If you’ve visited one winery … you haven’t visited them all.
Winery tours, however, can start to run together if you go on enough of them. For the most part, they show the same five or six things: the fermentation room, which is usually a huge room full of stainless steel tanks; the barrel room, which is usually another huge room full of — you guessed it — barrels; the lab, which you usually see through a window; the bottling line, which often seems small enough to fit into a two-car garage; and the tasting room. You might also get walked outside into the vineyard itself.
If you have not done all that — if you’ve not been led through the various parts of a winery — and you are interested in the winemaking process and the behind-the-curtain glances, then by all means, sign yourself up for some tours. Walk through big and small wineries, and ask a bunch of questions. And keep your hands to yourself. And bring a light sweater, because it might get a little chilly.
But if you have been on enough tours, don’t feel obliged to keep going on them just because you are planning more winery visits. While some barrel rooms are impressive to behold, due to their configuration or their dramatic lighting, in the end they are just enormous rooms piled high with rows of oak barrels. Vineyards can be beautiful, but their beauty often depends on topography. (Mountains help.) And unless you are truly interested in chemistry, the lab might not stir your soul.
At that point, when the tour isn’t the draw — what is? The wine, of course. Spending time in the tasting room sampling the wines and talking to the people who work there are often enough to create a memorable visit.
But there are also factors that aren’t crucial to the winemaking process that make for a wonderful vineyard visit — factors I’m calling wild cards. These are a few things to consider if you’ve had your fill of tours:
Does the winery’s tasting room stand out for one reason or another? Is the winery ancient and shadowy? Is it contemporary and spare? Does it have a restaurant? Can you have a picnic there?
Some wineries have impressive art collections or postcard views, and the view alone can make a visit worthwhile. Others have grounds that you can explore — grounds other than the rows of vines in the vineyards. Maybe there is a small museum with antique winemaking equipment. Perhaps an army of ducks marches into the vineyard daily to eat bugs and protect the vines. Once you figure out which of this stuff interests you, in addition to sampling wine in the tasting room, you will know how to plan your visits.
A few more things to keep in mind:
No winery should be obliged to give its wine away, so when a tasting fee is involved, think of it as a tiny price to pay for the privilege of drinking a wine at its source. Plus, you’re on vacation, so live it up. According to my pyscho-economic calculations, $10 on vacation is the equivalent of $3.85 at home, and even less if you are dealing with foreign currency, regardless of the exchange rate.
Wearing comfortable shoes is a given, and I am going to strongly urge you to refrain from wearing perfume or cologne. Arriving at a winery scent-free is for your own good and will make your wine-tasting experience better. But it is just as much a courtesy to everyone else.
One more thing that cannot be said often enough: Make sure you have a driver. Don’t even mess around with that. There’s no point in going to a winery and not sampling the wine they make there, and there’s no point in not letting yourself indulge a little bit, if you care to. Nothing wrong with spitting, especially if you have a few stops to make. But eventually you will want to drink some of the beautiful wine that has been poured for you in the place it was born. Consume the product, be a passenger, let wine country take over. This is why you make the effort to visit a winery in the first place.
Will you scurry around and hit five wineries in a day? Or is two enough? Are you on a hunt to find new bottles, or are you floating on a relaxing river, letting all new discovery come to you at the most leisurely and natural pace? That’s up to you. The land, the machinery, the operations — make sure to explore them if they speak to you. But the wine and the people are what will stay with you long after your visit ends.
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