How to Travel Through Wine Country
For many people, wine can be intimidating.
How often have we walked down the local wine aisle, referenced our phones for help, and stared back at the seemingly endless rows of bottles more confused than before? Or imagine yourself sitting at a nice restaurant - the server brings you the wine list and you notice the sommelier circling tables nearby. Your palms start sweating. You scan the page for something to look familiar - anything. When the sommelier offers guidance, you feel like they are handing you a culinary pop quiz.
Now, how are you going to navigate through tasting rooms?
You're planning a trip to wine country and your head is spinning with excitement, confusion, and information overload. Whether you're an expert or just venturing outside of two buck Chuck, I've learned that a few habits will serve you well.
Step away from the user review sites and wine ratings for a moment to make up your mind about a few things first.
You get to decide how this trip is going to go.
Decide to travel, not tour, through wine country.
Touring and traveling are two very different things.
Touring involves hitting monuments and landmarks, snapping a few photos, and walking away mostly unchanged because you're there to check off another item on the itinerary. Traveling, on the other hand, involves thinking and discovering at an exploratory pace. Once you get into the habit of traveling, you'll be able to fully appreciate a place, a people group, a wine varietal for what it truly is.
Because traveling is a mentality and it is not always determined by distance or number of days - it is the active habit of going to unfamiliar places and letting the experience guide you. It is to be present and distanced from your day to day.
Things to Remember on Your Wine Tasting Adventure
1. Go to the Source
What makes the region unique? Is it the specific varietal? Does it produce amazing Zinfandels? How long have the wineries been there? What is the defining geographic feature? Geological feature?
All of these questions are extremely important when making plans. Finding out what distinguishes a region will draw out major themes to follow in determining wineries, purchasing wine, and the number of tasting rooms you want to visit. Find a winery that is distinguished by the very features of the region itself, and you'll find a solid foundation from which to start.
2. Validate Your Research With Locals
As much as you'll learn from your research in wine magazines, review pages, and friends' advice - always stay curious about what the locals think. Ask for their opinion rather than focusing on how much you know. For many wine regions, tourism is a constant and I'm always surprised to find that locals are extremely kind and helpful when you sincerely ask them for their personal opinion.
These people are around wine - a lot. They're serving it, selling it, distributing it, buying it, making it, and of course drinking it. Even if you're set on your list, don't let it keep you from interacting with residents and asking questions about their experience with the wines in the region. You'll always learn something new and may even make a connection or two along the way.
3. Plan Not to Plan
I like to know what I'm going to do and when I'm going to do it. I also like to know the weather, my outfit, and the lighting conditions for my photography. I fully realize that this is in conflict with my more spontaneous side that likes to make last minute plans and make unplanned stops.
Whatever your natural preferences are, leave space in your schedule as unplanned. Even if your visit is a day-trip, reserve some hours for following recommendations and taking stops along the route to your next destination.
4. Take Notes
I carry around a small black Moleskine and my favorite pen. Writing helps me keep my focus and boosts my memory. I simply write down the name of the winery, name of the tasting room staff member, name of the wine, vintage (year), price, and general tasting notes for every wine that I taste. Staff members take notice when someone is listening, and will usually share more details than usual to those who are there to learn.
If writing isn't really your thing, take photos of the tasting menu or ask if you can keep a menu.
5. It Never Hurts to Ask
My boyfriend (and fellow student of wine) is a professional at this. I'm still learning by his example, but I've benefitted from his habit of always asking for more. On our last trip, he called up one of the nicer wineries ahead of time to ask for a barrel tasting. Though the winery was unable to accommodate his request, they took note and passed along the information to the tasting room staff who went above and beyond to give us a private tour of the production facilities and grounds before our tasting. At another winery, the staff took us on a private ride on a Kawasaki Mule to the top of their vineyards for an amazing view and photo opportunities.
You'll never know until you ask.
So ask (politely) if there is an off-menu bottle open that they'd recommend, or if you can visit the barrel room, or if you can walk around the vineyards.
6. Support What They Support
Wine is one of the oldest and intricate forms of art in the world. Behind this art is an army of laborers who have given their whole lives to producing the best wines possible. A lot of this depends on uncontrollable factors - mother nature, tourism, supply and demand - it is a tough business to be in. I deeply admire the brave souls who are able to look at an empty field and line up vineyards without seeing a penny of return for years.
Communities supported by the wine industry are uniquely tight knit. I've witnessed the genuine support of neighbors within these communities. As they're pouring my glass, they're speaking well of their neighbors and recommending other wineries to visit. I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen, to ask questions, and to seek out ways to respond. Winemaking is an incredibly beautiful and nuanced process that truly requires a village. So as a visitor, we have the privilege and responsibility to support the ones doing it.