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Saturday, May 15, 2010

10 Tasting Room Tips for Planning your next Wine Tasting Trip

 Wine tasting as a "vacation focus" is a growing segment of the travel industry, in no small part spurred on by the popularity of the film Sideways (2004). The month of May is typically the time of year when many folks are thinking about a road-trip and many vineyards and wineries will open up their tasting rooms to the public, where you may be allowed to sample a handful of wines for a fee some are a upwards of $30 per tasting for some of the top producers in Napa Valley, while most tend to be in the $10 range per person.

Many wineries but not all will "refund" the price of their tasting fee if you purchase some wine from them, but if you are a member of their wine club your tasting will be free in most cases. On the other if you belong to a wine-club like I do in Paso Robles, who gives no quarter to Wine Club members, in other words you are just like everyone else who walks into the tasting room, just one of the teeming masses and you will pay tasting fees and if want to keep that tasting glass that will be extra too.

It is also the practice of many wineries to offer a wavier of these fees if minimum wine purchase is made or if you join their club [see respective winery for details]. Many also offer educational tours of the facilities which are terrific for those who want to get "beyond the bottle". Some of the traditional hotspots for wine tasting are, of course, Napa and Sonoma counties in California, the Willamette Valley in OR, Walla Walla in WA, Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, and Chianti Classico [Tuscany] in Italy. However, in the last decade or two, vineyards around the world have begun to produce excellent wine and are now on the wine-tasting vacation circuit: Australia (Barossa Valley), Argentina (Mendoza, Chile (Maipo) and South Africa (Stellenbosch) and other places in the states I would recommend, New Yorks Finger Lakes Ava, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara [Solvang].

1. WINE CLUBS:  So there you are in the wine tasting room where you will see and hear offers to become a wine club member, this is part of every wineries way of having you become a regular customer and many times it's a great opportunity to stock up on wine you won't see in the grocery store. Especially, if you find the quality of the wine you just quaffed was quite amazing and you want to relive that experience again and again [since it maybe sometime before you are back that way again]. Another great thing about a "wine-club" is that if you live close by, you can really benefit from going to pick-up parties, concerts and various other "cool" activities many wineries having going on during the summer months.

What to do: Okay I am going to make this decision a little easier for you. Most wineries will give you a decent discount on your purchases if you join the wine club right then and there and bring the cost [per bottle] down to what you expect to find in a retail setting. Most wine club agreements will allow you to cancel, after receiving one or two shipments with the average shipment being 2-4 bottles per quarter. So don’t wince the next time you hear the words, "join our wine club" embrace the wine club and you’ll save on average 20-30 % off a wine you would most likely purchase anyways. So if you do join the wine club, remember it does not have to be forever, sometimes you just have to let go of one club to be on another new favorite [there's nothing wrong with that]. Since were on the topic of purchases it's good to remember to bring a large cooler with you to keep your wine cool while it sits in the car, keep the windows cracked open a little, it can get real warm in wine country.

2. TRIP PLANNING: I’ve read Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher former Open that bottle Columnists at the WSJ who recommend for planning your next trip to wine country that it's best to "not have a plan", but instead to just randomly drive through wine country and show up to any tasting room you may find open. I thought to myself, "umm, while this may have a certain "carefree" appeal, it will most likely end in disappointment." But of course you are free do as you like, but I frankly would not recommend their advice in this case.

If you subscribe to this method of finding a new winery, okay but in my view and in the words of Molly Hatchet, you’re "Flirtin’ with Disaster". Often times when it comes to finding a new winery or producer that I've only read about and having never tried their wines, I make plans to see them while I'm in "wine-country" I believe that just makes much more sense to approach it that way and please believe me a little planning will go a long way to you and everyone else you encounter having a much better time.

One wine country trip I planned for a group of friends went so well they still speak glowingly about it today, that said I recommend doing a little research ahead of time. This can be done by getting a wine country map of the AVA you will be visiting or you can look it up online for example, just googling in something like "wine tasting Napa" will take to places where you can scheduling tours, making appointments ahead of time, and possibly make arrangements to see some of the behind the scenes goings-on which tend to be of great interest [especially if this if your first time going wine-tasting].

