As you zip along the highway, a medieval town on a faraway hill calls your name. You wish there was time to stop. A tight schedule of winery visits has already scrapped lunch as you race to your next appointment. If that visit runs late (and they always do), you’ll miss the trattoria that closes promptly at 2 pm, because European hours. If this sounds like your last wine vacation, quit your job and become an importer. Otherwise, read on for tips to maximize your next wine-country holiday.
Don’t overdo it.
Your winery wish list seems longer than hours in the day. How can you possibly fit them all in?
Some regions, especially in the U.S., are better suited for speed tasting. But if you drive the winding backroads of Tuscany, where appointments last hours, stick to two wineries per day. Watching the clock only inhibits relaxation.
Plus, what’s a vacation without time for whimsy and discovery? Wine regions are full of history, charming villages and awesome scenery. Walk the cobblestone streets. Discover a café that serves local wines, or ask winery staff about their favorites. Taste one you’d never find back home, and track down the bottle in a nearby enoteca. Sometimes, the best part of a wine vacation is found outside the vineyard.
Know in advance if you need an appointment.
Make sure you do have an appointment when you need it. For most prestigious wineries, reservations are essential. Don’t ruin your trip. Check whether your dream winery accepts walk-ins.
Also, be mindful of which day you plan to visit, and be prepared to rearrange your itinerary. Many European wineries, especially small, family-run outfits, are closed on Sundays and Mondays, or whenever an essential team member is away. Always email or call ahead.
Align your budget with your destination.
Consider Napa. The birthplace of American Cabernet is atop many wine travel wish lists. However, Napa is expensive. From lodging and tasting room fees to taking that special bottle home, it’s easy for $1,000 to disappear very quickly. This goes for many marquee wine regions. Being on a tight budget in a place like Champagne frankly isn’t much fun either.
Instead, look for wine adventures where your dollar will stretch. Consider driving to wineries in your backyard. Practically every state has them.
If your heart is set on California, try Temecula, outside of San Diego. Incredible value and great experiences can also be found north in the Anderson Valley, Lake County or east toward the Sierra Nevada Foothills. These regions offer wallet-friendly prices, fewer cars and thinner crowds. They deliver a more relaxed experience that’s still steeped in the spirit of discovery.
Don’t book a tour. Book a driver.
Tours typically overcharge guests for a tacky experience. They often take you to the most obvious venues that cater to groups. With a little planning, it’s easy to determine quality wineries that will better reflect your taste and desired experience.
If you’re dead-set against driving—essential if you intend to drink—hire a driver. While not an economical option in premier regions like Napa, it’s not out of reach in places like South America or South Africa, where the exchange rate remains excellent and costs are lower. In Argentina, you can hire a driver for $50 per day. For that rate, why would you drive?
Remember to eat.
I used to drag my husband down a road lined with wineries like it was a buffet. I’d continually promise lunch or a sandwich “after the next one,” until day had slipped into dusk and tasting rooms had begun to close.
Famished and boozy from high-octane samples, we’d scramble to find something light in the sunset hour so as not to ruin dinner. It was not only unhealthy, but exhausting. A good idea is to stock up on provisions before the trip. Bread, cheese and charcuterie should suffice for sandwiches in a pinch.
Brush up on local wines and wineries.
You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy wine or the beautiful settings where it’s created and served. But, having a basic handle on history, grapes and a few wineries will make your visit more rewarding.
Context is what differentiates a winery tour from a pub crawl. Knowing if a recent vintage was tough or stellar, or if a few winemakers are doing cool things with Ribolla Gialla in a region known for Cabernet can elevate the experience. It gives your visit purpose, and it can spark a treasure hunt to track down that lauded bottle or vineyard you read about.
Bring wine sleeves, a box or luggage for wine souvenirs.
Depending on your purchasing habits, pack a few wine skins/sleeves, travel with suitable wine luggage or pick up a shipper upon arrival. The last day of a trip shouldn’t become a stressful scramble to find boxes. (Note: ask for a “shipper” with Styrofoam inserts that can be checked as luggage.) I’ve even been desperate enough to wrap bottles in rolls of toilet paper sealed with reams of packing tape as a last-minute hack, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Many wineries will also be happy to ship your purchases home for you, so be sure to ask.
To get started on your travels be sure to check out our Top 10 Wine Getaways of 2018.