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- Written by Fred Swan
- Sunday, 03 May 2009 23:22
Actually visiting wineries is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a wine enthusiast. Whether you are on your own, with friends, or part of a larger group, you will always remember the look and feel of your favorite wineries. And you will meet a lot of great people.
Visiting most wineries isn’t difficult. They encourage you to come and enjoy talking to you. We hope that you have the opportunity to visit some wineries soon, and often. While going to wineries doesn’t have to involve a lot of planning or preparation and there’s no formal list of rules to follow, there are some things that you might want to keep in mind. Doing so may make your experience more enjoyable.
Drink responsibly. Going to wineries can mean a lot of wine tasting, or wine drinking. But it’s important to be cautious. If you are traveling by car, consider having a designated driver. Or, if you are sharing the driving duties and tasting wine, be sure to spit out the wine rather than actually swallowing it. The roads can be crowded and winding in wine country. Being safe is vital. There are also a lot of limo services that can do the driving for you. These services have experienced drivers that know where the wineries are and may even have some good recommendations for you. There are a variety of cars, arrangements and pricing.
This is also true if you are traveling between wineries by bicycle. The roads are often narrow and without much shoulder. And if you’re walking between wineries and need to cross a street, be very cautious. There are very few crossing signals outside of the downtown areas and the cars sometimes go quite fast.
Have something to eat. And drink water. It’s important to have good solid meals when you are wine tasting. Alcohol is metabolized much more quickly on an empty stomach. Even if you’re spitting most of the wine, it can hit you pretty quickly if you haven’t had a good meal. Breakfast is very important. Have a good lunch too. There are a lot of great restaurants, cool burger spots, and stores that sell delicious picnic food. Take some time to enjoy them. You want to feel good all day and remember your experience.
Alcohol is very dehydrating. It can also be quite warm in wine country. It’s important to stay hydrated. Drinking water will also help keep your palate clear. Make sure to bring plenty of water with you.
Don’t try to pack your day too full. It’s tempting to try to pack your day full of visits. But wine tasting is most fun when it’s relaxing. Doing it like a fast-paced scavenger hunt is less enjoyable and may cause you to miss out on some great opportunities that may arise spontaneously. Three or four wineries a day is about the right pace. If you’re going to wineries that require firm appointments, plan for just two wineries and fit others in more casually if the opportunity presents itself. It always seems to take longer to get from one place to another than you might think. And time goes quickly in wineries when you’re enjoying great wine and conversation. Or gift shops.
If you find that you are going to be late for an appointment because another winery visit is going long, be sure to call the winery that you will be late for to let them know. If possible, have the winery you’re at make the call. They should be happy to do so.
If you can, try to plan your visits so that they don’t require a lot of driving back and forth. While the countryside is beautiful, you don’t want to burn too much tasting time “commuting.”
Plan ahead a little bit. You don’t have to go nuts with it. But, it’s a good idea to think about which wineries you like to visit. Do a little research. Are they open seven days a week, or just weekends? What are their hours? Do they request that you make an appointment? Not all wineries that say they are by appointment only really are. But, it’s best to call ahead and check. And there are a few wineries that aren’t open to the public at all. If you want to take a winery tour or have a special tasting, it’s even more likely that an appointment will be needed.
Be conscious of the season, day of the week, and hour. As you would expect, the wineries are busiest during Summer, which is tourist season everywhere, and during the harvest (late Summer, early Fall) when people like to try to see the grapes being picked. Visiting during those times can be a lot of fun. But, it’s also a lot of fun to visit when the wineries and roads are less crowded and you can get more personal attention. Of course, weekends are typically busier than weekdays. This is especially true if there is a festival of some sort going on. You should look into festivals and other events when you do your advance planning. Weekdays are typically a much more relaxed time to visit the wineries. But, late afternoon on just about any day they start to fill up. People stop in after work or as other wineries close and the truly dedicated migrate to the few that remain open.
While we’re talking about crowds, let’s talk about tour buses for a second. If you are on a tour bus, that’s great. Have a wonderful time. If you are traveling on your own and turn into the driveway of a winery that has a tour bus parked outside, you might want to think about going elsewhere for a little while. Especially if it has just started to unload. There’s nothing wrong with the people on the buses. It’s just that the sheer quantity of people can make the tasting room a bit crazy. It might be hard for you to wedge your way in. Different wineries have different abilities to accommodate large groups. Some are large enough to handle to multiple full-sized buses with no problem. Some are very small and are taxed by a small van. Many wineries don’t allow large groups without prior arrangement.
Bring a camera. There are a lot of photo opportunities inside and outside the wineries. Many have beautiful gardens or art galleries. And the countryside can be gorgeous too.
Share tastings. A lot of tasting rooms charge for tastings. A typical tasting could be anywhere from $5 to $20 and usually consists of a “flight.” That’s small tastes of multiple wines. But, even with the small pours of a flight, you usually get enough of each wine to share it with one other person. Doing so can save you some money. Reserve tastings or special seated tastings with accompanying food may cost more. At some wineries, if you pay for a tasting you get to keep the glass. At others, your tasting fee may be refunded if you buy a bottle. Feel free to ask.
Some wineries also have coupons for free or discounted tastings in the local paper or winery guides. Ask questions. The people working at the wineries and tasting rooms are typically both very friendly and very knowledgeable. Feel free to ask questions. There are no dumb questions and they’ve probably heard everything at least once.
Be polite. Working in a tasting room can be tough. It’s a little bit like being a bartender without the tips. Be friendly and polite. It will maximize everybody’s chance of having a good day. And sometimes, it may get you a taste of something special they’ve got hidden behind the counter for nice people like you.
Plan to buy wine. We’re not saying that you need to buy wine when you visit. You don’t. And we’re not saying that you will buy wine, whether you plan to or not. But you might. And if you are tempted by something tasty, it’s good to have figured out in advance how you will get it home. And how to keep it cool in the car while you’re inside tasting at the next place. It’s a great idea to bring a cooler filled with bottles of water, a few of which are frozen. You need to drink water anyway. This way, it will stay nice and cold. And you can reward yourself for drinking water by filling the empty space in the cooler with your favorite wines. The cooler will also be handy if you find a great place for picnic food, can’t finish that massive lunch, or find a really good roadside produce stand. Maybe you should bring two coolers...
If you are going to buy... When you do decide to take the plunge and buy something, there are a few things to keep in mind. Sometimes, the winery prices are just a touch high for the wines that are available at outside stores. This keeps their distributors happy. But, there may also be wines that are sold only at the winery. These are typically smaller production wines and can be pretty special.
You can usually get a discount on your wine purchases if you buy in volume (6 bottles or a case) or join their wine club. Doing this will typically get you a much better price than you would get at retail. Club memberships often get you free tastings and discounts in the gift shops too. With club memberships, a winery will ship you wine periodically. The selections and prices will vary with the winery and season. The wineries don’t bill you until the wine has been shipped to you. Often, you’re allowed to cancel at most any time so there is little risk in joining.
Unfortunately, some states don’t allow wineries to ship direct to customers. The laws vary considerably by state and can be a bit confusing. The wineries will know exactly which states they can or cannot ship to. But, if you want to try to plan ahead, you can visit this Wine Institute page that tries to sort out interstate wine shipping laws by state. Assuming that the winery can ship to your state, if you don’t want to carry your in-winery purchases home, they may be able to ship it for you. There will be a fee for that of course. If you have collected a few bottles here and there from different wineries, one winery might also be willing to ship a consolidated case (or two) for you. Enjoy your visits to NorCal Wine country!