adult arenas like nice restaurants, first-class sections on airplanes and their in-laws' homes that they would gratefully buy cases of wine if they felt welcomed.

But before we turn the keys over to kids, let's acknowledge the drawbacks of having little ones underfoot where wine is sold.

I asked a usually tolerant tasting-room owner how she felt about the subject, and my hair blew back from her first response: "KIDS!!!" (Exclamation marks are all hers. I don't have the finger strength to do that myself.)

She quoted a sign she has posted on a wall, one printed by the beloved Oregon Liquor Control Commission, that states: No minors allowed unsupervised. They also can't belly up to the bar, and because the owner has a small space, standing clear of wine means rubbing elbows with the wall or sitting outdoors.

She says kids over 14 figure out ways to occupy themselves, and babies don't bother anyone unless they cry or upset the ambient scent.

For the ones in between, she bribes them with Goldfish crackers and white grape juice, pointing them toward coloring books and washable markers (her emphasis on "washable" stems from a graffiti incident she can't forget). A parent herself, she has had mostly good experiences with little ones, but there have been children she was tempted to tranquilize with NyQuil.

They picked up merchandise, played with it, tried it on and dropped it. They climbed on the cases of wine and display racks. When one energetic imp discovered gravity by encouraging water to pour out of a cooler onto the floor, she had to shut down the tasting room to mop up and flip cases of wine to dry out the soggy bottoms. (Good thing the little scientist didn't want to experiment with the dump buckets.)

Other tasting-room owners report that some parents say they want their older children to taste wine both to learn about it and to see it less as an enticing elixir to filch. When the tasting-room staffer tries to card the underage drinker, parents say they will vouch for the child. Again, the feds say, no way.

My opinion? I think back to Vegas in the 1990s when casinos turned their grounds into inexpensive, kid-luring amusement parks. Arcades were subsidized by characters who could star in gangster movies, and showgirls became nannies. As a mother of a preteen son then, I can tell you … it was awesome.

So I can understand the new crop of parents hunting for ways to appease their kids while still being able to hang out with adults doing adult stuff. We just have to hold back the adult stuff.

Speaking of families: Dick Troon, a father of modern-day wine in the Rogue Valley who passed away in October, will be celebrated from noon until sunset May 19 near the zin vineyard he planted in Grants Pass in 1972. That same year, he convinced the president of Rogue Community College to offer viticulture courses, and he, Frank Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery and a handful of others enrolled and eventually started wineries.

In 2003, Dick sold his land to father-son team, Larry and Chris Martin, who have since built a tasting room and planted more varieties of grapes. Dick then moved nearby into a two-story, clapboard house painted the color of French-vanilla ice cream, and that's where I met him last Father's Day.

"The wine industry has been good to Southern Oregon," he said. "I feel fortunate to have been here at the beginning. I had lots of friends when I had a winery."

To attend the Celebration of the Life of Richard Troon, please RSVP to tastingroom@troonvineyard.com.

EVENT: Matthew Domingo and Erin Daugherty have announced their 2012 Farm Dinner Series in which we, the diners, get to meet our neighborhood food and wine producers, to whom Matthew and Erin rightfully reference as "celebrities."

I don't remember what I had for breakfast an hour ago, but I do remember strawberries I ate at my first Farm to Fork dinner two years ago. The multicourse feast was paired with Valley View viognier, tempranillo and syrah.

Jump onto www.farmtoforkevents.com for information on "speak-easy" events, a rafting trip with shoreline, gourmet wining and dining and the farm dinners.

TASTED: Dobbes Family Estate 2007 Syrah ($45) made from grapes grown by the Moore family in Talent's Fortmiller Vineyard. Dundee winemaker Joe Dobbes has long been a supporter of Southern Oregon growers, and he refers to Don and Traute Moore as "second parents." The wine's back label carries this explanation, which sounds strangely like a Valentine's Day card I once received: "Fueled by passion and desire; borne by calloused hands." A toast to you, Joe, and to families.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@mailtribune.com.


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