With the new year upon me, I am eager to get out of the grey cold of DC and into beautiful wine country. Hubby and I have been to northern California five times and several times to the wine region in Virginia as well. Both are stellar destinations, but I am a California girl at heart (after being a Tar Heel, of course). There is no better way to shake off the rigid pace of the East Coast than a venture West. As I start my search for the next awesome-wine-country-adventure (Central Coast in a few weeks… whoot!), I put together my top five tips for planning the perfect wine country weekend.
Tip 1: Timing. California is beautiful anytime of year, but the rhythm of the wine-making cycle can impact the month you travel. If you want to see the beauty of grapes growing on the vine, visit late spring through summer. That is the most popular time of year, so be wary of crowds at tasting bars and make reservations well in advance. Grapes are harvested anywhere from mid-August through October, which can be an interesting time at each vineyard. And don’t forget wine festivals. They sound like so much fun and a great way to sample multiple wines from one area at a time. I haven’t made it to one yet, so I’m open to any suggestions (ahem, invitations).
Tip 2: Get to know an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Many people ask me where in both Napa and Sonoma they should visit, which to me is just an invitation to visit only the obvious periphery of each. I recommend people chose one AVA a day (let along one county!) to explore in more detail. It is helpful to know which varietal you like (Pinot, Cab, Sauvignon Blanc, Zin…), as geography and terroir dictate which grape grows best in which environment. By focusing on one area, you get a feel for the local community and use your time efficiently (i.e., more time tasting, less time driving).
Tip 3: Limit to two to three wineries a day. Oh so many wineries, so little time! True, there are many in wine country, hundreds in Napa alone. But I have found my palate fatigues with each passing hour of the day. By limiting yourself to two or three wineries (max), you have time to savor each one and really enjoy the day without rushing to get in a nap before dinner (a must for all of my wine country adventures).
Tip 4: Chose your wineries wisely. I love to chose wineries to visit not only based on the location (AVA), but I also consult my trusty Annual “Wine Guide” by Food & Wine and “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonne to narrow down the selection to premium winemakers. I will also read the wine list of the best local restaurants to see what producers they carry. I try to balance the type of tasting as well, whether it is a private tasting, an unreserved bar, or a wine cave tour. And don’t forget that many wineries attract visitors because of their stellar views, history, art and architecture (and not necessarily their wine…). It is a good idea to price the tasting fee (which varies from $10 – $70), as well as the price of the wine ahead of time, if you intend on buying any. I have been quite tempted to join many of the wineries I have visited (nine and counting), so chose to visit the ones that have a story you love and admire.
Tip 5: Indulge in California’s non-wine splendors. Nothing prepares you better for an afternoon of wine tasting than a morning hike in one of California’s spectacular state parks. Breathtaking views await you once you reach one of the many gorgeous summits looking down on vineyards. If hiking isn’t your thing, don’t overlook the allure of perusing local farmers markets, olive oil and cheese tours, local art, and even a bocce ball game.
So start your planning and pack your bags, I’ll see you in Cali!