It’s happening—you’ve saved up the money and moment and are going on a wine country trip, but (you worry) you’re no wine expert and have no idea how to plan it. Where to go? When to go? What should your visit include, and how do you prep for it?
Here’s help! First, there’s much more potential adventure linked to wine country travel than your original “lets go drink some wine” inklings may have suggested. Inspired terroir-linked dining, incredible vistas, imaginative fitted-to-landscape lodging, shopping, museums and galleries—it’s all part of the experience. But the best bit? Tasting wine at its source, you’ll get to talk to people with personal ties to wines and wineries who can tell you detailed stories, giving you your own connection to and appreciation for the wine you drink from here on out.
Where & When to go
Soda Rock Winery in Alexander Valley. Photo: Monica Kass Rogers
In the States, say you’re heading to the “wine country” and it’s generally accepted you mean you’ll be heading north of San Francisco to the 100-mile long, 50-mile wide key wine-growing region in California. Known as the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) this 3 million acre chunk of land includes Sonoma, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, with bits of Marin and Solano thrown in. Throughout, most of the grapes are grown in valleys (Napa, Sonoma, Alexander, Dry Creek, Bennett, Russian River) and processed in 800+ wineries. If you have some flexibility, wine tripping here in the spring, when the vines are coming back to life and the fields of mustard are prettily in bloom, will also give you a better chance to chat with the winemakers who aren’t as busy. (Summer’s crowded with vacationers and harvest happens in the fall.) Winter is also a good option.
To hone in on one wine-country town as home base for your explorations, think about the wines you already love, and chose a town near the wineries that produce those. Or—as we did—choose a town (www.healdsburg.com ) offering the lodging/dining/gallery experiences you desire that is also close enough by car to allow visits to two or three wineries per day.
Go online to wine-country sites http://www.discovercaliforniawines.com/ ,regional visitor centers http://www.visitcalifornia.com/destination/california-welcome-centers-north-coast, and chambers of commerce http://www.northcoastca.com/ and you’ll find plenty of starting-point info, including links to individual wineries and some sample itineraries.
Ask around, too. Next time you’re at your local wine shop, ask the owner for recommendations. They’ll know people at wineries and will probably have their own list of best-places to visit. Do the same with friends and co-workers.
Where to Stay & Scheduling
Once you’ve figured out which town, be sure to check with the chamber of commerce and hotels in the area for special packages that may include passes to winery tastings or wine events. At the h2hotel in Healdsburg, for example, marketing director Circe Sher says there are frequently special deals tied to wine happenings in the area
At h2hotel we often feature packages that have special tasting experiences for our guests. The Healdsburg for Two package is a great intro to wine country with a lot of added value as it includes complimentary tasting passes to some of our favorite wineries, use of our bicycles and dinner for two at our restaurant Spoonbar.
H2Hotel in Healdsburg. Photo: Monica Kass Rogers
Then it’s time to drill down to scheduling. Jaclyn Stuart, award-winning sommelier, co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food Pairing,” and owner of Vintage, a top Midwest wine shop located in Elkhart Lake, WI points out, “Many wineries require reservations, or may have a wait,” so be sure to call well in advance of your trip. “It’s also a good idea to arrange for a driver or shuttle/chauffeur service if you plan to make a lot of stops.”
On her wine-country exploration trips, Stuart plans to visit 2-3 wineries per day.
“I make those arrangements and if I happen to have gaps in between, I roll the dice and try out a new winery along the way or ask the previous winery where they would go if they had the afternoon off. That way, I have a rough plan in place and get to be sure I see some of my favorites.”
Most wineries have streamlined the tasting process and offer specific options. Some have wine-with-food pairings (tasting bites, locally made chocolates & cheeses, etc.) Others just do a simple 1-ounce pour for a flat fee that can range from “free” to $50. (most are between $5 and $20.) And some wineries will waive the fee if you buy bottled wine to take with you.
Packing for your trip, it’s good to know that wine country attire is casual. Choose darker colors, so if there’s a wine mishap, you won’t be wearing red for the rest of the day. And leave the stilettos at home—wineries that do tours of production facilities like you to wear comfortable, close-toed shoes.
No Dumb Questions
There is no shame in being a wine “newbie.” Keeping it open, you’ll learn a lot. And there are no dumb questions. As Stuart puts it, “The people working there have heard it all. Seriously.” She suggests some savvy/helpful questions to ask might be, “How long has the winery been open?” And, “How old are the vines?” Those are usually two different things and are a good way to open up a backstory about the winery. Mostly—just be yourself, have fun, soak in everything about the experience.
Dining, Shopping, Exploring
Soda Rock Winery in Alexander Valley. Photo: Monica Kass Rogers
Balance winery visits with shopping, outdoor adventure local culture and dining for a fuller experience. Choosing restaurants, go to places known for exceptional food—such as Chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen http://www.charliepalmer.com/dry-creek-kitchen/ or Spoonbar www.spoonbar.com in Healdsburg, It’s a given the wine on offer will also be good. One insider tip? Many wine country restaurants will charge a very low corkage fee because they know people are buying and tasting wine all day. Ask the restaurants you’re thinking about if they offer this—it’s a nice bonus if you have the ability to BYO. For a night or two during your stay, you may wish to step away from wine and visit a local brewery or cocktail bar for a change of pace. Adventure-wise–Some towns offer biking/tasting (www.winecountrybikes.com ) and hiking/tasting tours ( www.savorhealdsburgfoodtours.com ) And if your never been, the redwood forests of the northern coast are a must. (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id+450 )
What to Bring Home
Alexander Valley, Photo: Monica Kass Rogers
The best place to buy wine during your trip is at wineries that offer tastings. We had a great experience of this at family-owned wineries in Healdsburg such as Dry Creek Vineyard (www.drycreekvineyard.com), Soda Rock Winery (www.sodarockwinery.com) Alexander Valley Winery (www.avvwine.com) and the estate vineyards of Trattore Farms, which—unusually—is also home to the Dry Creek Olive Company (www.drycreekolivecompany.com) producing gourmet oils. Secondary to that, wine co-ops or retailers located near your hotel also offer wines from wineries that don’t have a tasting room. Stop in at these wine-bar settings after 5 p.m. and you may discover a label you’ve never seen before. And don’t hesitate to ask your hotel concierge or manager for recommendations to off-the-beaten-path wineries they’d recommend. If you’re able, bring an empty bag along on your trip to check wine in for your return. While most wineries are happy to ship, at $30 per case plus packaging, shipping wine is not cheap. (You’ll also need someone over 21 at home to receive the shipment.) One more tip for best flavor when you get the wine home: The wine will taste best if you let it “settle” post-travel for at least a week before drinking.