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Swank sipping

The secret about Rogue Valley tasting rooms is slowly coming out. Owners don't want you to just try some of their wine, buy a bottle and then head down the road to the next place. They want you to stay. Hang out. Sip slowly, and invite friends there to while away the hours.

In the sunny months, tasting room staffs set up outdoor tables overlooking gardens and vineyards. In the chilly months, they lure people inside with the idea that tasting wine around a rustic counter is a warm experience.

But lately, local tasting rooms have taken the idea of drawn-out wine tasting one step farther: They have created special spots, away from the crowds, for long, private conversations.

Cowhorn Vineyard, outside of Jacksonville, has a lounge above the winery where wine club members and guests talk about wine, food and theater while relaxing on sectional sofas and looking out across vineyards, asparagus fields and a cherry orchard.

Kriselle Cellars in White City has an executive room behind closed doors off the main tasting room. On the wall is a 42-inch screen with TV, Internet, Skype and PowerPoint capabilities. People sit at the extended table, next to racks stocked with wine, for a meal or a meeting.

At Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass, the back room near the kitchen is curtained off to accommodate up to 20 people. In the past, the Troon crew has hosted economic and business groups, as well as people who just want to socialize. A tour of the production facility and vineyards is followed by customized tastings.

In these and other swank spaces tucked inside tasting rooms across the region, couples nestle on sofas with a glass of their favorite wine, business people hold their last meeting of the day and party-givers throw birthday gatherings away from the people who just want to stand at a counter, sample various wines, spit and then split.

"Unlike fast-food restaurants with garish colors and serious air conditioning that practically force customers to dine and dash, winery tasting rooms want them to feel at home and stick around as long as possible," says Marilyn Hawkins, an Ashland-based marketing expert who produces wine-specific sales and marketing conferences. "Often, the more you drink of a wine, the better you like it, especially if it's paired with the right small plates of food."

During this summer and fall, the veranda and grassy lawn outside 2 Hawk Winery in Medford was packed with sun worshippers drinking wine and beer, and listening to music. In the winter, the crowd convenes around tall tables propped up on wine barrels or sits on horse-saddle chairs pulled up to the tasting counter.

On the other side of the vast Western-style room, however, is furnishing that could have been culled from a tasteful apartment: a show kitchen — with stainless steel appliances — opens to a dining room with a polished table and upholstered high-back chairs illuminated by a wine bottle chandelier.

Wander downstairs to the subterranean lounge space and the decor gets even more Ralph Lauren than yee-haw. Leather chairs form intimate conversation clusters against one wall and in the middle of the room is a wooden table that can comfortably seat a dozen or more people for hours.

The Cellar, as it's called, was inspired by the Napa Valley boutique wineries that Nisha and Rick Jackson toured a few years ago before they decided on the design of their 2 Hawk's tasting room.

In Napa, private tasting areas are inside wine caves, traditional cellars or living room-style spaces. "We incorporated all of these ideas into our Cellar," says Rick Jackson. "We really liked the idea that a group of people could have a private tasting party."

When a group books the Cellar, Jackson gives those guests a special presentation, explaining the wine he serves. When it's not reserved, other customers can settle in and sip, a level below the main tasting room din.

People who come through the door of South Stage Cellars' brick tasting room in Jacksonville instantly see the counter where customers sit to taste wine. Visible to the left of the front door is a small room with saloon-type tables.

Unknown to most visitors, however, is beyond that room is an intimate space newly furnished with white-, red- and eggplant-upholstered chairs, small glass tables and a gilded mirror.

"The San Francisco-feel with a modern twist against a backdrop of an historic building seems to attract many levels of comfort and relaxation," says Porscha Schiller, South Stage Cellars' marketing and event director who designed the room with owner Traute Moore and other staff members.

"I wanted a very different feel from the other rooms," explains Schiller. "Like a living room, cushy, relaxed, low tables that would allow our guests to arrange the chairs and ottomans to fit their needs. Dim lighting adds to the feel of an evening home party in which we take care of everything."

It can cost $100 to rent the room to host a party for 18 to 25 people, but the fee is waived for wine club members.

"I have suggested that the parties spill into the middle room but people are reluctant to move from this relaxing atmosphere," says Schiller.

Antonio Moreno, who works the counter at Enoteca by EdenVale Wine Tasting & Bistro, gets excited telling couples about the remodeled space upstairs, overlooking the Ashland Plaza. Standard tables and hard chairs were recently replaced with romantic, two-person ottoman-like seating and low copper-top tables that can be rearranged to accommodate a group.

A few Fridays ago, a man threw a surprise 40th birthday party there for his partner, who never suspected anything except a stop for a glass of wine.

In the slower winter months, tasting room staffs often have the time to serve flights in the smaller rooms.

But instead of pouring each flight one at a time as they do at the counter, the Enoteca staff brings a wine glass tree that holds five glasses, one for each taste of red or white wines, and printed tasting notes to the upstairs visitors.

Moreno compares the new approach to the slow-food movement.

"It's really about the slow sip," he says, adjusting his purple bow tie and black vest. "Wine is meant to be enjoyed, not to be a quick drink. So why would we want people to ever leave?"