Sure, you can just get in the car and go to wine country and wing it, or you can plan it in advance. Let’s explore why planning will save you time and money, while giving you the most from your experience:
Buzz, Architecture, Ratings, Distance and Tasting Fees
This is the biggest category. And I fervently believe that all of these variables need to be taken into account during the planning.
If I’ve heard about a winery from more than one person, and it may have some wine ratings from reviewers I follow to back it up, it’s going to make by list because of the buzz.
If I’ve seen photos of a welcoming tasting room, picnic grounds and generally amazing architecture I’m going to want to see it for myself. Choose at least one winery that just appeals to you. And of course, if it has a buzz too you are more than set.
When mapping out a trip make sure you look at the distance from one winery to another. I had a trip planned for me by a wine country representative that didn’t and I found myself zig zagging all over the place when it would have been easier, and I would have had more time at each place, if a Google map was consulted. (Also note that if you hire a limousine or other service provider to map your trip, they may have an agenda if they are paid by wineries. Make sure your that service knows your trip plans in advance.)
Tasting fees differ from winery to winery, and area to area. The fees can also be found on the winery website, as well as the conditions such as waiving the fee if a bottle is purchased.
I am a firm believer in checking a winery website to see if reservations are needed, if there is more than one kind of tasting/touring experience, and what is included if there is a fee. Once you book your reservation it’s an added plus if their concierge tells you how much time to allow. As a writer I allow 2 hours per stop, you may only need up to 90 minutes, but don’t forget to add in travel time…and time to eat.
If you select some wineries that don’t require reservations, be mindful not to arrive less than one hour before their closing time. Even if you think you can barrel through a tasting in a short period of time, it doesn’t give the winery the time it deserves.
I’ve been on plenty of tours, and after 20 years I’d have to say little surprises me. With that said, I’ve seen some (to name a very few) incredible barrel rooms (Del Dotto, Schramsberg), architectural tours (Castello di Amorosa, Quintessa), grounds (Terra Valentine, Halter Ranch), views (DAOU and Law Estate), dining (Justin), wine tasting bars that are also open at night (Pure Cru, Maisonry), art galleries (Hess), even wineries with kitchens and classrooms (Hall). I suggest you get your fill before heading straight to the tasting room.
Eat and Hydrate
Most tasting rooms will offer you water throughout your tasting; if not then ask for it. The only way to keep from getting inebriated is to constantly hydrate and to eat. I usually keep bottled water and pretzels in the car so I’m never in a pinch. Hydrating also helps prevent “palate fatigue” so you can keep tasting longer.
If you have mapped out your trip, try to select a winery with a deli or cheese case and picnic grounds around your lunch hour.
The number one thing here is to please pour out and/or spit into the buckets on the tasting bar. A guest that drinks the last drop of every pour is ill experienced in tasting. You’re not going wine drinking; you’re on a wine tasting adventure.
You will get the most out of it if you mimic the behavior of other, more seasoned tasters. That’s how I learned.
Talk to your server about the wine, winery practices, or just ask how their day is going. Like anyone working in the service industry this can sometimes be a thankless job. It’s not like you’re even leaving them a tip! And I promise that you will get the most out of your tasting experience if you engage with the people trying to share their pride and joy with you.
Eve Bushman has been reading, writing, taking coursework and tasting wine for over 20 years. She has obtained a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, has been the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video, authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and recently served as a guest judge for the L.A. International Wine Competition. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits that may be answered in a future column. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com