By doing this small bit of planning it will tell you which places have tasting rooms in first place, when they are open, or if they are by appointment only. Don’t be discouraged if they are by appointment-only, [it's not an obstacle, it's just a tool to manage their time] this can usually be arranged via email. Order your wine country map ahead of time [or print it out] and bring it with you on the trip. This will allow you preview the wineries you plan to visit before your trip, so you are somewhat familiar with the area and it helps you visualize your itinerary for each day, even if you have GPS. It's is helpful wineries with relatively close proximity. So you can do build an itinerary for yourself, for example day 1 we will go to here and here, day 2, here and here, etc. I would also strongly recommend that you only plan to visit 4 to 5 places in a day, you will have a much better time and enjoy the wines much more. Lastly, make some dinner reservations ahead of time; this will save you a lot of frustration and make you look like a local. OpenTable is a great resource for this and will earn you some points towards discounts.

3. APPOINTMENTS:  This is one facet of wine tasting you will invariably run into and is often done because some wineries don’t have a tasting room or they don’t have the staff to accommodate a regular M-F tasting schedule [winery staff and winemakers are some of the busiest and hardworking folks I know]. Like I have previously mentioned above, don’t be discouraged by having to make an appointment. This can be some of the best times you will have tasting wine, because often times the winemaker or proprietor is the one hosting your appointment and they are very eager to give you their wrapped attention and can interact with you on a much higher level, in comparison to a crowded tasting rooms with a novice tasting room assistants who has just served over a hundred pours before you got there.

Speaking of pours, the pours at appointments are typically more generous, which to me really gives you a better opportunity to evaluate the wine fairly [but of course if you are the one driving, please spit and ask for small pours]. Another benefit of appointments is being able to taste just about everything they have available, unlike the average tasting room experience where you are only allowed to taste what is on the menu for the day. You never know they may just give you "sneak-peek" of the new vintage via a barrel sample. Make sure you keep your appointment, call ahead to remind your host of your arrival and show up on time and if you have to cancel please call them at least day ahead, that is just good form. Another thing to keep in mind, is that some appointments are in their barrel-room which is a very cool 57 degrees, while great for maturing wine, its can be a little uncomfortable, so take a jacket with just in case, even if it's 80 degrees outside. This happened to me once while at Patricia Green Cellars in Oregon, us and the other couple who were at the appointment were quite cold, they especially since they had only sunny-day garments, my wife and I fared a little better with our sweaters, but it was still cold.

4. ARRIVE EARLY: Another good rule of thumb regarding a tasting room visits is to go early [the popular places will fill up fast and this will minimize your experience], I can not stress this point enough, please don't wait till mid-afternoon, that is only a recipe for getting least out of your visit, as some wineries are "super-popular" and you may not make it to the [tasting-area] bar at all. Most will open by 10 or 11 in the morning and they start closing up by 5 in the evening, this why I recommend only going to 4 to 5 places in day as the short tasting schedule of most places may catch you off guard and you end up rushing.

5. DRINK OR SPIT: Another good rule of the thumb to follow; make up your mind beforehand, if you are going to drink or spit, as one you has to the driving. If you don't feel comfortable spitting, may I recommend a heavy breakfast, something starchy will do nicely and stay hydrated [make sure to have a designated driver] and ask for small pours. But if you are going to spit, then make sure you are near one of the wine spittoons on the bar, which festoon most tasting rooms like the scene from Frass Canyon [aka; Fess Parker] in the movie "Sideways."

Don't feel bad if you don't like the wine, just pour it out and move onto the next wine in their line-up or feel you must drink the whole amount poured [if asked, I just say, "that wasn't my cup of tea or that I'm not a fan of that style]. By the way, while you’re in between pours please don’t pour the water sitting on the bar to rinse your glass or allow the tasting room staff to do that either; this will only dilute your next pour [ideally you only want to rinse your glass with wine].

On the water side of the equation pleases do stay hydrated and drink plenty water, preferably after the tasting and grab a cracker or two. Better yet have a picnic in between different wineries, many wineries have a great place to do that and some will have any where from a full lunch menu to just snacks or you bring your own. If you could remember while your out-n-about in wine country; that your tasting room attendant may have just been pummeled by a large [rowdy] limo group before you arrived, so give them a chance to warm up.

6. WHICH TASTING MENUS: In my experience if a reserve tasting and a regular tasting or all red and all white menu is offered and if with someone you don't mind swapping spit with, then I would recommend getting one of each, this way you can really contrast and compare their wines and get more bang for the buck. On occasion, the "regular" menu is the mediocre wine, so skip it by asking for the reserve tasting if there is one. This an opportunity [ideal for those traveling in pairs] to just ask for one glass and pay one tasting fee, you both get to taste the wine and again more bang for the buck [spliting the tasting fee and the pour], which is a perfectly acceptable practice.

