So you only have a couple of days in wine country, and the area you’re visiting has more tasting rooms than you could ever hope to get through. Having options can be great, but geez, are you overwhelmed yet? I can’t tell how many times I’ve been asked which wineries are the best ones to visit.
Let’s start with California. It’s obviously one of the most popular places to go for wine vacations, but when you dig deeper into its regions to plan your itinerary, you’ll see Napa Valley alone has more than 400 wineries, and Sonoma and Paso Robles both claim 200 each. Head across the state border to the Northwest, and you’ll find that Oregon claims over 400 and Washington over 700. Unless you want to throw darts at a map, it’s just too many to sift through.
If you want to get the most out of a few days in wine country, need some inspiration or are nervous after past tasting room experiences, here are some more tips for having a great trip:
1. Have a game plan. It’s tempting to try to stop everywhere, especially if you are on a highway and see lots of the wineries you recognize, but the wineries you may have heard of may not always be the “best places” for you to visit. Everyone has a different perception of what a tasting room experience is, so try to plan ahead with a clear idea of what you’re hoping to experience. Schedule carefully — there are only so many wineries you can do between 10am-4pm, and make sure you include a lunch stop. You will need it after all of those pours!
2. Ask hotel concierges for suggestions. Concierges can lead you to wineries and tasting rooms that you may not have heard of, and they have the inside scoop on which winery experiences have wowed their previous guests.
3. Visit at least one “appointment only” winery. There may be more of an expectation to buy something here, but what you get in exchange is the attention and focus you deserve. Do not be intimidated when you see that you need to schedule in advance. It just means that the vintner or winery wants to avoid big crowds coming at once and control the experience you have at the tasting room. And unless you love having to elbow your way to the spittoon, that means a better tasting for you.
4. Go during the week if you can. Avoiding the weekend rush will give you more time with the staff, and quieter weekday tasting rooms means more time with the wines. You may even get to meet the vintner.
5. Avoid harvest. Don’t get me wrong, harvest can be an amazing time to be in wine country, but a lot of other people think so too. Tasting rooms are normally slammed with visitors, staff is tired and you will definitely not see a winemaker.
6. Instead, go during the off-season. Winter months can be a great time to be in wine country. The scenery is still beautiful, the weather can be stunning and you’ll get a lot more attention. You will probably also save money on accommodations and transport.
7. Map your way. Decide which 3-4 wineries you want to visit in a day and plot it on a map to make sure the driving distances are doable. For example, there are more than 55,000 acres in Sonoma County planted to grapes, and approximately 200 wineries. I’ve seen too many people spend half the day in the car because they’ve underestimated the distance between destinations.
8. Find your designated driver. Did you know that Napa County has one of the highest incidences of DUI offenses in the country? Say no more. Either designate a drive or spoil yourself and get a limo for the day.
9. Don’t forget about tasting fees. These can add up, and you should be prepared to spend between $3 to $15 per winery. Appointment-only tastings can be higher. Check out the winery’s website for tasting fees and different tasting options – some offer tiered flights, and some will waive the fee with a purchase.
10. Ask friends for recommendations. Friends with similar taste are always a great start to finding places to visit. After all, recommendations are the number one way people find wines to start with. But be selective. Only ask friends that you think have a similar taste in wine and experiences. If you like big Cabs and quiet conversation and they prefer Riesling and a bustling atmosphere, you might be in for something less than appealing.
11. Start with your favorite wines. If you have any particular favorites, it’s always a good move to start with those wineries. Or if you have a particular grape variety that you just love, look for wineries that specialize in it.
12. Consider joining wine clubs. The ultimate goal of many winery tasting rooms is for you to purchase wine and become a long-standing customer. This is normally by way of their wine club, which offers the chance to get wine shipped directly to you as it is released. It’s also an opportunity to become part of their “inner circle” and get invited to special events. If you really love a wine, or even better, a whole flight, ask the tasting room staff about their wine club.