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Bird's Eye View of Sonoma Vineyards

Helicopter flights show tasters a different perspective

by Jane Firstenfeld
sonoma helicopter
Sonoma Helicopters has teamed with wineries in northern Sonoma County to package wine tasting with helicopter tours above the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—Helicopters have been serving the wine industry in multiple manners for decades. An ideal platform for aerial cinematic, video and still photography for entertainment, news media and real estate purposes, they are also workhorses for detailed surveys of vineyard terroir as well as airlifting equipment (up to about 500 pounds) to remote locations.

They can be called in for frost control, replacing controversial spray irrigation and wind generators, and have proven effective as massive blow-dryers warding off mildew and rot when rain inconveniently dampens vineyards just as grapes have achieved ideal ripeness. In an updated version of traditional crop dusters, unmanned drone mini-helicopters may soon be employed to apply pesticides and cover crop seeds.

Barry Chambers operates Sonoma Helicopters at Charles M. Schultz Airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., offering all of the above manned-flight services for almost five years. He’s also teamed with wineries in northern Sonoma County to package wine tasting with helicopter tours above the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys.

A recent flash offer through AAA discounted an over-flight followed by a special tasting at Clos du Bois in Geyserville, Calif. Chambers said most of his promotional efforts are through flash sites including Groupon; he estimated he’d sold around 600 such junkets in conjunction with Clos du Bois in the past two years, at a discounted price of $275 per couple including tasting.

Robin West, Clos du Bois’ visitor center manager, told Wines & Vines that the program has been “A great success—especially at this time of year, when there is less traffic. We know they are coming ahead of time. When the people arrive, they seem really happy. We give them a six-wine tasting with cheese and crackers.”

West noted that the program works well because customers willing to pay that kind of premium “will appreciate wine,” and the winery plans to continue the promotion.

Mazzocco Sonoma, owned by the Wilson family, has featured even more elevated deals with Sonoma Helicopters. With a tasting room about 200 yards from the Healdsburg municipal airfield, visitors can drive directly to the winery, board the aircraft for a tour and then enjoy a custom tasting in the “Helicopter Lounge.”

Chambers carefully specified, “This service is not a drop-in charter. The clients have to be at the winery and embark and disembark at the location due to FAA rules. Some wineries have use permits and/or zoning issues surrounding helicopter landings, and we have to check each location carefully before making any arrangements.

“We operate this exclusive service with Mazzocco for several reasons: the quality of the products, the professionalism of the people there, the exclusive facility available and the location. Mazzocco has an advantage of access without having to worry about use permits or zoning.

“All the clients we refer to Mazzocco have given us 100% positive feedback and have stated that they would return to Mazzocco and other Wilson family locations,” which now include deLorimier Vineyards and Winery, Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery, Matrix Winery, Pezzi King Vineyards, Soda Rock Winery and Wilson Winery & Vineyards.

Mazzocco sales manager Linda Clarke added, “We do consider this to be a luxury experience, booked well in advance. We have had a few couples get engaged this way.”

Sonoma Helicopter’s most popular charter is a one-hour flight for three people, traversing the course of the Russian River out to Jenner at the coast, at $600 total. Summertime is the busiest season, naturally, and Chambers always recommends phoning ahead to assure that local weather is suitable for flying. Heavy rain and fog can be prohibitive, and strong winds are the most challenging condition for pilots.

  • Commonly used synonyms like “chopper” or “whirly-bird” are not accepted lingo among professional fliers. Stick with “helicopter,” Chambers advised.
  • While Sonoma Helicopters imposes no age limits on its passengers, passengers who bring children along must control them. At the other extreme, the staff has been known to lift aged passengers into the helicopter.
  • Observe the published 270 -pound-per-assenger weight limit; there are scales in the restrooms. Passengers must be able to fit into the (admittedly cozy) four-door aircraft and secure the seatbelts.
  • Chambers noted that even local realtors and their photographers often cannot recognize target properties from above, so he always checks the GPS coordinates when embarking on this type of charter.

A personal passage
Not as romantic as a betrothal, or even a flight and a rose from “The Bachelor” du jour, a helicopter jaunt with a parent or colleague is equally inspiring, as a pair of Wines & Vines writers discovered last weekend.

We chatted with Chambers, an affable Liverpudlian who formerly trained TV and police pilots in Chicago, Ill., while awaiting our flight. Meanwhile a mother and daughter from Northern California returned exhilarated from their own tour before heading to Clos du Bois to continue the weekend adventure.

For those who’ve not yet experienced it, helicopter flight is completely different sensation than flying in fixed-wing airplanes large or small. Lift-off doesn’t involve a tension-inducing run-up on the runway, but a gentle, gravity-defying rise.

The four-seater Raven II doesn’t need a glass-bottomed floor to provide an encompassing view, said Sonoma Helicopters pilot Dan King. Flying at about 105 Knots (121mph) 500-600 feet above the earth doesn’t seem fast at all, and the view is considerably more intimate than from small planes, which typically fly 2,000-10,000 feet above ground.

Surprisingly, the close overhead passage didn’t seem to cause any commotion on the ground. Neither vineyard workers nor livestock seemed even to notice.

Surprising, too, was was the proliferation of back-yard vineyards: Almost every spare acre seemed to sprout well-tended grapevines budding out among the blooming mustard. When seen from above, the valley between Healdsburg and Geyserville appeared incredibly flat.

Marketing in the sky
Homes and businesses in inaccessible areas sometimes paint their names or addresses on their rooftops to direct airborne emergency responders, but only the flashiest (e.g., Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg and Geyserville’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery) are currently recognizable from above, even by repeat visitors.

Sonoma Helicopters provides training for aspiring private helicopter pilots and would-be professionals, and it hosts training sessions and meetings for local pilot organizations.

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