If this is your first visit or if you are a seasoned wine taster, here are some basic tips that will make your trip to the Wine Country so much more enjoyable; Check the weather report. Our grapes ripen beautifully because we are located in a Mediterranean climate; almost no rain at all from June to September, warm to hot days (75-105 daytime temperature), with little or no humidity, but chilly, foggy evenings with wind and cool temperatures (50-60 degrees in the am & pm), which keep the acids high in the fruit. Dress accordingly with layers.
Start with your lodging. Book as far in advance as possible. If you intend to spend most of your day tasting wine and visiting wineries, is it really necessary to stay in the best resort? Look for something centrally located to your winery and restaurant visits, and save money on time and gas that you could be spending on wine! There are lots of funky but very adequate places (El Bonita in St. Helena) that are clean but not over $200.00/night. If you really need some quality down time and want high end dining, concierge service, pools and spas, then look no further than Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and Solage.
Then book wine visits. Call or email and get personal. Get references from your wine loving friends, your wine shop or ask the wineries that you are most fond of where else to go – we’ll gladly tell you our favorite stops.
Now book dinners and luncheons. We have some of the top restaurants in the world, but we also have over 5 million visitors a year (and lots of locals) who want to dine in those same restaurants. Many restaurants have marginal corkage fees to entice you to bring a bottle of a special wine you purchased to dinner with you – don’t forget to include a glass for the sommelier or wait staff. Ask locals – what’s good, what’s hot, what’s new. We all eat out and we all taste each others' wines and know the wineries. Network. An introduction from one winery owner to another, or suggestion for a restaurant, may mean all the difference in the world!
Look at a map. Don’t book a winery tour in Sonoma’s Dry Creek and another in Napa’s Howell Mountain the same day. Stay in one area and think about taking a picnic with you, so that you don’t have to race back to a restaurant for lunch. Focus your tastings in one area each day, and leave room to be late or take a side road and explore the area . . . or get lost!
Don’t book more than 3 winery visits a day. Tastings may include current releases, newly bottled samples and barrel samples of several lots. Drink lots of water in between tastings. Take crackers or snacks to help digest all the wine. If you must power-taste, then have a designated driver or hire a car with a driver. Many times the local car/chauffeur services can even suggest or make arrangements to get you into little-known wineries who only take visitors by appointment. Be smart.
Figure out what you are going to do about getting your wine purchases home. Can the wineries ship wine to your state? Possibly not. Determine if the wines you like are available in your area, if not, buy them at the winery and take them home. You will probably purchase several bottles at each stop. Ask the concierge at your hotel if they can arrange for or suggest a shipping company. If your airline only charges $25.00 for an extra bag, then purchase a 12 pack styrofoam shipper (or two) and start filling it to take home. There are several shipping centers throughout Wine Country that are in the business of shipping wines anywhere you want. Get your cellar ready!
Treat your wine purchases like cheese, or chocolate. Don’t fill your trunk with valuable, hard to find wines and then leave them in a hot parking lot all day to melt . . . Get an ice-chest or styrofoam shipping container to keep the wines at room temperature and keep them inside the air-conditioned car with you.
Do what the locals do. Check out local newspapers (Napa Register, St. Helena Star) and The Juice on-line for upcoming events. On Friday mornings St. Helena has the best small-town Farmer’s Market, where you can get picnic supplies as well as coffee and breakfast and watch a cooking demonstration by a local CIA or restaurant chef or book-signing by local author. On Wednesdays, our local Fire Chief, at his hole-in-the-wall catering business next to Dean & Deluca, offers a sandwich with all the fixins and a picnic area. Everyone in town goes! On Friday evenings, several local retail wine shops (Acme Fine Wines and St. Helena Wine Center in St. Helena, Back Room Wines in Napa) offer tastings with the winemakers, or introductions to new wine releases. Some Thursday nights in St. Helena include free music and a picnic in the park, some Fridays we have a street party, called CHEERS!. Look for fundraisers occurring in the Wine Country during your visit – all the locals will be there and the wines offered to taste or at auction will be some of the best around! Meet the community and go home with an enhanced feeling for the wine country . . . we will all be better for it, and will look forward to seeing each other on your next trip!
Any other tips to share? What made your Wine Country visit the best one ever?