Wine Country Travel & Etiquette

By Leslee Miller

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from wine enthusiasts almost daily is ‘So…we’re planning a trip to “wine country”, where should I go?’

While travelling to any wine region should not be stressful, it also is a trip that needs to be carefully planned in order to experience it right. From Europe to California, travelling to any wine region should be an exciting venture. Yet, with careful planning, a few tips for proper etiquette and what to expect when visiting any wine country region – you can create of the most memorable trips for yourself and friends! Incidentally, end of summer/early fall is one of my favorite times of year to visit wineries north of the equator. So, here it is! Before planning your next trip to ‘wine country’, take a look at a few of the most frequently asked questions I get regarding: where to go, how to plan, tasting room etiquette and what to expect.

How do you choose what ‘wine region’ to travel to?
Often times this answer lines up with how much time you have to travel, budgetary guidelines, how much time you want to spend in the car driving within the region or regions and where your palate interests lie.

For example:
You’re a Pinot Noir fan? My answer is Oregon! The Willamette Valley is one of the best regions stateside to enjoy this grape. An easy area (Portland) to fly into, paired to a short trip to the Willamette Valley (just 45min from downtown Portland).

Are you a Cabernet drinker? Head to either Napa or Sonoma! But remember, don’t try and tackle both valleys unless you have the time to properly cruise the regions, they’re bigger than you think.

On a budget? Head local! Don’t forget, we have our own ‘wine country’ in Minnesota. Jump out on the open road and try on a few grapes that you may have never tasted before.

Coupling a golf trip with wine country? Oregon’s famous Bandon Dunes Golf Resort sits just outside the Rogue Valley appellation of Oregon – famous for growing Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and more. Napa again, houses the exquisite Meadowood Resort, equipped with world-class golf AND wine, lucky you! Lastly, don’t forget about Arizona! Incidentally, Flagstaff not only boasts a few great golf clubs, but they’re also growing some pretty great wines in the region, too. From Chardonnay to Zinfandel, wineries in the region are creating their own ‘wine country’ of sorts, showcasing a number of boutique wineries.

One of the hardest questions to answer: ‘How do you choose a winery to visit?’
This IS a tough one! For me, I generally keep a slew of notes of the wineries that I am looking to visit in a notebook throughout the year, especially if I know I’m headed to that region in the short future.
Keep a notebook of your favorite wines, make note of where they are made, and perhaps you’ll find that many of them are from the same region – especially if you find you start to like one grape varietal or style over another.

The best tip for winery options: Head to my website! I travel internationally to a slew of different wine regions. I’ll have a few tips for hotels, restaurants and wineries to visit! Lastly, pick up a publication like Wine Spectator as they always have great tips as to the new and upcoming or ‘more traditional’ wine regions to visit.

When in wine country, are there other good places to go for tasting wine, learning more about wine or exploring the region?
That is a question I generally ask my concierge ahead of time at the hotel I’m arriving to, or when I get there. I also scan prior to arriving as to sniff out other ‘wine like’ events in the region I’m heading to so that I can make plans to ‘do what the local wine scene does’.

If you’d like to combine tasting with travel, are there pre-planned tours?
Yes! As a matter of fact, my cicerone and I are planning a wine AND beer excursion for consumers to Oregon in November. First stop-Portland, then out to the Willamette Valley for three glorious days of beer & wine! I also have another trip headed to France next August – through the Rhone Valley. Both amazing adventures! (Check Amusée’s website for more info)

My real tip here is to make sure you’re ‘touring’ with someone you LIKE when it comes to wine and are travelling with when in wine country. Often ‘cookie cutter’ operations don’t give you the same experience that a small company with a certified wine individual would give. Look for someone who has experience in the wine industry and is planning the excursion with a concierge planner on site.

Keep in mind – a lot of ‘wine like’ tour packages these days also give you the option of adding a pre or post excursion trip package for those looking to add on to their experience. For example, Paris with a French wine tour package.

Is there a best time of year or even of day to taste?
Generally for the U.S., I like to go during harvest. The smells of harvest and watching a real winery operate during this time are scenarios that just can’t be matched. And generally, I’m more of a morning tour gal, myself. Gives me the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lunch in wine country in the afternoon, and rest up before I head out for dinner and more wine!

Is it acceptable to go in “cold”–as a tasting novice?
My suggestion: If you want the most from your experience, learn a little about ‘tasting etiquette’ or ‘wine 101’ before you head out so you know what to look for or what to expect when visiting a winery.
I teach a zillion cool classes regarding these tips/pieces through my company, Amusée. Come to one of my many wine or wine and food pairing classes to learn more!

How should you prepare yourself? (Are there suggestions like: avoiding smoking, avoiding strong/salty/spicy foods, not wearing perfume, etc.)
In my world as a sommelier, you NEVER want to enter a tasting room or a tasting experience reeking of heavy perfumes, strong lotions or specifically smoker’s breath. And in general – spicy foods, coffee and loads of dairy is something you want to avoid before heading off to a tasting. These things will dull your palate.

Are there other ‘etiquette tips’ for when you’re visiting a tasting room or a winery?
• Main rule of thumb is to be courteous and patient, especially during the busy seasons (Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving). If you decide to head off to an American wine region during these holidays, just be prepared to wait.

• Never come late to a tasting appointment! If you’ve managed to get lost or can’t find the winery, just call. Always the best insurance policy for ‘keeping’ your appointment.

• Wine etiquette ‘101’: Never ask the tasting attendant to ‘top you up’, especially when you know it’s the most expensive wine of the location’s portfolio. That’s actually considered rude.

• Never grab a bottle yourself and ‘self pour’ your glass, that’s an easy way to get yourself booted from a tasting room.

• Ask the questions that really excite you! Maybe it’s ‘how is this made’, ‘how does this wine get this flavor’ or ‘what’s your favorite food pairing with this wine’? Remember, no question is ‘dumb’.

• And last and certainly the most important: Don’t get drunk and act like a fool! Nobody likes the ‘drunk guy’ in the tasting room. Ever see the movie ‘Sideways’? Enough said.

When it’s time to taste, are there other tips for making the tasting an experience?
Here are a few:
• Remember to hold your wine AWAY from you on a 45-degree angle against a white sheet of paper or background–you’ll get the most from color. Remember, you don’t look at wine up in the air!

• Legs! The only legs you should be talking about are your own or the person’s you came with. Remember, legs mean alcohol but never tell you quality. If the wine sticks to the inside of the glass for a long bit of time, sit down! Chances are, you’ll feel a little woozy after your first sip.

• Do NOT rinse your glass with water, UNLESS your tasting room attendant has asked you to. Often times a winery will rinse your glass with the wine they’re about to pour to get the most accurate smells from the wine they’re about to pour.

• And lastly, TAKE YOUR TIME tasting, smelling and allowing the wine to sit on your palate. Don’t interrupt the attendant when they’re giving the notes of the wine. Talking ‘over’ someone, acting like a big shot when it comes to wine only makes you look silly. Listen up, you’ll probably learn a thing or two.

• You should never ‘chug’ a wine per se, allow the wine you’re drinking to really resonate with your senses. Smell it for a while, taste it, and let it sit on your palate before tasting.

Last tips for tasting success…
• Have fun!
• Don’t be a wine snob.
• And, keep it together while you’re in a ‘tasting’ atmosphere. We often see folks who are out to DRINK in these scenarios. If you feel like you’re out for a full day’s worth of tasting, maybe spit the first or second half of the day. This is the best way to look like you know what you’re doing!

Enjoy your travels to wine country! Clink, Clink.

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