How to have an Ass Kicking Wine Vacation
It’s easy to have a great vacation in a world famous wine region. But it takes a bit of effort to have a truly spectacular experience in a wine region. Here are some practical tips that apply to any wine travel in the world.
Obviously, the most important aspect is safety. Don’t take this lightly. Plenty of wine country vacations are instantly ruined by a DUI offense or accidents caused by too much drinking. It is amazing how many cops are patrolling after dinnertime in wine regions, ready to see one car slightly swerve even the slightest. I cannot over emphasize this: moderation, spitting samples (all wineries provide dump buckets), plenty of water, and even hiring a car service (money well spent) are all things to consider.
The Wine Trip Survival Pack. There are several things to pack before your trip that will make for a great vacation. This is the system I have used and refined over the years.
First, obtain a twelve bottle styrofoam bottle shipper. The ones above are from ULINE. Often your better local wine retailers will have some lying around — offer to pay for one (they usually run $5-15 new).
Obtain this well ahead of the trip — you don’t want to be searching in vain the day before you leave. Put “Fragile” stickers all over it. You will be checking this in on your flight, even if you’re like me and try to always carry on. Another option is to ship it to your first destination a week before leaving.
In this empty packer put the following: two cheap but good wine glasses well wrapped (cheap because you may be leaving them behind if you buy twelve bottles of wine), a wine opener (don’t try to carry on the plane), a thin cutting board for cheese and meat, a knife or two for said cheese and meat, a small bottle of dish soap, and a kitchen towel. Packing this kit ahead of time and bringing it with you on you trip will potentially save you hundreds of dollars by giving you the option of a great picnic at a winery or in your hotel room rather than constantly going out to eat.
Additionally, you can pack twelve bottles with confidence and check in the box for the return flight home. Yes, wine shipping services abound in wine country, but they charge insane sums and your fine wine is at the mercy of trucks, temperature, and rough handling. Speaking of temperature, many a special bottle purchased directly at a winery has been ruined by laying in a car in the summertime heat. Another bonus of having this bottle box in your trunk: if you buy meats and cheeses the styrofoam works as a cooler.
Note: if you are traveling overseas, be sure to look into import limitations regarding alcohol. More than a few wine lovers have been shocked at having to abandon purchases upon return to the United States.
Hydration and health go hand in hand. Three or four days of wine tourism leave many people worn out and achy. The best way to solve this problem is, on the first day of the trip (even the first stop after picking up the car), buy a case of two liter bottles of spring water. Each member of the party is REQUIRED to drink two of these per day — put names and dates on the bottles to be sure. Yes, you’ll be visiting the restrooms often and that is a good thing!
I like to plan one visit for first thing in the morning (9:00 or 10:00). This is an ‘appointment only’ visit that will force you out of bed and getting a start on the day right away. Take note of the next point though.
Don’t be late for appointments! When you make an appointment, take it seriously and if anything arrive a bit early. The wineries I suggest in my guides are small operations, and depending on the time of year it may be the owner, winemaker, tasting room host, and head chef wrapped into one person. They have things to do, much more so than the corporate-oriented wineries. These wineries graciously invite you to visit them, but if too many people nonchalantly stroll in 30-45 minutes late thinking it’s no big deal, then the opportunity will be ruined for all. To stay on target, I keep track of not only when I have to be somewhere, but (more importantly) when I have leave somewhere.
If you want your visit to be leisurely, plan on two hours for a winery visit. This builds in time to wander around, get lost, have fun, and extend conversations. If you want to fill your schedule and go hardcore (see note below) you can do a great winery visit in 45-60 minutes. The key to a hardcore schedule is to make it clear when you arrive at a winery that you have to be going at a specified time, as well as predetermining what you want to do there: tour the vineyards, taste the wines, learn about the geology, etc.
If you do decide to ‘go hardcore’ and visit wineries in 45-60 minute slots and more than five in a day, be sure to not do it for more than one day in a row. My ‘record’ is nine in one day, a marathon that went from 8:00 in the morning until 7:00 in the evening. It was great fun but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. It’s tempting, especially for a first trip to wine country, to pack it in. But returning to an earlier mantra: more is not better. Better is better. And hiring a driver is essential for such a schedule.
An ideal schedule to me revolves around lunch (don’t laugh!). Two good, solid, pre-arranged appointments in the morning followed by a leisurely lunch at a good restaurant. There are few reasons for this, the first being economic. You can eat at some of the best restaurants in wine country for far less money at lunch. Take The French Laundry for example. Quite possibly the greatest restaurant in the United States, and almost impossible to get dinner reservations at. However, lunch is served Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at a substantially discounted rate. (Lunch for two with reasonable wine will still set you back $700 or more, however. Is it worth it? It’s a personal decision of course.) Secondly, a hearty and complete lunch without rushing helps to relax the day a bit (this being vacation, of course). Lastly, there is opportunity to talk with the staff, taste wine samples, and get an insider’s scoop on what’s new. Following lunch is when I do the drives and look at the vistas I suggest in the guides, all the while drinking the two liters of water mentioned earlier. I might have one or two more appointments in the late afternoon.
Personally, I often skip dinner at fancy restaurants instead opting for visiting a wine bar or two, enjoying some small plates of food. This saves me massive amounts of money and allows the end of my day to be more free-form and spontaneous. I’ve run into many situations, when visiting the smaller wineries I feature, in which the owner or winemaker offers to have a beer with me at the end of the day (there is a saying amongst winemakers that “It takes a LOT of beer to make great wine”), an offer I would have to refuse if I had reservation at Chez Watch-your-wallet. For the very end of the night (or even for dinner itself), arriving back at your hotel with some cheese and meats from local delis, making use of the ‘survival pack’ you made earlier, you can enjoy some of the wine purchased during the day.
More tips and tricks coming in the near future! Enjoy your wine vacation!