Visiting Wineries: 10 Tips for Tours and Tastings

Extras, Food & Wine, Ideas, Planning, Road Trips — By on July 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

By Michele Herrmann
LG Section Editor

Whether in Napa Valley or Bordeaux, or even your home state, visiting a winery can be a fun outing for wine novices and connoisseurs alike. To enhance your next jaunt and your palette, consider these 10 tips provided by three wine-savvy professionals:

1. Don’t be overbooked with visits.

A very common mistake with visiting wineries is over scheduling, according to Allison Lane Simpson, vice president, communications, of the Napa Valley Destination Council. Day trippers should be especially judicious about booking multiple tastings. “Rushing around and trying to do too much really detracts from the reason they came in the first place – to relax and have fun,” explains Simpson.

She recommends three wineries in a day to be plenty, when figuring in that you’ll also be enjoying wine with lunch at a restaurant. Plus, many wineries have beautiful scenic views and the opportunity to sit and enjoy them with a glass of wine. “You won’t want to have to rush away when you find your perfect spot,”  she adds.

2. Plan outings ahead of time.

Figure out which wineries you want to go to first, suggests Michael Volpatt, owner of Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, Calif.  “Some wineries require people to have reservations (for tastings) before they show up,” Volpatt says, so call ahead.

Leave enough time to allow you to get to the next destination without rushing. While at the winery, plan to spend about 30-45 minutes tasting and also leave some time to walk around the grounds if possible. Bring cash with you.

3. Research your destination completely.

Another mistake when visiting a winery is not knowing well enough about the area you plan to visit, and not understanding what grows in particular regions, says David Keuhner, CEO and founder of Destination Cellars, a luxury wine club.

For example, in California’s Napa Valley, it’s primarily Cabernet that’s produced in the area. However, a consumer might like Pinot Noir, which is primarily produced in Sonoma. “Both of these areas are several miles apart and people generally don’t plan very well from a timing standpoint.”

Be open-minded about what you will find, too. Most wine consumers don’t realize that some wines simply have limited quantities, according to Keuhner. If a winery only produces 700 cases of a certain wine, Keuhner explains, a lot of times this particular wine will be priced accordingly and it will be rare at times to obtain it.

When doing research online online, Volpatt suggests not just learning about the wineries you’ll be visiting, but also the ins and outs of their surrounding locations. Friends can also be a great source of information and so can your hotel or inn’s concierge.

If visiting wineries overseas, Keuhne says to learn a little bit about the culture and ask about the proper dress attire.  Be on time for your visit if you are on a schedule.  “At small family-run wineries, you’re often guests of the family. They’re opening their winery/home to you.”

4. Dress appropriately.

Bring along a sweater and make wear sensible/comfortable shoes. Heels are not appropriate. “Winemaking and aging are best in a cool environment,” notes Simpson, “so many winery buildings and wine caves are chilly, and the floors can be slippery.”

If you plan to take an outdoor tour of the winery’s vineyard, boots can protect your feet from dust, dirt, prickly weeds, and the occasional critter.

Keuhner recommends being respectful in your choice of clothing, as wine regions in destinations outside of the U.S. are different.  “We often hear ‘Napa Casual’ yet in Bordeaux, it’s not appropriate to wear shorts or a short-sleeve button-down shirt,” he explains.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Wine newbies, don’t be hesitant about your lack of wine knowledge. Wine aficionados, remain open to new knowledge to further stimulate your palate. One great, under-tapped, information source at a winery is their employees, especially in tasting rooms, according to Simpson. They also can share insider tips about the area.

Tell the person who is leading the tasting or pouring at the wine bar that you are new to wine and that you would appreciate a brief into the the basics. “They will love the chance to share their knowledge and passion, which just makes it all a lot more fun,” adds Simpson.

