REASON TO GO
Vacation visits and day trips to wine growing regions are among the top tourist attractions in California. Over twenty million visits were made in 2010. The opportunity to escape city pressures for a period of leisurely country driving is always a treat. Wineries provide depth to anyone’s experience of an area through their connection to history, climate, politics, geology, economics, psychology, biology, art and society. Grape growing and winemaking can be hard manual labor, but the dollars involved lend an air of worthwhile gentlemanly pursuit to even the most primitive operations. Although one may encounter haughty pretension and bored indifference on occasion, the majority of winery personnel exude folksy charm and hospitality. Very few people come away from a winery visit without an increased sense of personal relationship to the product.
There are some basic differences between wineries, and between regions, however. In Napa Valley everyone charges for tasting, and most encounters are expensive, sit-down, tutored affairs with food. Like most restaurant experiences, your role will be largely passive. The Sierra Foothills and the Central Coast are much more akin to the way the California industry initially developed, i.e. belly up to the bar and ask the server for samples of what you want. Wineries in these regions usually do charge tasting fees, but they tend to be much more nominal. You will play a much more active role. Consider ways you can compare two wines side-by-side, e.g. visit with a healthy partner and share glasses. Or just ask for an extra glass and order different wines.
Big wineries tend to have set programs, a hospitality staff, and public Tasting Rooms open to anyone without an appointment. These facilities attract bus tours and limos because they feature rest rooms large enough to accommodate a crowd. Big wineries also tend to sell the lion’s share of their product through the three-tiered distribution system , which implies Tasting Room hospitality will be well-choreographed promotion (despite the fact guides will be called “Wine Educators”). In Napa Valley only about 15% of wineries have a business permit that allows for unlimited access to a public Tasting Room.
Micro-wineries are another story. They frequently sell half or more of their production direct to consumers. So they do want to see you, but in many cases one or two people do all the work. Entertaining visitors is time unavailable for vineyard and winery chores or else for family obligations. It is a tribute to the conviviality of the product that these wineries enjoy hosting knowledgeable visitors. Making an appointment is more than a mere courtesy. In Napa Valley it is a legal requirement of their business license because their neighbors don’t want to see an unlimited amount of automobile traffic. In other regions the odds of finding someone home without an appointment are long. Many micro-wineries are very hard to locate, and some are virtually inaccessible to standard automobiles without special instructions. Do not be offended if these wineries decline to see you at your convenience. I do research at tiny wineries all the time. If I call ten micro-wineries for appointments the next day, I’m likely to only reach five on the phone and then find two available to meet me for business. The plus side of this situation is that you eventually get to visit with an owner/winemaker instead of a professional public relations agent. The difference in knowledge and candor can be extraordinary. It justifies some preparation on your part.
When making an appointment to visit a craftsman-sized winery keep the vintner’s interests in mind. Their wine is not going to be one of the choices presented to you in the average liquor store or restaurant. Micro-vintners want to focus their time on that narrow segment (15% to 20%) of the population we might call ‘Wine Hobbyists.’ Characteristics of a Wine Hobbyist are: (1) maintains a small collection (cellar) at home; (2) drinks wine at least once or twice a week, usually with a meal; (3) is curious about unfamiliar wineries and/or vineyards; (4) reads the occasional wine book or publication; (5) seeks out comparison tasting opportunities; and (6) loves to recommend specific wines to friends and business colleagues. It doesn’t hurt to casually drop one or two of these pre-qualifications into your request for an appointment at a small winery.
At the same time, you should not treat small wineries like notches on the gun butt of life. Don’t over-schedule yourself. Leave the door open for serendipity. Nothing is more frustrating than having a winemaker take a shine to you and offer to open a bottle of his special sold-out award winner when you are already half an hour late for your next appointment. And that is exactly what will happen. First you will underestimate the driving distance between wineries. Then you will get lost. It happens to me every day, and I do this for a living. If you spend the entire day falling further and further behind schedule, you will not have fun, and you will insult the principals of the wineries that have taken time off to see you. Wineries are more likely to give you an appointment if you imply the entire trip is being undertaken for the express purpose of seeing them. They’re not naive, but everyone enjoys a little flattery. At most, you should seek one small winery appointment in the morning and one in the afternoon. It will be easy to fill in around these with stops that do not require appointments.
Small wineries are more likely to take a small group into their cellar. If invited to taste wines from the barrel, be prepared to step forward quickly as the wine is taken out of the barrel. Wine thieves (long glass tubes designed for taking a sample from the middle of a barrel) are difficult to manipulate between the barrel and your glass because they drip. Drips require a time-consuming wipe up to avoid fruit flies.
Wines in barrel are not meant to be compared to bottled wines. Many vintners hesitate to show wines taken from the barrel to novices for this reason. Reds will usually be fairly tannic. So take your time and swirl them around vigorously to introduce lots of air. The nose of these wines will seem subdued. Concentrate more on their aftertaste for an indication of how they will develop in the bottle.
