Writing for Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog, we’ve visited more than our share of wineries. During these stops we’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that will help you plan the perfect wine country vacation.
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. The good news, especially if tasting wine is your main focus, is no crowds. Because it is a quiet time during the winemaking process, winemakers and winery owners are often around and have time to chat. During non-peak travel times, your trip can be more spontaneous.
Summer – Beauty abounds, flowers, leafy vines, ripening grapes, it’s gorgeous. The bad news, it’s crowded with lots of traffic. Planning and appointments are key to not 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 excursion more enjoyable.
Fall – Harvest! The vines are a blanket of changing colors, pregnant with grapes and anticipation. 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 your visit and some tours include watching and maybe participating in the winemaking experience. Witnessing crush is a “not to miss” experience. Tip: If you want to see winemaking in all its glory, make a morning appointment. Grapes are usually picked at night and grape trucks arrive early to unload their bounty so the daily crush process can begin.
To Plan or Not To Plan
What sounds more romantic than loading up the car and exploring wine country? Beautiful scenery, great food, amazing wine and spontaneity, sounds good, right? To really have a great wine country excursion, plan ahead and 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 have a little knowledge. Many wineries and wine country locals have wonderful websites with tons of useful and interesting information. You’ll find great maps to organize your stops and minimize travel time. We like to start with the winery farthest from our hotel and work our way back.
If you don’t care to drive or just want to travel in the lap of luxury, most wine areas offer car and limousine services. Expect to pay at least $75 per hour with a four hour minimum. Some services will even drive your car. Drivers can also serve as your tour guide. Let the service know ahead what wines you like and how busy a day you wish to have. Your driver may even take you to that special little winery you’ve never heard of, it could be the best stop of your day.
Three to four winery visits with a stop for lunch makes a nice unhurried day. We suggest at least a couple of full winery tours during your stay. As many tours as we have done, we still learn something, every time. However, two is plenty unless you are a fan of bubbles, and then 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. If you are a wine club member, tastings are often free or discounted.
So Many Wineries…So Little Time – Who to Visit?
Sure, you have your favorites, but while you are in wine country, explore. Often your hotel concierge or even that funny waitress can point you to an unknown 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. It sounds scary, but it just means their license doesn’t allow for a public tasting room. Often they are smaller wineries and they’d love to host you and your friends. So give them a call. If you can’t make your appointment, let the winery know before your scheduled time because often they have planned to open a special wine for your visit.
Do you have special interests like organic, sustainable or biodynamic farming? Be sure to plan a winery tour at a spot that piques your interests.
Tips to help you along the way
Eat to balance your wine. We like to start with a hearty breakfast and eat 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.
Questions, ask lots of questions. No, you won’t sound stupid. 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 seem 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 you spitting or pouring part of your glass into the spit bucket. A wine country vacation is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve poured out wine so good it made me cry.
You don’t need to 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 “awful” wine. It is far better if you can express in wine terms what it is you don’t care for (or what you like), so your tasting guide can steer you to something you will enjoy.
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. The Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog will be on the wine road this summer in Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo plus those wineries right out our back door in the Texas Hill Country. Look for our wine blog posts.
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Great piece! May I also suggest packing a picnic. Some wineries (Gundlach Bundschu, Bartholemew, Buena Vista, Rutherford Hill) have lovely picnic-friendly places where you can fill your belly and enjoy your purchase(s). There is a fantastic market along Silverado trail and Sonoma Market has amazing cheese/charcuterie/produce.
Great advice!!!! Thanks