When it comes to cozy comfort, I think we can all agree, there’s no place like home. Who doesn’t like curling up on the couch with a good book and a bottle of your favorite wine? Well, what if I told you that you still get that warm, fuzzy feeling while out with friends at a local wine bar? I’m happy to tell you that you’re in luck. Such a place exists, and it’s called The Panel.
An unassuming little house in the town of Sonoma hides a wonderfully unique space and a very special experience. When you open the door you stop to wonder if you’ve accidentally walked into someone’s living room. Classy bistro style tables are sprinkled around the homey dining room (which is, yes, an actual converted living room) creating a very comfortable and warm vibe.
Not only is The Panel a wine bar and bottle shop offering exclusive selections from every corner of the globe, but also an espresso lounge with craft beers on tap, hard ciders, kombucha and a selection of cafe bites, both savory and sweet. The Panel can provide everything you need to have a great day.
The Panel is also home to an incredible Wine Club, and gets it’s name from the very unique way they choose their wine club selections: every month they choose a “panel” of wine experts (an event I was honored to receive an invitation to be a part of) to participate in a blind tasting of around 20 domestic and imported wines. The wines with the highest overall scores are chosen as the wine club selections for that month.
Continuing with the “Welcome Home” motif, The Panel is actually run by, you guessed it, a family. Owners Darlene and Charles Rhodes are a wonderfully inviting couple that do everything themselves, from wine buying to serving tables, with their eldest daughter Zoe, who Darlene calls their “energetic ray of sunshine,” (and after meeting her, I must agree) as their Business Manager and Chief Latte artist. “As a group, we’re a fun-loving family team who genuinely love people and understand that people are the reason we exist in this community,” says Darlene. “Our goal is to build community and lay down some roots, here in Sonoma.” This family consists of some of the kindest, most down to earth people to ever grace the wine industry, and when you walk into establishment, you’ll feel just like family too.
Before Darlene bought The Panel, it was just a private Wine Club that was shipped out each month to their online customers, using that gorgeous home as a simple, unseen, warehouse.
Q: “What’s the history of The Panel?”
A: “Since Charlie and I were both working when we started looking for a business (me as a former HR Director and him as a Fire Battalion Chief, our original thought was to establish a coffee business that Zoe could manage. At one point last year, we had plans to open a “Bad Ass Coffee” franchise in Napa, but couldn’t find a suitable property we felt would work. Then one day, we saw an ad for a wine club for sale in Sonoma and we when we checked it out, we thought, WOW, what a phenomenal space and what an unexpected opportunity to marry mine and Charlie’s love of wine (& craft beer) and Zoe’s love of coffee! We envisioned a cool wine lounge vibe where people would love to bring friends/family and hang-out with us. Drink some amazing wine from all over the world, have a stout beer float, or sip on an authentic European espresso, while noshing on cool little food bites. I think we executed the vision pretty well – even though it continues to evolve. My husband went to Bad Ass Coffee in Santa Rosa the other day and sent me a picture of his cup and said ‘We started with a Bad Ass Coffee and ended up with a bad-ass wine bar.’ I think that’s pretty accurate.”
Q: “Can you talk about your history with wine? What made you want to be in the industry?”
A: “I have always loved the ritual of drinking wine. Growing up in New York, having great Italian food everywhere, I drank a lot of reds from Italy. I also had French relatives, and liked the style of wines from France, so I guess I cultivated a bit of a palate for Old World wine. I had been fascinated by the Wine Country wine industry since moving to (Napa in 2013, and then, subsequently) to Sonoma in 2015. Having the opportunity to purchase The Panel business and keep the international wine club and wine shop going, plus adding wines by the glass, beer and espresso, was an unexpected surprise. And even though it’s hard work building this business, and making the transition from a private wine club to a public wine lounge, we laugh and pinch ourselves all the time.”
It can truly be said that their hard work paid off. The Panel is beautifully unique and offers a range of experiences that will delight even the most critical of guests. There is simply something for everyone. From their extensive bottle shop, to their pop-up happy hours and events in the lounge, and even their Under The Radar Winemaker Series (where you can come meet the winemakers, sample their wines and nibble on some tasty treats,) there is always something new to discover.
The next time you find yourself in the town square of Sonoma, do yourself a favor and find your way over to The Panel. Darlene and the family will be there waiting with a glass of wine and a warm smile, that will have you saying “There IS some place like home!”
The Panel can be found at 535 West Napa Street
Sonoma, CA 95476 or online at PanelWines.com