SET ASIDE FREE TIME ~ Touring wineries can be exhausting. Going to more than three in a day, or doing it for more than a couple days in a row, is work, not play. Members of your party will lose their sense of excitement after several ounces of wine and a few hours in the hot sun. You will enjoy yourself more, and stave off friendly revolution, if you gear the tour toward the least interested members of the group. Leave yourself the chance to stumble upon social and sporting events, or craft displays, or farmers’ markets, or points of historical interest, or wildlife and nature areas. A visit to Wine Country should be an exercise in relaxation, not an application of the stamina that makes you a success in the business world. Wine is essentially a hobby. Wine has wonderful connections to many other fields. Develop your capacity for curiosity and self-entertainment by exploring some of these tangents.
PHYSICAL PRECAUTIONS ~ Think about your body ahead of time. It is possible to consume 30 ounces of wine at three wineries. One shudders to consider the condition of people who hit eight wineries, and then drive two hours to eat at an expensive restaurant in the nearest large city. Lethargy barely describes the symptoms experienced by most people around 3 p.m. when they fail to take precautions during a day full of wine tasting. If you want to be worth a damn at the end of your trip, you should plan on utilizing at least some of the following techniques:
- Spit the wines out.You will get the same organoleptic pleasure whether the wine exits your mouth through the front or the back. Most wineries are constructed with drains in the floor so they can be hosed down. Knowing that makes you look sophisticated.
- Drink lots of water. Consume at least as much water as you do wine at every winery. Force yourself to drink a big glass of water in the morning. Do it again before going to bed. This technique will require you to locate restrooms more frequently than normal, but few winemakers equate bladder size with connoisseurship. Wineries are elaborately engineered pieces of plumbing to start with. They all have a loo. The alternative to this technique is a low-grade hangover and a mouth that feels like cotton candy by mid-afternoon. If you can supply your party with cold bottles of mineral water instead of sweet soda pop around 3 p.m., you will be the most popular person in the car.
- Eat food. Have breakfast even if you normally don’t. Carry some bread and cheese to help remove the tannin from red wines which would otherwise build up in your mouth. Producing cold celery or apples at 3 pm will make you a hero.
- Get some exercise. Find a place to swim, or play tennis, or take a vigorous half hour walk. Concentrating on smell/taste sensations for long periods of time will make you feel tired, but your muscles will probably have been more quiescent than usual all day long. Doing something to get your blood moving will help metabolize alcohol out of your system. Unless you are extremely strong willed, it is prudent to make exercise plans ahead of time which will be hard to back out of. You will feel great after exercising, but you may be a little slow getting started.
- Take a short nap and a shower before dinner. When people realize they don’t have to change into more formal clothes to eat in a fine wine region restaurant, they sometimes forego this break in the action. You should plan on taking it. The combination of sun, travel, meeting people, and attention to smell/taste sensations will take more out of you than you realize. Chances are good that dinner will present marvelous new sensations. Too many Wine Country visitors end up semi-conscious at precisely the point they spend the most money. You should call a recess from conviviality in the late afternoon to let everyone’s mind sort through all the new input it has been receiving. Refreshed, you will enjoy the evening more and wake up the next day without that sneaking suspicion that some bulldozer has been working overtime in your hotel room.
EQUIPMENT ~ Self-sufficiency is the key to good times in Wine Country. A minimal amount of equipment will give you the imprimatur of experience, will avoid placing annoying pressure on others, and will open up many opportunities for spontaneity which you might otherwise turn down.
- Shoes. Not only should they be comfortable, but they should be able to withstand walking in dusty vineyards and on wet winery floors. Save the fashion statement for dinner in the evening.
- Sweater, hat, shades. From May through September a region such as California can get extremely hot on the inland side of the coastal mountains. Having a hat available will make you more comfortable when you get a chance to do something where shade is hard to come by. At the same time, winery interiors are often kept below 60°F by insulation and jacketed fermenting tanks. Carry a sweater or light windbreaker which you can put on and take off without commotion so you don’t have to leave every cellar after fifteen minutes. Your sweater may also come into play unexpectedly if you drive to the coast or when evening falls. Visitors to California are always surprised by these 40°F temperature shifts.
- Wine glasses, corkscrew. Since it is a virtual necessity to have a car, why not stick a couple small wine glasses into the trunk. You can bring them from your hotel room wrapped in a towel if you fly-in empty handed. All these do is give you the ability to drink fine wine when and where you want without having to resort to plastic tumblers. At home you always drink wine in locations where glasses are available, or where tasting it is not necessarily the idea. Wine Country is going to present opportunities you don’t encounter at home.
- Knife. It doesn’t have to be a weapon. A paring knife will do. The idea is to be able to cut bread, cheese and salami without having to rediscovery Stone Age technology. Putting it in the glove compartment will make group compromises on the subject of what constitutes an acceptable picnic much more possible.