In “Our Wine Travel Log,” we take you on armchair journeys to the world’s great wine regions.
Today, we’re transporting you to all of them—that is, we’re providing you with a “game plan” for a successful wine-tasting adventure, no matter where you go.
All 10 tips that follow are tried and true. They’ve been found to be effective from Santa Barbara to South Australia, and from Monterey to Mendoza. Embrace them—particularly tip No. 6—and you’re virtually guaranteed to have a memorable (in a good way) wine country experience…
- Do your homework.Before you board that plane or hop in the car, take time to do some research on your destination. If you have friends who have been to where you’re going, ask them for suggestions on where to stay and eat.Download maps. Most wine regions of any significant size have their own marketing organization that manages a website packed with information, directions, winery hours of operation and so on. But the most valuable tool such associations can provide is a good map that pinpoints the winery locations.
If you have just one or two favorite types of wine, take the extra time to visit individual winery websites to see what each specializes in.
- Seek out small producers.The large wine companies typically provide the most professional tours, but those tours are fairly similar from estate to estate. Smaller wineries may not offer all the bells and whistles, but there’s a pretty fair chance that the person behind the tasting bar is the proprietor and/or winemaker.
- Limit yourself to two or three stops per day.There are two reasons for this. First, you’re not going on a drunken binge. You’re visiting wineries to taste what they make and enjoy new flavor experiences. The more alcohol you ingest, the less able you are to make aroma, flavor and value distinctions.The second reason is that you’re on vacation. That means taking the time to savor the experiences you have, to talk them over afterward, and to cement long-term memories. When you’re darting from winery to winery, or trying to adhere to a tight, multi-estate schedule, the qualities that make individual wineries unique become blurred. (And so might your vision.)
- Eat a big breakfast.And do so at least two hours before visiting the first winery of the day (which should be no problem since most tasting rooms don’t open until 10 or 11 a.m.).Eating well before tasting wine lessens the impact of the wine’s alcohol. Avoid strong flavors in your breakfast selections, including coffee. The goal is to arrive at the winery with a full tummy and a fresh palate.
- Do not wear perfume or cologne.A big part of the wine-tasting experience involves smelling the wine, because the aroma provides big clues about the wine’s flavors.If you or anyone else in the tasting room is wearing perfume or cologne (or used perfumed soap when showering), that aroma will obliterate the aromas of the wines being sampled.
“Hmm… this Cabernet smells like Chanel No. 9.”
“Hey, so does this Chardonnay!”
- Designate a driver, or hire one.This really should go without saying, but with legal blood alcohol levels at all-time lows, it doesn’t take as much wine as it once did to find yourself “over the limit.”If there are two in your party and you’re planning a two-day trip, the solution is simple: One drives and the other drinks on the first day, and vice versa on the second day.
Otherwise, if you both really want to drink both days, hiring a driver is much, much leas expensive than hiring a lawyer.
- Hydrate… and spit.One way to be able to taste more wine safely is to perfect the process known, romantically, as spitting. Most tasting rooms have “dump buckets” on their bars for this very purpose… and for pouring out wine that is not consumed.Some people have heard of these practices but shied away from them because they’re afraid they’ll insult the person behind the counter. Trust us on this one: The winery personnel will not be insulted. They have a vested interest in making sure that nobody leaving their property has been over-served.
It’s also helpful to hydrate throughout the wine sampling experience; you should drink at least as much water as wine. Other benefits include prevention of over-imbibing and avoiding a headache later on.
- Ask questions.Yes, you’re at a winery to enjoy yourself, but you’re also there to learn. “Wine geeks” can be spotted a mile away at tasting rooms because they’re the ones who are talking more than the staff. It’s very difficult to learn when you’re talking.Asking questions also demonstrates that you’ve taken an interest in the winery and what it makes. It can be endearing to your host, and it’s also just plain polite. But beyond that, your questions and their answers may help you discover a type of wine you’ve never had before—and love.
- Take notes.Don’t trust your memory. Jot down information about the wines that will help you recall more about them later, once you’ve returned home.Note-taking also is a great way to help you learn the subtle differences among multiple wines, and to recall those differences later on.
- Buy a bottle at the winery.Unless there was absolutely nothing that you liked during your visit, it’s polite to purchase a bottle to take home—particularly if the tasting was complimentary.You’ll also also find that most wineries that charge tasting fees will waive those fees if you buy a bottle.