Napa – Sonoma Wine Country Travel Tips
Originally published in Indulge in Denver Magazine – Feb/March Issue
Many dream about a luxurious tour of the Napa and Sonoma wine country; maybe other wine regions, the choices, experiences and outcomes can be infinite. Planning a tour of any famous icon may be overwhelmed if planning is not accurately investigated. Yes, it can be very overwhelming; often ending with frustration if not properly planned. We ask our friend Roger Beery who has logged numerous excursions in the wine country to give us his insight on how to plan the best possible wine adventure. Roger is so into wine that both of his children are employed in the California vino business. Here are some sound tips on planning a trip to the wine country…Enjoy.
When to Go?
Anytime of the year is great in wine country but each season has its pros and cons:
Winter and Spring – The weather can be cold and wet. Little if anything is in bloom to give wine country its dramatic appeal. Because this is low-season, hotel rates are reduced and tasting rooms are less crowded. This is a quiet time during the winemaking process so winemakers and winery owners are often around with time to chat. During non-peak travel times, a wine country vacation can be more spontaneous.
Summer – Beauty abounds, flowers, leafy vines, ripening grapes, it’s gorgeous. However, tasting rooms are crowded and traffic on main roads can be heavy, especially during weekends. Planning and appointments can help keep you from being relegated to an elbow to elbow tasting room. If harvest is still a month or two off, winemakers may have some time to spend with guests, especially those with appointments. Weekdays move at a less frantic pace, making a summer tour more enjoyable. Also, summer is a grand time to catch a concert in the vineyard as winery concerts are becoming increasingly popular.
Fall – Harvest! The vineyards are a blanket of vibrant fall colors, pregnant with grapes; the anticipation of harvest is palpable. Weekends are especially busy. Winery staff and winemakers are “all hands on deck” working 12-15 hour days, sometimes longer and rarely available to guests. The tasting room staff however, is ready for visitors. Some tours will include watching and maybe even participating in the winemaking process. Witnessing crush is a “not to miss” experience. Harvest and wine release parties for wine club members and sometimes the general public are popular during fall. Join the wine club in the afternoon and return that night for a memorable harvest party.
Tip: If you want to see winemaking in all its glory, make a morning appointment. Grapes are usually picked in the coolness of night and grape trucks arrive early to unload their bounty so the daily winemaking process can begin.
To Plan or Not To Plan
What sounds more romantic than loading up the car with a picnic basket and exploring wine country? Beautiful scenery, great food, amazing wine and spontaneity, sounds good, right? To really have a great wine country outing, plan ahead but still leave a little time for that spontaneous stop. Research the internet and check out the many Smartphone apps for wine country travel. Winery visits are much more fun when you bring a little knowledge.
Tip: Start with the winery farthest from your hotel and work your way back.
If you don’t care to drive or just want to travel in the lap of luxury, hire a town car or limousine. Expect to pay at least $75 per hour with a four hour minimum. Some services will even drive your car at a reduced rate. Drivers can also serve as your tour guide. Most car services can, with a little guidance, help plan your trip or will follow your desired itinerary. Your driver may even take you to a special little out of the way winery; it could be the best stop of your day.
Three to four winery visits with a stop for lunch makes a nice unhurried day. Experience a winery tour or two. Even the most experienced wine traveler learns something new with each tour. If you are a fan of bubbles, plan at least one tour to see the fascinating process of creating sparkling wines. Call ahead for appointments and ask about the different levels of tastings and food pairings. Tastings are often free for wine club members and those who purchase wine in the tasting room.
So Many Wineries…So Little Time – Who to Visit?
It’s always fun to visit your favorite wineries, but while in wine country, explore. Often a hotel concierge or even that funny waitress can point you to a lesser-known gem. Tour a big winery and a boutique winery to get a feel for the differences in scale, technique and artistry. In areas like Napa Valley, many wineries have the ominous “appointment only” sign. They are not snobs or unapproachable, it just means their license doesn’t allow for a public tasting room. Often these are smaller wineries and offer a more personal experience. Do you have special interests like organic, sustainable or biodynamic farming? If so, plan a winery tour that expands your knowledge.
Tip: If you can’t make your appointment, let the winery know because often they have planned to open a special wine for your visit. Also, call if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late.
Move Beyond Tours and Tasting Rooms
There is so much more to an unforgettable wine country experience than tours and tasting rooms. Many wineries now offer intimate food pairing engagements, often with reserve wines. Interested in wine country cuisine? Consider a wine country cooking class. They are loads of fun, not intimidating and serve plenty of wine.
If you want to try your hand at winemaking, select a winery that offers a wine blending experience. Blending experiences can be geared for everyone from the wine novice to the most knowledgeable.
Tip: Since you get to take your blended bottle home, hang on to it for a few months and have a blind tasting with your travel partners. The best tasting blend at the winery may not stay the best, once the dust has settled.
A winery estate olive oil tasting is a great way to add to the whole wine country adventure. Since wine is an agricultural product, most winegrowing regions offer more than just grapes. Check out a local farmer’s market or other culinary experiences, such as the Sonoma Cheese Trail.
If you are in Napa Valley, The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone, just north of St. Helena is a great stop. They even offer wine exploration classes and cooking demonstrations. Of course, the Wine Spectator restaurant is a must for an amazing food and wine pairing experience.
More Tips to Help you Along the Way
Eat to balance your wine. Start with a hearty breakfast and include a good lunch. If you don’t have time to stop for lunch, bring snacks.
Water…drink lots of water. You’ll feel much better at the end of the day and the next morning.
Perfume, after-shave, scented body spray… No Way… You need to be able to smell the delicate aromas to appreciate the wine. Not only for you but others tasting around you. Nothing will ruin a good glass of wine faster than your neighbor reeking of Axe, regardless of their commercials.
Questions, ask questions. The person next to you is wondering the same thing. Plus, you’ll find that the winery staff gives you more attention (and maybe a special tasting) if you are engaged and show more than a passing interest in their wines.
Spit or toss. Remember you are in a tasting room not a pub crawl. Wineries have no problem with spitting or pouring part of a glass into the spit bucket. A wine country vacation is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes you’ll pour out wines so good you’ll want to cry.
It is not necessary try every wine offered to you.
Don’t pet the tasting room dog/cat then stick your hand into the cracker bowl.
Be polite. Not every wine will be to your liking, that doesn’t make it an “awful” wine. It is far better to express in wine terms what you like and don’t care for, so your tasting guide can steer you to something you will enjoy.
Be open-minded and adventurous. Try some unfamiliar grape varieties and even some varieties that have not been favorites in the past. Your dissatisfaction may have been more about the winemaking style rather than the wine variety.
Many wineries will ship your purchases. If you are buying just a bottle or two at each stop, ask to buy a shipping box (often they are free) and once it is filled up, drop it off at UPS, FedEx or local shipper to be delivered to your doorstep. If flying Southwest Airlines, two bags fly free, one bag could be a case of wine (in a shipping box). Other airlines offer free wine shipping to and from specific wine country airports. Check with your airline. In any case, the additional baggage charge may be less than the $40-$60 shipper charge. Be careful shipping wines via courier during the summer, as heat can ruin your special wine find.
Any time is a great time to visit wine country whether you’re headed out for a week of delicious hedonism, a romantic weekend or a getaway with friends. With a little planning and common sense you’ll have a great experience that will keep you wanting more.