Or consider taking a wine class, as some larger wineries might offer tasting or wine making classes, according to Keuhner. (Culinary institutions may offer courses to the general public as well.) He also suggests to take along a small pad of paper and a pen so you can jot down notes on what wines you like and don’t like.

6. If you can, say hi to the owner.

If you’re at a boutique winery, Volpatt suggests asking if you could meet the owner and/or the winemaker. Often times they will be there and, more often than not, can be found in a tasting room, interacting with visitors.  Also, inquire about seeing the barrel room and/or doing a tasting right from the barrel.

A fun and private opportunity, Volpatt says this experience is a way to learn more about what you are drinking. Keep in mind that if the tasting room is busy you may not get special treatment, so plan to visit wineries at the very beginning of the day.

7. Don’t keep wine in the car on a hot day.

Don’t leave bottles inside a hot car for an extended period of time as the wine will get ruined if it’s exposed to too much heat. If you can’t avoid doing this, Simpson advises making sure the bottles are standing up because when the wine gets warmed up, it will push the cork up out of the bottle. The end result is a bit of a mess if bottles are laying down.

If you’re traveling during the summer, Keuhner says to request to have your wine purchase shipped to your home after the summer. Also, Volpatt notes, keep in mind that many wineries will not ship in the summertime because of heat and the damage it can cause to their products.

8. Confirm your sending options.

If you’re buying wine far from home, check and double-check on how (and if) you can get it there safely. If flying, remember wine can no longer be carried on board on your flight, so you’ll have to check it in with your luggage.

Have your wine packed in a shipper that will protect the bottles, says Simpson, as most wineries will be happy to do the packing for you. If you can’t get these containers from a winery, Volpat suggests then heading to a UPS or the local post office.

Also remember, according to Keuhner, if you check your cased-up wine in as luggage, the airline could charge you $25-$50 per the box.

Prefer to ship? Many wineries partner with shipping facilities that will ship and send wine, says Volpat, but note there are wineries in states with laws that will not allow wine shipments from out of state.

Bringing foreign wines back to the U.S. can be more challenging. According to Keuhner, the winery must be set up with an importer. He recommends to his clients if they’re really looking for older vintages–this is when they buy overseas–make sure the winery or the company you’re working with can help in assisting you with the transportation of the wine. “You also want a reputable logistics organization.” Or try to see if you can find these wines in the states instead.

9. Turn your visit into a full getaway.

Extend your time spent near a winery by having a weekend getaway or including it in vacation plans. It’s also good to look for other (non-wine) activities to do in the area you’re in, says Volpatt, as over-tasting can lead to boredom and palette fatigue. Learn about nearby activities and venues such as nature preserves, arts centers, or educational ventures, says Simpson.

Another important thing to note is that many wineries give hotels free tasting cards, according to Volpatt. Ask the hotelier or concierge what they recommend and if they have any tasting cards for you to use.  Often times, tastings can range $5-$10 per person, which they waive if you buy wine, but the more wineries you visit, the more you spend on tasting fees.

10. Be adventurous!

Don’t be afraid to taste an unfamiliar label or to try a brand that might sound like not your taste. “We often see clients get intimated at times, when they can’t read or pronounce the label or the name of the winery,” says Keuhner. “Try it!”

If there’s an area on the property to hangout, have a small picnic lunch or scope out the local cuisine. Don’t bring another wine from another venue; buy what you’ll be drinking from the winery you’re visiting. And be safe, says Volpatt, by having a designated driver.

Here are some additional tips from the Napa Valley Destination Council:

  • Eat a good breakfast with plenty of protein before you go wine tasting so you don’t get tipsy.
  • Don’t be afraid to spit the tastes out. Any wine tasting set-up will include spit/dump buckets, unless you’re in the winery, of course, where it is common to spit into drains on the floor
  • Stay hydrated — drink plenty of water between tastings.
  • Skip the perfume — other tasters are there to smell the aromas of the wine, not your favorite scent.

 Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Destination Council

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