For personalized tastings, picturesque vineyards, and the chance to meet the folks behind your favorite bottles, nothing beats a trip to wine country. But whether you’re planning a casual weekend away with friends, or you’re a serious wine drinker looking to hone your blind-tasting skills, getting the most out of your visit requires careful planning.
To help you avoid making rookie mistakes on your next wine-cation, 10 sommeliers were asked for their top tips when visiting wine country.
1. “The biggest mistake I see when people visit wine country is making too many appointments in one day. Although there are so many places to visit, I recommend allocating three hours per visit and no more than three wineries per day. Quickly tasting a flight of their wines and leaving after an hour has never been a memorable experience for me. The magic happens when you’re not in a hurry; ask if the winemaker is around, see if there are any animals on the property you can say hello to, ask all of the questions your heart desires. Once in Paso Robles, I got to sit in a giant harvesting machine and play with a little baby goat. That was my favorite visit of the entire day and it happened because we weren’t in a rush.” — Cristie Norman, Sommelier and Wine Educator, Spago, Los Angeles, CA
2. “Regardless of what wine region you go to (Greece is one of my favorites), take time to go to the small wineries. Your experience will be priceless and you’ll be able to dive into greater detail about the wines and the winemaking process. Your chances to have unique bottles are far greater and these wineries tend to be family-owned and operated; to sit and speak with a family whose life is wine while tasting the fruits of their labor will create the greatest memories of that trip.” — Evan Turner, Sommelier, Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar, Houston, TX
3. “Most people stay in the tasting room while visiting wine country. Get in the vineyard, get your hands dirty, feel the soil, walk the vineyard as if you’re working it, eat a grape right off the vine, and try to understand how that fruit expresses itself in the bottle. It’s amazing when you can taste the similarities in the fresh fruit and the wine it created.” — Evan Abrams, Beverage Director, Marta, Manhattan, NY
4. “The biggest mistake people make when visiting a wine country is either driving themselves, or actually drinking ALL the wine at tastings. Most people aren’t used to spitting, so they tend to reach the threshold a lot sooner. If you’re really tying one on, the last thing you should be doing is driving.” — Rafael Sanchez, Director of Wine and Beverage, Addison Del Mar, San Diego, CA
5. “Avoid trying to pack in as many wineries as you can in one day. Between traveling (and often getting lost) and time spent in the winery, it can be very hard to work off a schedule if you are trying to tour multiple wineries. The smart move is to schedule one or two visits that require appointments and then have a couple in your back pocket that are open to visitors walking in. That way, if you have time, you can plug one of those options in.” — Scott Woltz, Beverage and Wine Director, Quality Branded, CO, FL, and NY
6. “One of the biggest mistakes people make visiting wine country is limiting themselves to only the popular regions, like Napa and Sonoma. A perk of visiting lesser-known wineries is that they are a bit less crowded and you get to feel like you’re still discovering something new. Oftentimes you get lucky and can meet the winemakers or owners one-on-one as well.” — Jami Olson, Owner, Popol Vuh, Minneapolis, MN
7. “Many people forget to travel up the mountains to visit the wineries above the fog line … at higher elevations, the wines tend to be more aromatic and lively, not to mention the views are spectacular.” — Tim Waters, Sommelier, The Grey, Savannah, GA
8. “People, including most professionals, tend to focus on the winery and the tasting room rather than the vineyard, which is a shame. I find that taking the time to walk around the farm while chatting to the producer is actually when I learn the most about farming in general and about the producer’s philosophy. Tasting wines is important but it is often the quickest part, and you’ll only really understand what you’re tasting once you get to grips with the plants and their environment. (Don’t spend your entire visit taking photos for Instagram, either. Be present for your visit!)” — Isabelle Legeron MW, Founder, RAW WINE, London, UK
9. “All too often when people head to wine country or wine regions they feel pressured to slam every wine they’re given. Considering most people maximize their day with a number of visits, by winery three it’s a fast track to nap time. There [should also be] no pressure to try something that you actually don’t want to taste. The winery is inviting you in for an experience, which in many cases you’re paying for — make it about you!” — Ashley Santoro, Regional Beverage Director, The Standard, New York, NY
10. “While some wineries’ tasting rooms are open to the public, many wineries are by appointment only. The small, family-owned wineries typically do not have the staff to receive visitors unannounced and will turn people away. By planning ahead and making an itinerary, you can arrange for a more enriching experience and go at a pace that’s comfortable for you. Even if your appointments aren’t private, you will likely be in a smaller group which allows for more intimate questions and the ability to get to know the people behind your favorite labels.” — Alex White, Sommelier, Monello, Minneapolis, MN