FOR wine lovers, there is no better feeling nor experience then when visiting the wine regions yourselves. Wine tourism involves a visit to wine country, including but not limited to wine tasting, wine purchasing, vineyard tours, winery tours, and even dining and accommodation. Wine tourism is already a thriving business in most of the New World, including Northern California (Napa and Sonoma), the New York Wine Country (Finger Lakes), Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and even nearby Thailand. Wine tours are definitely much easier when there are already “tourist-friendly” facilities in place.
Take Australia for example — all their major wine regions (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia to Western Australia) have huge number of wineries to visit that are all built with cellar doors ready for walk-in customers, of which tourists are most welcomed. Cellar doors, as the Australians rightfully call it, are in-house wine shops selling, sampling and promoting their own wine brand and managed by the wineries themselves. These cellar doors are serious income generators for wineries, especially the smaller sized ones which cannot have access or compete in regular retail channels.
While a quick Google search can offer wine tours in almost every wine producing country, and region, it is still way different and more special if you get a private tour and personalized interaction with the wineries themselves. And I am a firm believer in the principal of “six degrees of separation,” which means everyone on this planet are six or fewer social connections way from knowing each other. This was originally theorized by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy back in 1929, way before the advent of internet and social media. I personally feel that the six-degrees has probably been reduced to four-degrees or less today. Why am I mentioning this? Because I believe that there must be someone you know who is a wine importer, a winery owner, a wine journalist, or a person who has connections with wineries who can get you audience with the winery or can facilitate and help out in your planned wine tour. Being just one of the crowd in a commercial wine tour, while still cool and educational, will never approximate the experience of being hosted by a winery itself. Other than the advantage of a private tour and audience, the winery can open better wines or better vintages to generously share with you, while commercial tours will simply offer the latest vintages and/or the most budget friendly wines available. I have helped some of my friends with my direct winery contacts, and it has indeed helped their wine tour experience. The key is to reach out to who you know, and find that right connection.
Since wine touring is not as simple as visiting the Eiffél Tower or any famous monument, it takes quite a bid of planning. Planning, therefore, starts with the answers to the following questions:
• Which Wine Region? This starts with who you know, and how this friend of yours is connected or networked with a winery. For example, your friend imports Italian ceramic floor tiles, and his Italian supplier also happens to have a cousin who owns a Tuscan winery. This small connection can take you to Florence to visit the wine country in Chianti. And after figuring the wine country you will visit, you can now plan the rest of the itinerary. Do you stay in Chianti Classico region only, or you visit Brunello di Montalcino just some 40 kilometers away? This will now depend on what the Italian supplier’s cousin of your friend suggests. It is best to submit to the recommendation of the local guy — the one from the industry, and in this case, the Chianti winery owner, now your de facto host. The location of the hotel, car rental (with driver, better), and the final itinerary should be done with the acquiescence of your wine tour host. This is extremely important because your winery host will refer you to his or her winery friends, and that is how you fill up your itinerary.
• When? Personally, spring would be the best time to visit wine country. Normally spring has very good temperatures — not so cold, and not so warm. Note however that if you are visiting wine regions in the northern hemisphere (Europe and North America), this will mean April to June, while for the wine regions in the southern hemisphere (South America, Australia, New Zealand), this will mean September to November, and just two months — September and October — in South Africa. While autumn also has pleasant temperatures, the wineries are much busier then because of harvesting and winemaking activities.
• How Long? As far as I am concerned, a minimum of three days to a maximum of five days of wine touring and wine drinking should be more than enough. Even wine people get “wined-out” if there is too much wines, information, and alcohol to imbibe. It is different even if you drink wine every day — in these tours, you drink much more per day than normal. And because there is a chance to experience multiple wines at any winery stop, the drinking can really pile up quickly, especially when moving from one winery to another. Ideally, I would suggest three wineries per day — this honestly is less about distance, as most wineries are clustered in their respective wine regions, but more about spending quality time and pacing each visit (and saving your liver too). And always have breakfast before each wine tour day. Drinking will happen at any time, so better have a full stomach when your first glass can be in hand as early as 10 a.m.
Now for the details:
• The Accommodations. If your accommodation is not going to be hosted by a winery, then choose a hotel or Air BnB recommended by your winery host. If you are to be in charge of your own booking, choose one that is in the center of a wine hub — one that is part of the wine tourism route. This would be a location that is accessible to multiple wineries. The closer each winery is from one to another, the more time for visiting more wineries. Most regions do have wineries literally right next to each other. The accommodations need to be booked ahead, especially if during Spring, as rooms in hotels that are accessible to the wine countries will be gone fast because of high demand.
• Transportation. It is best to charter a minivan or minibus (if you are more than eight in your party) to bring you around wine country. All the commercialized wine regions will have this service available. Best too to not drive if you are part of a group, as abstaining from wine drinking because of driving duties may not be easy when everyone else in your group is drinking and enjoying wines. A local driver is best, especially one who knows the ins and outs of the wine region. It is like getting a free tour guide too. Your group will benefit from the local driver’s inputs on where eat the local cuisine, or, if you have free time in your itinerary, a chance to explore other wineries or even other landmarks that are not wine-related.
• Research on the Wine Region. Especially if you are getting direct access to the winery, you should do a bit of research before you visit so as to manifest your genuine interest in the wines of your hosting winery. Ask relevant questions: Is this region more popular for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay or for its Cabernet Sauvignon? What makes the winery’s Riesling stand out against the rest? What other grape varietals are better adapted to this region’s “terroir”? Etc. — queries that make for lively exchanges and interaction with the winery personnel. More often than not, genuine inquisitiveness leads to the winery offering more wines to taste, including some very special old vintages. When you move on to the next winery, you can ask the same questions, as all wineries experience the same industry challenges.
For wine lovers, make this item in that bucket list of yours happen — go on a wine tour! Enjoy, learn, and bring back memories when you return home… but do not forget to bring some nice wines back too.
The author is a member of UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.