Since I've moved to California, I've discovered that one of my favorite hobbies is to go wine tasting. I live 40 minutes outside of Napa Valley and I take full advantage of my geographic location. According to my foursquare profile, I have visited 53 wineries since I created an account in July of 2010. That doesn't count multiple visits to my favorite wineries like Saintsbury, Hill Family Estate and Kastania Vineyards. Heck, I got engaged in a winery. It's kind of my thing. By the time this post goes live, I'll be above the 60 winery threshold. I've had a lot of guests since I moved out to California, and everyone always wants to take a trip into wine country during their stay. All of this experience has led me to compile a list of helpful wine tour tips. While most of my experience is based on visiting Napa and Sonoma, these wine tour tips can be applied to any region of the country (or any country) in which you might be wine hopping.
Wine Tour Tips
1) If traveling to a wine country in the summer, bring a cooler and a small ice pack. You're probably going to buy some wine and you don't want to cook it on a hot summer day. You're probably going to spend 5-8 hours wine tasting on any given tour. If it's 90 degrees outside and the interior of your car is sweltering hot, it's going to impact your wine purchase. If you don't keep your wine in a climate controlled environment, you might find yourself wondering why that delicious sampling of pinot noir you had at XYZ winery now tastes bitter or bland.
2) Drink water - Lots of it Drink twice as much water as you normally would. You'll have a much better experience if you are nice and hydrated.
3) Seek out and visit the small guys Many wineries are small, family-owned operations that produce a very limited amount of cases. They don't have the budget for grand tasting rooms or beautiful landscaping that lure potential tour goers into their winery. You won't find these wines in stores or restaurants, and that's the appeal. Generally, these smaller shops only sell their wine in the winery, and more often than not it's delicious. You're also likely to receive a more intimate and educational experience when you visit a small winery. Many times the person pouring your wine has played a direct role in producing that wine, and can tell you all about their winemaking process.
4) Bring lunch and do NOT skip lunch It's easy to skip lunch in wine country. You'll be enamored by the experience and might just want to get to the next winery. Don't! You'll have a better experience towards the end of your trip if you ate something. Pack a baguette, some cheese, meats, crackers, etc. Many wineries have picnicking areas that you can take advantage of. Wine tasting is generally an 11am-5pm hobby, and those hours are precious if you want to hit 3-4 different places in one day. Instead of seeking out a suitable lunch spot, you can save a lot of time by eating lunch at a winery. Buy a glass, or a bottle, and enjoy yourself! It's one of my favorite things to do, especially if you're with a group of friends.
5) Sniff, swirl, sniff, sip When you're presented with a tasting of wine, don't just slug it down. Put the glass up to your nose and sniff it deeply. What do you smell? Take note. Don't smell anything? Don't worry. It'll come eventually. Swirl your glass around to let the wine open up, and then take another sniff. The smell will be greatly pronounced. Now sip your wine and try to note what flavors you taste. Do you get notes of cherry, smoke, meat? This is an acquired skill, but I find that it makes the experience a lot more fun.
6) Pay attention to where the wine grapes came from Through my tasting experiences, I have found that I gravitate towards Cabernet Sauvignon wines that were produced by grapes grown in the Anderson Valley. I also enjoy grapes grown in high elevation areas. Some of my favorite Napa high elevation vineyard sites are Mt. Veeder and Atlas Peak. I also tend to enjoy Pinot Noirs that were grown in coastal areas, like the Sonoma coast, Santa Barbara and Monterey. I'm enjoying the Pinots I'm tasting out of Monterey so much that I'm taking a few days off to visit some of their wineries.
Why is this important? When you leave wine country and find yourself at the store looking for a decent bottle of wine, you'll have a better chance of scoring something you like if you have noted which AVA's (American Vitacultural Area) and vineyards produce grapes that you favor.
I could go on all day, but I think these wine tour tips will give you a really good base foundation to help you get the most out or you trip into wine country. Think I missed anything? Feel free to add your wine tour tips in the comments below!
About the Author: Larry is a friend of House Party. Larry currently resides in the East Bay region of California. He enjoys all things wine related, and spends a lot of his free time in Napa and Sonoma learning about wine. Larry is also a Mixed Martial Arts enthusiast. He enjoys practicing, watching, analyzing and commentating on all things MMA. Larry also enjoys cooking, fine dining, entertaining and hanging out with Maximus, his Jack Russell Terrier.