WINE COUNTRY ON TWO WHEELS

With nothing between you and the vineyards but fresh air, there is no better way to see wine country than from behind handlebars.



With nothing but fresh air between you and the vineyards, there is no better way to see wine country than from behind handlebars.

It's a beautiful afternoon in early October. The setting: an exquisite villa cum vineyard outside of Greve in Chianti. The occasion: a bicycle tour innocently labeled "Southern Tuscan Spin," which proves to be the hardest riding my wife and I, enthusiastic and experienced hill climbers, have ever done.

Villa Calcinaia has been in the same family since the 11th century. The family scion, il conte Capponi ("The Count"), greets us in impeccable British English. He is, our guides inform us beforehand, eccentric and argumentative, and we are counseled not to bring up sex or politics. Further, the guides warn, the visit could be brief if he's in a bad mood.

But the Count likes us, and after the standard tour of the grounds and some of his "good" Chianti, he invites us inside his magnificent home. We learn that the villa was taken over by the Nazis during the occupation. He opens an ancient wardrobe containing splendid garments worn by the Count's ancestors. He presents a guest book signed by, among others, Mark Twain and, if memory serves me, Friedrich Nietzsche. He invites us to taste vinegar that has been fermenting for 300 years. (It's like nothing I've ever tasted before.)

Now the Count brings out his best Chianti, local cheeses made especially for him and the best grappa I've ever tasted. He flirts with the women, and sings "The Teddy Bears' Picnic" for us all (where did he learn that?!). The guides finally pry us away because we have six miles of cycling left. In the gathering gloom, we pedal to our hotel. I can barely see straight. I drop my chain several times. When we arrive safely at the hotel, I get off the bike reeling but relieved. I'm still alive, and six years later so are the memories.

Whatever your cycling experience or wine knowledge, whether you've chosen as your destination the Veneto or the Napa Valley, whether you're leaning toward a commercial tour or an adventure with friends, bicycling is the way to let your soul breathe the intoxicating aura of the vineyards.

 

A lone cyclist coasts past the Groth winery in the heart of Napa Valley

Holiday Bliss...Usually
Of course, despite any expectations you may have acquired from reading Frances Mayes and Peter Mayle, you can't anticipate unalloyed bliss every moment that you spend in wine country. For instance, in one vineyard we visited, the air smelled like Richard's Irish Rose, the tasting room was crowded with visitors and workers, and the wines were barely palatable. The hostess, a brunette nymphette named Natasha, had the kind of face and attributes that make strong men crawl, confident women boil and everyone uncomfortable. The day: a disaster. Curiously, this and the Villa Calcinaia tastings were both arranged by the same tour company, and both trips, on the whole, were excellent. (The Boston-area company specializing in Italy is Ciclismo Classico, 800/866-7314; www.ciclismoclassico.com)

The point is that it's important to manage your expectations (a phrase I learned from a tour-company publicist), but there are many things you can do to help assure that your experiences are more often like ours with the Count than the dreary visit we had with Natasha.

Tour Companies v. Do-It-Yourself
Before considering the virtues of commercial touring companies versus putting together a trip yourself, I can't stress often enough that the key to any enjoyable touring experience anywhere on earth is riding. Even the most relaxed day on a tour will probably require you to ride at least 20 miles, and there's simply no way to understand even such a modest distance—short of getting on a bike and riding.

If you're not already a cyclist, or if your biking experience since reaching adulthood consists of a few miles now and then on a nearby bike path, join a club. A club provides the incentive to ride—and a variety of rides from which to choose. Club riding also offers experience in group riding, which is especially handy on narrow country roads. And you'll meet people who have cycled to all the places you've dreamed about visiting.

Your local newspaper's weekend edition may carry information about bicycling clubs and events in your neighborhood; many clubs hold bike fairs and rides that are open to the public. Alternately, The League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.com) lists thousands of clubs throughout the United States.

Places Near and Far
Where can you go on a two-wheeled wine tour? Not quite anywhere you want, but almost. The most popular areas are France, Italy and the California wine country; Backroads (800/462-2848; www.backroads.com) is renowned for its California trips. Bicycle Adventures (800/443-6060; www.bicycleadventures.com) also covers the Santa Barbara (California), Oregon and Washington wine-growing regions.

