Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages frequently for Food Republic. He is the former beverage manager for the Dutch in New York City and is currently working on the opening of Agern, Danish chef Claus Meyer’s planned restaurant in Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.
Wine country: It has such a nice ring to it. “Oh, we’re going to wine country for the weekend,” as one couple says to another over dinner. The problem is, even for a professional, an ostensibly relaxing day can become a wine-fueled death march, ending in a white-knuckled drive on dark side roads, one swerve away from a DUI, or worse.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You don’t have to pretend, while your bachelorette friend is crying with her maid of honor in the party bus, that the 17th cabernet sauvignon you’ve tried that day is interesting. It might be, but honestly, you’re not giving the wine a chance.
Here are some easy guidelines to get the most out of your oenological travels with the least amount of trouble:
Rule #1: Don’t overdo it.
Unless you’re truly obsessed, one day of tasting is plenty. Don’t feel guilty for taking advantage of the inherent beauty and amenities of places like Meadowood in Napa or El Encanto in Santa Barbara for an extra day or two, even if you drink cocktails the whole time.
For the tasting day, pick two wineries, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. It may seem cool to wind through a bunch of wineries in a row, but being fully present and interested in the experience is much easier this way. Try to explore somewhere that might seem a little remote for the first one; whether that might be an obscure corner of Sonoma Coast, or the “other” Finger Lake, Cayuga, the driving and vistas will be more enjoyable in the morning.
In the afternoon, stay close to wherever you’re hanging your hat that evening. If you’re even a little bit worried about staying sober, arrange for a car service. Find somewhere that makes a lot of different varieties, and get comfortable. Enjoying a glass of your favorite cuvée as the sun sets, illuminating the circle of life that is photosynthesis and fermentation, is the sort of sublimity you were after, right?
Rule #2: Don’t forget to eat.
The only thing that’s going to get you out of that Adirondack chair is dinner, so save the best for last. Splurge. Take the wine pairings, and insist on as many of them being local as possible. By the same token, keep lunch simple; I think of the FLX Wienery in New York’s Finger Lakes and the Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley as ideal examples — comfort food with a little bit of elegance.
Rule #3: Streamline your tasting agenda.
Picking which winery to visit can be overwhelming. Find places that have meaning for you, and even if it’s just a producer that makes a wine you liked, spend some time in advance learning a bit about the history of the property. Arriving with some context will make exploring the wines, and the vineyards themselves, more exciting. Shoot them an email in advance, and find out what times are convenient to get the best experience.
Although it’s fun to see lush vines with plump grapes ready to be picked, don’t underestimate how much fun it can be to visit “wine country” in the winter. Winemakers and their staff actually have some time on their hands and won’t be distracted by the logistical mania that is harvest season — that’s to say nothing about cheap lodging rates.
Rule #4: Get to know your surroundings.
Regardless of the season, when you arrive, ask to walk the vineyard, and try to take in as much of the physical site as possible. The dirt and the air and everything else define what you’re about to taste, or have just tasted. Although there are many exceptions, be wary of tasting scenarios removed from at least one of the vineyards they work with.
Rule #5: Stop and smell the bouquet.
Have fun. It sounds obvious, but if you find a homeless man sleeping in your rental car on your way up, you miss your first appointment while lost in the mountains, your much-desired lunch is missing the promised honey mustard, or your partner in crime wont stop checking Instagram, remember why you came in the first place!
Also, during the tasting, don’t be afraid of sounding dumb: Just be polite. Understand that some of the nerds you are talking to live and die by the vine, and engage with them, even it means asking seemingly silly questions, e.g. “Screwcaps — yes or no?”
Rule #6: Shop at your own risk.
Yes, you are probably going to be encouraged to buy some wine at the end of your visit. I recommend it, if only because when you eventually drink it, it will be a charming reminder of a pleasant day and, hopefully, satisfying in and of itself. Often, by actually purchasing some wine, your tasting fees will be waived, but don’t feel compelled to buy cases upon cases if you don’t legitimately love the juice.
As in any other industry, people do actually get paid to sell as much of the product as they can, and although I have mastered the art of checking wine-filled luggage, the “I can’t bring it in my carry-on” excuse is usually enough to suggest to the staff that the sales pitch is being wasted. Offer to look into the mailing list instead.
Rule #7: Stay hydrated.
The final, and potentially most important, thing is simple: DRINK WATER!!!
At Charlie Palmer’s Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma, there is a bin full of slightly chilled bottled water at the entrance. Take one. It won’t solve everything, but staying hydrated will go a long way toward not feeling bad at the end of the day or the beginning of the next one. And don’t worry; if it gets bad, no vigneron would be mad at you for taking a leak in between their rows.