I had planned out my visits to start with the tasting room that opened the earliest (at that time it was Grgich Hills, at 9:30 am) and end at the place that stayed open the latest (I think it was Beringer). Making appointments (or trying to make them—one infamous Dry Creek Valley personality shot me down rather perfunctorily) and driving from place to place with the map open on the passenger seat was a huge thrill.
Today, GPS makes navigating much simpler. Websites have replaced guidebooks. But a little forethought still goes a long way in making any trip to wine country more enjoyable. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
You’ll have a raging headache before lunch if you don’t drink enough water to maintain a comfortable homeostasis.
Don’t try to do too much. It’s not a drunken road rally to see how many wineries you can visit, or the number of wines you can taste in a day. You’ll enjoy the wines more if you give them some time in the glass, stroll the gardens and take in the scenery.
Dress appropriately. Red wine stains are much less noticeable on dark shirts. Heels don’t fare well in vineyards. But if you’re visiting Opus One, you won’t want to show up in cutoffs and a ripped T-shirt. “Wine country casual” is a cliché for a reason.
Make appointments. Email has simplified this greatly. In Europe, appointments are almost always required, but even in tourist-friendly New World regions, some of the best winery experiences are available only by appointment. Again, don’t overdo it.
You may find yourself having such a good time at one winery that you can’t pull yourself away, which can then make you late for your next visit. One stop per morning and one per afternoon is a good rule of thumb. You can visit places that don’t require appointments in between, if you have time.
Hydrate. Especially if you’re not spitting (see below), you’ll have a raging headache before lunch if you don’t drink enough water to maintain a comfortable homeostasis. Bring bottled water with you in the car to drink between visits, and don’t be shy about asking for glasses of water at the tasting rooms.
Spit—or hire a driver. Nothing will ruin your trip faster than a DUI charge or worse. Even though it might not seem like you’re swallowing a lot of wine, over the course of the day, you might be surprised how much alcohol gets in your system. Throw in a glass or two at lunch and more at dinner, and wham. Ask for a spittoon if you don’t see one, or spit into the flowerbeds if you must (don’t worry, it won’t hurt the plants). Above all, be safe.
5 Memorable Winery Visits
This was my first appointment-only visit, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was a raw 23-year-old kid in wine terms, but I was offered a flute of the winery’s sparkling, available only at the winery. I was star struck before I even took a sip.
When the family tree takes up an entire wall in the tasting room, that’s a lot of heritage. And not every winery has a signed photo of Russian hockey star Igor Larionov on the wall. Mind blown.
I was lucky enough to visit a few days after the Hill of Grace Shiraz had been harvested, and I was able to taste the still-fermenting wine right from the concrete vat. Maybe the best sparkling grape juice ever?
How could I not include one of the wineries from near where I grew up? Especially when during my last visit with Hermann, he drew me a sample of his version of a trockenbeerenauslese from a glass demijohn.
Owner Judy Finn is about the most enthusiastic, gracious host I could ever imagine. One of the few cellar doors I’ve visited professionally where I was charmed into buying a bottle.
Managing Editor Joe Czerwinski’s first visits to wine country took place in New York’s Finger Lakes with his parents, where he’d be offered Concord or Niagara grape juice. His first visit to Napa was in 1990.