Decades ago, visiting wine country was limited to the few areas of the country with wineries. Outside California, that meant upstate New York and a tiny handful of hamlets scattered hither and mostly yon.
Today, that number has expanded to just about every state, including Texas (i.e., Hill Country), Ohio (i.e., Lake Erie), Idaho (i.e., Snake River Valley), Michigan (i.e., Upper Peninsulas), and Colorado (i.e., Grand Junction). And even Florida.
Imagine the lure of wine country: pristine air, unhurried lifestyles, casual wine tasting rooms, informative tour guides, and free sips of elixirs that brighten the day.
Uh, not so fast. The air may smell of sulfur dust to treat the vines; lifestyles are often chaotic (too many tourists for one thing!); wine education often is geared toward a bit of self-serving “ours is better than theirs” promotion; and few tasting rooms offer free tastes. Not anymore.
A lot has changed in the 45 years since I first visited Napa Valley. The reality is that no matter where you choose to visit a wine country, advanced planning is appropriate.
For one thing, driving to wine country usually takes longer than it used to. Once there, traffic can be (and often is) bumper-to-bumper, and parking is hit-or-miss. And tasting room crowds can be elbow-to-elbow and chaotic.
Good pourers are in high demand, so you often only get the second-string pourers. Thus, information can be wrong or misleading. Tasting room fees, now commonplace, occasionally are higher than anticipated.
Wanna speak to the winemaker? Good luck. Often, he or she is working at some mundane job, such as cleaning up. (Winemaking can be messy.) Wanna buy a bottle? It’s likely a lot more than you thought it would be.
And the reality is that choked traffic makes it hard to turn left. Welcome to wine country.
Yes, summer is a nice time to visit wine country. We know that, but so do your neighbors. That’s why most wine country areas are so heavily trafficked in summer.
Even careful planners can find that summer in popular wine country areas can be exhausting and expensive. Napa Valley is often called a vinous Disneyland without the rides.
If you must visit a wine country this summer, here are some tips to make it less hectic.
Prepare for tasting room fees. Most fees in outlying areas range from $10 to $20. However, Silicon Valley Bank, which charts trends in the wine industry on an annual basis, recently reported that Napa Valley tasting room charges have risen to nearly $60 per person and that those same fees in Sonoma County are almost $30 per person.
If you find a tasting room that doesn’t charge, it’s courteous to buy at least one bottle. Some tasting rooms waive the tasting fee if you do!
Make reservations. Many wineries offer special tours for higher fees.
Target the farthest part of a wine region early in the day. If you arrive in a wine area from a major city, head for the winery farthest from the city first. Most tourists stop at the first winery they see. You can do the rest on the return trip.
Taste wines you’re unlikely to see at home. No sense in tasting widely available chardonnays or cabernets. The real treats are the wines available only at the winery. Ask about them.
Visit on weekdays. Popular wine country areas are swamped on weekends.
Use spit buckets—especially drivers.
Be prepared for full retail prices. Few wineries offer discounts. Better deals often exist at local wine shops. Take notes, and plan on buying more widely available wines at home.
Make reservations for lunches and dinners. Wine country regions typically don’t have many places to dine, and the better ones fill up quickly.
Wine country can be educational, but it’s not as simple as it was decades ago.