Once you’ve been to “wine country” — be it Napa Valley, southern France, Tuscany or even a lesser known region here in the States — it can be difficult to imagine burning vacation days on any other type of destination.
Wine country certainly has everything I need in a vacation: wonderful scenery, enticing destinations, great food, first-class accommodations and, of course… wine.
So what’s the best way to experience wine country? Should you plan an itinerary in advance, pinpointing specific estates to visit, and stick with it? Should you simply hop in the car, stop at estates that seem to call your name, and allow serendipity to take control? Or should you invest in a guided tour, and let someone else do the planning, not to mention the driving?
I’ve done it all three ways, so I have a few thoughts on the subject…
There’s definitely something to be said for doing some research and putting together a daily schedule. That’s one way you can pinpoint wineries that specialize in the types of wine you love, and learn about special tasting opportunities they may have. Today, many wineries offer “experiences” that include wine and various combinations of the 3 C’s — cheese, charcuterie and chocolate — for a set price. Alternately, you can simply visit the winery’s tasting room and rub shoulders with other visitors as you taste through the current releases.
When planning an itinerary, start with a scheduled special tasting, then build the rest of your winery visits around that. It’s best to plan visits to no more than three wineries per day (typically one in the morning and two in the afternoon).
Then there’s the serendipity approach, which requires no planning other than making room reservations and perhaps securing a winery map at the local visitor center. This is the best method for the explorers among us, and I have to say that in my early years as a wine geek, I “discovered” numerous wineries that quickly became personal favorites in that manner. Go with no expectations, and don’t be surprised if you end up with several delightful memories.
Finally, almost every major wine region is home to at least one tour company that transports guests to a handful of wineries. With this approach, you may or may not know which wineries you’ll be visiting in advance, and there’s no way to ensure you’ll like your traveling companions. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for having a designated driver when you’re visiting multiple wineries.
Traveling abroad involves still other considerations. When I visited Australia several years ago, I planned an itinerary well ahead of time and enjoyed my visits to the various wineries. But I absolutely hated getting from one to the next. For me, driving on “the wrong side of the road” for the first time was very stressful.
Two autumns ago when Michelle and I traveled to Barcelona and Vienna, we booked day tours that included winery visits outside the cities. Although we hit only one winery on each excursion, we enjoyed not having to deal with unfamiliar roads and, in some cases, a language barrier on signs. On our next trip to Europe, we’ll likely pick a tour company that offers wine-focused itineraries over several days.
Ultimately, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Do you enjoy exploring on your own, or would you prefer to tap the expertise of a local? When it comes to touring wine country, the possibilities are endless.