With over 7,000 U.S. wineries to choose from, figuring out where to visit in wine country can be a herculean vacation task. But it starts with one question:
What do you to like to drink?
Crazy about Cabernet? Napa Valley is your destination. Passionate for Pinot Noir? Sonoma County or Oregon’s Willamette Valley should be on the short list. Once you’ve figured that out, then the real fun begins: What wineries to visit? I receive innumerable inquiries into this question (got another one today – and I love it) and I’ve revealed some of my favorite destinations in a few posts:
Pinot Noir in Sonoma County
Sweet wines at Family Wineries of Dry Creek
J Vineyards & The Bubble Room
But wait… there are more decisions! Not all wineries are “open to the public” and have a tasting room where you can casually walk in and do the wine tasting boogie. Some locales require an appointment. Occasionally this is an intentional “scarcity” gimmick but mostly they’re appointment-only because the winery couldn’t get a permit. Not because they’re not hanging with the cool kids — reasons are myriad and mostly involve the government: bathroom ADA requirements, not enough square footage, or the wine region bigwigs feel there are enough tasting rooms already. Go figure, huh? A lot of hoops are jumped through to allow wine fans to taste a few sips of fermented juice.
So like making sure you get a seat at the restaurant you’ve been drooling over, some forethought may be required when planning your day- or week-long wine country trip. There are pros and cons to walk-in tasting rooms versus appointment-only. And many wineries who are open to walk-in traffic offer reservations so you can look into those as well. Yes, lots to wade through but make sense of the options and walk confidently into this decision with these tips:
Wineries Open to the Public or “Walk-In’s”
- Schedule Flexibility. On vacation and want to stay relaxed? Leave your day free and easy by hitting only walk-in tasting rooms. Visit as many as you want — or as many as your DD will suffer through. Or make only one appointment and work around that all day.
- Less pressure. You’ll likely be in a crowded tasting room (depending on time of year and wine region) so the people behind the bar won’t have time to deliver the super hard sell to buy wine or sign up for their wine club. You can decide for yourself whether to buy or not. But be prepared that anywhere… absolutely anywhere you go wine tasting, the wine person behind the bar will ask for the sale/wine club membership/upgrade, etc. Don’t be offended… the door doesn’t remain open by miracle. They rely on your dollars as much as any other business does. Same goes for the tasting fee, which way too many people complain about. They’re pouring you wine, aren’t they? Long gone are the days when wineries could afford to pour wine as freely as the Russian River — throngs of tourists grow that expenditure each year. Come prepared to pay and you’ll be a happier taster.
- Specials or discounts available. This will happen especially at larger wineries with plenty of wine to move — 20, 30, 40% specials on either vintage close-outs, seasonal wines (for example, rosé wine in late fall that are perfectly tasty but aren’t considered wine for this cooler season) or wines that have reached their prime in life and need someone to love them.
- Convivial atmosphere. Looking for more of a party atmosphere? Super popular wineries attract a following. Sometimes it’s nice to hang with others who love a winery as much as you do.
- One man’s party is another man’s nightmare. Don’t like crowds? You might want to inquire if the winery you’re hankering for has reservations in a different area of the winery which is more quiet and intimate. Especially if you’re hitting them on weekends in high season — June – October — when the crowds flow in like kids at Disney World.
- Less personalized attention. When it’s a crowded tasting room, the person who is serving you might be serving several others at the same time. That said, Ive seen masterful tasting room personnel in action who make you and three other parties feel like rock stars. Want to be assured to be treated VIP? Make a reservation if possible.
- Guaranteed great service. Personalized, intimate attention without distractions. Sit down and relax.
- Often a smaller selection of wines. This might sound like a bad thing but it can be good, like shopping for clothes in a boutique (less to consider) versus a department store (can be overwhelming). Generally, you’ll be tasting 3-5 wines at a private sit-down tasting.
- Gain access to the behind-the-scenes winemaking process. Ask and yea shall maybe receive a ‘lil tour.
- Access to more expensive. sometimes reserve wines. Since the winery doesn’t have as much traffic to serve, they usually have their best stuff open for you to taste. And buy…
- Working around a schedule on vacation. Many of us live in the corporate world of meetings-upon-meetings, so keep that in mind. And also be aware of how far away wineries can be from each other — sometimes an hour or more with traffic in the Napa/Sonoma area.
- Rarely any sales or discounts, unless they have a wine club they want you to join (read up on wine clubs here).
- Pressure to buy, even if it’s not explicit. The person behind the bar or table might be on commission or he/she might not. Or they might be the owner. But the implication is there: we want you to love our wines enough to buy them. Please?
Never miss a single word on TaylorEason.com! Sign up for the newsletter or the RSS email feed.