New Zealand is a popular destination, but only a handful of companies go to Australia because of the great distances between wineries. One that does is Pedal and Sea Adventures (902/857-9319; www.pedaland seaadventures.com). Pedal and Sea concentrates on the Margaret River area in Western Australia where, says the company, "the terrain is relatively flat, the spruces grow tall, the wineries are plentiful and close together, the wines incredible and the accommodations great."

Known for the lavishness of its tours to many lands, Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson (B&R) (800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com) was able to maintain South African connections during the U.S. embargo and considers the wines to be extraordinary. (Backroads is dropping South Africa as a destination after this year.)

Many tour companies offer trips to Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere in Europe; many of these trips include wineries but may not make wine their sole focus. Few bicycle tours go to South America because of the bad roads and political unrest.

Want to be in the wine tasting vanguard? Claudia Harris (forketta@libero.it), North- eastern Italy tour coordinator for Epiculinary (see below), also arranges private tours in the Brda region of Slovenia, whose wines and terrain she rates on a par with Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.

An excellent piece of advice about choosing a destination comes from Andy Levine of DuVine Tours (888/396-9010; www.duvine.com): Know your terrain. Burgundy, for example, is gently rolling, while Provence, for all the romance surrounding the name, is hilly and windy. Much of the California wine country is easy on the legs, while the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York has endless "killer" hills.

Catalogs usually indicate recommended fitness levels; for instance, "okay for fit beginners." But definitions vary. "Fit beginner" may well mean "occasional marathoner." If you have doubts, ask. It's hard on the self-esteem to be the only person riding the sag wagon (more about that later) all the time.

Choosing a Touring Company
The simplest way to locate touring companies is to key in "bicycle touring companies" or "bicycling adventures" on your favorite search engine. You'll find thousands of Web listings. Many companies publish seductive full-color catalogs that can drive even confirmed couch potatoes to "spinning" classes.

Other than the obvious conveniences—rental bikes, van shuttles and guides who speak the local language—touring companies offer an in-depth knowledge of a particular area and possibly particular wines. "It takes years to learn where to go," Levine points out. "We know the area, the differences in the soil. We can get spontaneous tastings because the owners know us. Winemakers are artists and workers. They won't offer you anything special if you come on your own."

And you usually eat "off the menu" in local restaurants, which means eating more than you've ever eaten before in your life. Hearty eaters may find themselves rewarded with extra portions, special cheeses or desserts. (Try it and see what happens.) And speaking of food…

A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine

Claudio Bisio, co-owner of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours (888/746-0022; www.dolce
tours.com), was the first tour operator I spoke with who mentioned the pairing of food and wine. In Europe, he pointed out, wine is never separated from food. Claudio recommends calling touring companies to ask just how much attention they pay to food and wine pairings, at tastings as well as at dinner. Your leader, he adds, may also know local wines that rarely get to America—for example, Roero, Grignolino and Pelaverga from Claudio's native Piedmont.

Bike Riders (800/473-7040; www.bikeriderstours.com) offers "Guest Chef" tours, with U.S. and European chefs in Italy and France who take advantage of local produce. Have a specific dietary requirement? Catherine Merrill of Epiculinary (Distinctive Cooking Journeys) (888/380-9010; www.epiculinary.com) arranges custom cycling/ wine tasting/cooking tours for groups of up to 20 people. Her most unusual success story: procuring handmade chickpea-flour pasta for a group of people allergic to gluten.

Wine at tastings and other educational events is typically included in the cost of the guided tours, but expect to pay individually for wine consumed with meals.

Doing It Yourself
I must confess a bias toward guided tours, but if you're an independent spirit who relishes the challenges of putting together a bike tour from scratch, doing so can be the adventure of a lifetime. To help, here are some words of wisdom from friends who have done just that.

