I see the posts on Facebook. Someone will ask the question “We are headed to Napa, where do you recommend we visit” and a flood of Friends will respond with a winery or two that are can’t miss. The problem is, not all Napa, Sonoma or other wine country visits are created equaly. Some vistors are looking for an over-the-top adventure while others may be seeking a more laid-back experience. Some vistors might be looking to learn more about the winemaking process while others might be seeking an amazing view. Some visitors might be looking to drink bold reds while others might be more interested in sparkling or whites.
There are more than 500 wineries in Napa, more that 400 in Sonoma and more than 200 in Paso Robles, just to name 3 regions, and almost every one is wonderful in its own way. No matter which wine area you are traveling to, you can’t visit them all. You are going to have to make some choices and those choices are easier to make if you’ve first spent some time determining what you want out of your wine country trip.
If you want to make the most of your time in the wine country, ask yourself these questions first.
1) What kind of experiences are you looking for? All wineries have a unique atmosphere and a different set of amenities. They each have a different approach to your visit. Some wineries have amazing caves or views while others have wonderful tours to explain the winemaking process. Some wineries provide an awe-inspiring experience akin to Disney World while at other you casually sip their wines at a picnic table in the owner’s backyard. Some wineries will have an art collection to peruse while others have a chef that provides food pairings to go with your tastings. Before you start booking locations, think about the kind of experiences you are seeking: adventure, education, relaxation, discovery, inspiration, pampering, Chances are you will want to mix it up a little bit (you don’t need to book the full vineyard educational tour at every stop nor do you want to just belly up to public tasting bars the whole time), so consider the mix. Do you want a little education and a lot relaxation, or maybe its lots of education with some occasional downtime. Perhaps it’s a couple of “wow” experiences, a couple of familiar labels and a a couple of new discoveries. Whatever it is, identify what experiences you are looking for first, then ask for specific recommendations to meet those needs.
2) What kinds of wines do you want to try? Most wine regions are suited to a number of quality wines of different varietals. Although I preach experiencing different kinds of wine varieties and discovering different labels, and recommend that you challenge yourself to try something new, your time in wine country is limited and you may not be able to try everything. If you don’t have time for discovery, make sure the area and the wineries you choose to visit are the ones that match your palate. Going to Napa and a fan of big, bold, high tannic reds that need time to sit before being opened? Make sure you devote time to visit wineries up on the mountains (like Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, or Mount Veeder). Like reds that are softer and riper, then spend more time on the valley floor (like Oakville, Rutherford or Yountville) and with wineries that produce both Cabs and Merlot. More of a Pinot Noir person, then Sonoma is more likely to hit the mark with you than Napa. Beyond just the area, wineries often specialize in no more than a few varietals, so consider this as well.
Once you have identified the mix of experiences and wines you desire in your trip, you can start start to do the research to find the wineries and tasting rooms that would be best for your visit. When you have your list of visit candidates, map them out, then consider the next question.
3) Where are you staying? It takes time to get from one part of any wine area to the other, so it is best to build each day of your trip so you are visiting a group of wineries that either are clustered reasonably close together or are aligned in a path. This will help you avoid wasting large chunks of the day driving back and forth between the sites. If you already know where you will be staying while you are in the area, this will help you build your days to maximize the time you have in the area (because you will know your starting and ending point for each day). If you don’t yet know, then mapping out your groups or wineries or paths from the first two questions might help guide the place to look for your lodging.
These three questions can help better identify where to visit in your wine country visit, but most of all, don’t stress about your itinerary. Almost every location in the major wine regions has a unique and wonderful experience, so use these questions as guidelines to start and then have fun with your planning.
Have other tips for planning a wine country visit or know of a great stop, please share with us in the comments!