Another point to remember is many times the tasting fee will be reimbursed if you make a purchase and I recommend making a purchase of at least one bottle if you liked the wine. Another great idea is if there is a bottle you particularly like then bring with you for dinner later. Most places charge a modest corkage fee, (What is a Corkage Fee?) compared with menu prices, for example the Paso Robles Inn does NOT charge a corkage fee for any wine you may have purchased from a local winery and bring with you to enhance your dinning experience. That's a smoking hot deal, by the way this place is great, the service, food and the atmosphere, you just can't go wrong.

7. SHIP OR HOLD:  This will mainly be determined by what method you may have arrived at your destination. For example if you drove, you can save yourself some money on shipping which by the way is to starting to shoot up and the price varies greatly [which is something I can't figure out]. You would think UPS or other shipper like theirs would have a standardized fee, but go figure. If you've flown to your destination, you will most likely opt to have your wine shipped home, especially since you can only take so many bottles back in your luggage without additional fees [and carry on, forget about it]. If shipping home I would recommend sending it to a work address, because the shipper will need to have someone sign for your wine and shippers [like UPS] don’t like to wait too long for you to come to the door and have long windows for residential delivery and you don’t want the hassle of having to arrange for another pick time, while your wine is jostled around in the back of hot steamy truck. If you only plan to buy a few bottles you can easily put it in your "checked" luggage, [just watch the weight] which I have done successfully many times without anything other than my clothing protecting them from breakage. I brought nearly a case home in my luggage from Italy and not even one casualty, knock on wood.

8. WINES NOT SOLD RETAIL: One other thing to consider is to ask for the wines which are not sold outside of the tasting room; if they are of a good caliber I would recommend purchasing those bottles over a wine which is available via your retail wine store shelf.  Many times it is because their wine is so allocated you have buy what you can right then and there or wait on a list for a year or more. Which is what you will experience if you visit  Turley Wine Cellars in Paso Robles as many of their wines are sold only direct to the consumer in the tasting room or you can buy them online if you are a "Mailing List" member.

9. OFF THE TASTING MENU: It has been my experience many times during a tasting, if your hosts sees you have a genuine interest in their wines, they will offer some wine which may not be on their current tasting menu. You also may just want to ask your tasting room attendant, if there is a possibility of tasting one of the new releases not yet on the list. Often times this practice will reward your palate with a delightful surprise and you may walk out with a few extra great bottles of wine.

10. HAVE A BUDGET:  This is a very good idea, if you’re like me it is far too easy to go overboard. I recommend the idea of taking a certain amount of cash just for your wine purchases alone. When you run out of cash, you can’t purchase anymore wine. This will cause you to really be more focused and  fastidious about what you want to purchase and help you zero in the ones you just can’t leave without.

As you may be able to see from the comments section this is a repost, cleaned up and updated for a new wine tasting season. If you have any additional tips please feel free to comment. As someone who's seen his fair share of tasting rooms, it's my hope that these tips may come in handy before you plan your next trip to wine country. Cheers!

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Dennis said...

Tasting room appointments - Restrictve County operating conditions are another reason some wineries must have "tastings by appointment", although by posting available hours, they give you an idea when you can drop by. But it's best to call and of course be considerate of your hosts by being on time on time for your tasting appointment.

Bill Eyer said...

Being on time for your appt. and confirming the day of with your host is also a good idea. Folks who run a vineyard have to be good stewards of their time, so time management is another reason your host may require an appointment and being considerate is paramount as you are a guest being invited into their business and workplace.

Dennis said...

Agree - Confirming is always a good idea. Winemakers while being good stewards of their time also have a lot going on in the winery and vineyards - and it's possible for an "oops" to occasionally happen. A gentle phone reminder helps both parties connect in a timely manner!

Another thought on your post re. wine tasting vacations I'd encourage domestic wine tourists to try lesser known California wine regions such as Paso Robles or Lodi (maybe on a very small scale, even Ramona) as a way of increasing the level of personal attention they may receive by the tasting room staff and even meet the winery's winemaker!

Reason being, visiting the most popular wine regions is often an impersonal, elbow jostling experience at the wine bar, whereas a less-crowded region offers a more relaxed wine tasting experience.

Bill Eyer said...

Dennis, again you are right on point! Visiting places off the beaten path is a good idea to enhance your overall experience. Also planning your trip outside of the summer months is probably a good idea as well! Visiting the wineries of Ramona and San Diego is a good way to branch out and make some friends!

Wine Country Outings said...

Hey Bill, I love all your tips and use them (most of the time). I only add one, and that is, have a wine tasting journal!!

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