One is Ethan B., who dismisses the notion that you can't do it yourself and have a real wine experience. Ethan has led trips in the Loire Valley, Provence, Dordogne, Bordeaux, Tuscany and Umbria for groups as large as 30 cyclists. One time, while stopped at the synagogue in Avignon, Ethan met a rabbi who introduced him to a vigneron who invited him to a private tasting. "Anywhere there are vineyards, there are tastings," he says. He adds that word of cybermouth is very helpful. For instance, keying in "biking Tuscany" or "biking the Silverado Trail" will open the floodgates of advice and opinion. Ethan knows everyone who signs up for his trips, has a good idea of their riding levels and can be pretty sure almost everyone can fix a flat. Likewise, you should have a similar handle on your group's abilities.

Matt and Marianne S. have led trips to France, central Italy and Sicily—and this year they are taking on Corsica and Sardinia. Though they speak minimal French and Italian, they've arranged hotel bookings and airport storage for their bike boxes, unearthed exotic routes from fellow cyclists and generally had wonderful times. Like Ethan, they've occasionally borrowed cue sheets (detailed point-to-point daily riding itineraries) from friends who have taken commercial tours, and have experienced a few bumps on the road, literally and figuratively, but they insist that they wouldn't do it any other way.

The Sag Wagon
Many people who arrange their own tours rent a villa and take day bicycling trips from that central location. But if you're planning a point-to-point trek with a group, the key to success lies with the sag wagon.

The sag wagon—typically a 12-passenger minibus—transports bikes from airports to ride starting points and carries water, food, rain gear, spare tires, tubes and parts, wine and tchochke purchases, and exhausted riders once your trip has begun. It's a peacemaker when traveling companions aren't equally matched in cycling ability or in how they want to spend their time. It's both shelter and shuttle in case of rain, flash flood, snow or darkness.

Organized trip planners will make arrangements well in advance to rent a sag wagon with bicycle roof racks. Keep in mind the high price of gas in much of the world, the narrowness and hilliness of foreign streets and the widespread unavailability of automatic transmissions. Taking turns as "designated driver" is de rigueur for group har- mony, but this may mean that someone will not be able to indulge at a particularly fine tasting. Dana Gallant of Halifax-based Pedal and Sea Adventures says that some wineries will brush off cyclists without a sag wagon because they can't carry more than a bottle or two away with them.

A Word to the Indecisive
One person's adventure is another person's nightmare, or at least inconvenience. If you're inclined to bike through wine country on your own, here are a few things to consider before you actually book flights or hotel rooms:

  • Do I prefer to taste wine or gulp it?
  • Is absolute comfort essential?
  • Do I get frustrated if I can't get into the best restaurants or vineyards?
  • Can I tolerate crowds or must I have individual attention?
  • Are I and my partner(s) well matched in terms of riding ability and amount of time per day we like to spend riding?
  • Am I good with maps?
  • Am I flexible?
  • Do I know the language of the area I plan to visit? If not, does being unable to communicate frustrate me?
  • Can I change a flat? Repair a derailleur? Use a chain tool?
  • Am I open to serendipity or do I prefer predictability?

There are no correct answers. But if the majority of these questions give you pause, consider taking a guided tour. Also, if you've never spent two weeks with friends you know only from weekend rides, you may discover things you wish you hadn't.

If signing up for a tour and doing it yourself sound equally wonderful, you may wish to consider a "hybrid"—a self-guided tour that most tour companies can arrange. They provide rental bikes and cue sheets, book hotel and restaurant accommodations, schedule wine tours and arrange for the innkeepers to move your luggage between locales, all of which greatly simplifies travel for solo travelers and couples.

 


A gentle hill in California wine country

Some companies specialize in self-guided tours. For instance, Untours (888/868-6871; www.untours.com) offers itineraries throughout Europe that include air fare, car rental and apartments to use as a "base camp"—wine tastings are left to the individual.
Randonee Tours (800/465-488; www.randoneetours.com) offers self-guided, point-to-point itineraries through French (including Corsica) and Italian wine country.

Ultimately, whether to taste the joys of "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine" (and countless other delicacies) with your favorite "thou," with friends or with strangers who may someday be your friends, is up to you. Just make sure you do it by bicycle.

Freelance writer Bernie Libster has been on 10 commercial bike trips and several club-sponsored trips in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, Vermont, New York and Italy.

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