Visiting wineries is fun. Whether you are on your own, with friends, or part of a larger group, you will always remember the look and feel of your favorite wineries. And you will meet a lot of great people.
Visiting most wineries isn’t difficult either. They encourage you to come and enjoy talking to you. Going to wineries doesn’t have to involve a lot of planning or preparation and there’s no formal list of rules to follow, but there are some things to keep in mind. It will make your experience more enjoyable.
Drink responsibly, have something to eat and drink water
Wine tasting, or wine drinking, when visiting wineries is fun. But it’s important to be prudent. You want to feel good all day and remember your experience.
It’s important to have solid meals when you are wine tasting. Alcohol is metabolized much more quickly on an empty stomach. Even if you’re spitting most of the wine, it can hit you pretty quickly if you haven’t had a good meal. Breakfast is very important. Have a good lunch too. There are a lot of great restaurants, cool burger spots, and stores selling delicious picnic food. Make time to enjoy them.
Alcohol is very dehydrating. It can also be quite warm in wine country. It’s important to stay hydrated. Drinking water will also help keep your palate clear. Make sure to bring plenty of water with you.
Be careful on the roads when visiting wineries
Roads can be crowded and winding in wine country. If you are visiting wineries by car, strongly consider having a designated driver. If you have driving duty and are tasting, be sure to spit out the wine rather than actually swallowing it.
Limo services are a good option too. They have experienced drivers who know where the wineries are and may have some good recommendations for you. There are a variety of cars, arrangements and pricing.
Be careful if you are traveling between wineries by bicycle too. The roads are often narrow and without much shoulder.
If you’re walking between wineries and need to cross a street, be very cautious. There are very few crossing signals outside of the downtown areas and the cars sometimes go quite fast.
Don’t over-schedule your day
It’s tempting to pack your day full of tastings. But visiting wineries is most fun when it’s relaxing. Fast-paced scavenger hunts are less enjoyable and may cause you to miss out on great opportunities that arise spontaneously.
Three or four wineries a day is about the right pace. If you’re going to wineries that require firm appointments, plan for just two wineries and fit others in more casually if the opportunity presents itself. It almost always takes longer to get from one place to another than you might think. And time goes quickly in wineries when you’re enjoying great wine and conversation. Or gift shops.
If you find that you are going to be late for an appointment because another winery visit is going long, be sure to call the winery that you will be late for to let them know. If possible, have the winery you’re at make the call. They should be happy to do so.
If you can, try to plan your visits so that they don’t require a lot of driving back and forth. While the countryside is beautiful, you don’t want to burn too much tasting time “commuting.”
Plan ahead a little bit
You don’t have to go nuts with it, but think about which wineries you like to visit. Do a little research. Are they open seven days a week, or just weekends? What are their hours? Do they require an appointment?
Not all wineries saying they are by appointment only really are. But some are and don’t make exceptions. And there are a few wineries that aren’t open to the public at all. It’s best to call ahead and check. If you want to take a winery tour or have a special tasting, it’s even more likely that an appointment will be needed.
Be conscious of the season, day of the week, and hour
Wineries are busiest during Summer and during the harvest (late Summer, early Fall) when people try to see the grapes being picked. Of course, weekends are typically busier than weekdays. Look out for festivals and other events when you do your advance planning too. Visiting during these times can be a lot of fun. But, it’s also great to visit when wineries and roads are less crowded. You ‘ll get more personal attention
Weekdays are typically a relaxed time for visiting wineries. But, late afternoon on just about any day they start to fill up. People stop in after work or as other wineries close and the truly dedicated migrate to the few that remain open.
While we’re talking about crowds, let’s talk about tour buses for a second. If you are on a tour bus, that’s great. Have a wonderful time. But, if you are visiting wineries on your own and turn into a driveway that has a tour bus in it, think about going elsewhere for a little while. Especially if the bus has just started to unload.
There’s nothing wrong with the people on the buses. But the sheer quantity of people can make the tasting room a bit crazy. It might be hard for you to wedge your way in.
Some wineries are large enough to handle to multiple full-sized buses with no problem. Others are very small and are taxed by a small van. Many wineries don’t allow large groups without prior arrangement.
Photo opportunities abound when visiting wineries. Many have beautiful gardens or art galleries. The countryside can be gorgeous. And then there are selfies. (But please leave your selfie stick in the trunk of your car.)
Most tasting rooms charge for tastings these days. A typical tasting can be anywhere from $5 to $40 and usually consists of a “flight.” That’s small tastes of multiple wines. But, even with the small pours of a flight, you usually get enough of each wine to share it with one other person. Sharing will save money and minimize the amount of alcohol you take in.
Reserve tastings or special seated tastings with accompanying food may cost more. Wineries may not allow shared tasting for these.
At some wineries, you get to keep the glass if you pay for a tasting. At others, your tasting fee may be refunded if you buy a bottle. Feel free to ask.
Some wineries also have coupons for free or discounted tastings in the local paper, winery guides and at local hotels.
The people working at the wineries and tasting rooms are typically both very friendly and very knowledgeable. Feel free to ask questions. There are no dumb questions and they’ve probably heard everything at least once.
Working in a tasting room can be tough. It’s a little bit like being a bartender without the tips. Be friendly and polite. It will maximize everybody’s chance of having a good day. And, sometimes, it may get you a taste of something special they’ve got hidden behind the counter for nice people like you.
Plan to buy wine
I’m not saying you need to buy when visiting wineries. You don’t. And I’m not saying you will buy wine whether you plan to or not. But you might.
If you are tempted by something tasty, it’s good to have a plant for getting it home. And how to keep it cool in the car while you’re inside tasting at the next place.
You might bring a cooler filled with bottles of water, a few of which are frozen. You need to drink water anyway. This way, it will stay nice and cold. And you can reward yourself for drinking water by filling the empty space in the cooler with your favorite wines. The cooler will also be handy if you find a great place for picnic food, can’t finish that massive lunch, or find a really good roadside produce stand. Maybe you should bring two coolers…
If you are going to buy…
When you do decide to take the plunge and buy something, there are a few things to keep in mind. Sometimes, the winery prices are just full-price, not discounted as at some stores. This keeps winery distributors happy. But, there may also be wines that are sold only at the winery. These are typically smaller production wines and can be pretty special.
See this article for other tips on buying wine.
You can usually get a discount on your wine purchases if you buy in volume (6 bottles or a case) or join their wine club
Doing this will typically get you a much better price than you would get at retail. Club memberships often get you free tastings and discounts in the gift shops too. With club memberships, a winery will ship you wine periodically. The selections and prices will vary with the winery and season. Most wineries don’t bill you until the wine has been shipped to you. Often, you’re allowed to cancel at any time so there is little risk in joining.
Unfortunately, some states don’t allow wineries to ship direct to customers. Laws vary considerably by state and can be a bit confusing. The wineries will know exactly which states they can or cannot ship to. But, if you want to try to plan ahead, you can visit this Wine Institute page that tries to sort out interstate wine shipping laws by state.
Assuming the winery can ship to your state, they may be able to ship your purchases for you so you don’t have to lug it home. There will be a fee for that of course. If you have collected a few bottles here and there from different wineries, one winery might also be willing to ship a consolidated case (or two) for you. Enjoy your visits to NorCal Wine country!
Copyright Fred Swan 2016. All rights reserved.