I mentioned in a previous post that among the best ways to learn about wine is at the wineries themselves.  Naturally there are some potential barriers to maximizing your knowledge in this fashion – chief among them is access to a variety of wineries that might fit your needs.   Getting to most wineries usually involves a planned trip, with planned times and locations.  So unless you plan to spend a week or so in a particular area you have to be rather surgical with your plans.

So how does one choose the wineries they plan to visit?  Good question.  I think most people are drawn to the big names.  They’re trusted names that they’ve seen in supermarkets, basic restaurant wine lists, ads, etc.  Most of the more well-known wine brands are now corporately owned.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, just be aware that their main purpose is to generate revenue and profit as opposed to making good wine.   This is not to say you should avoid these wineries,  just be aware of their ultimate motives.

Here are some tips for navigating the minefield of wineries and to maximize your tasting experience wherever you may go:

1. Be a good scout

In other words: Always be prepared!  Doing a little homework before you go will save you a lot of time and effort.  You will not only be able to narrow your choices, but learn a bit more about each one before you arrive, such as what varietals or blends they specialize, their history, their policies and even their prices (so you don’t get sticker shock).  Hosts at wineries appreciate guests who appear interested and earnest.  Think of it like traveling to a foreign country – if you can learn just a bit of the native tongue, you will gain more respect.

2. Avoid the opulence

I like to call these wineries “Fantasy Island”… you know the wineries that have the faux-chateau look with the marble columns and the expensive sculptures and artwork?  You too can live this way if you drink our wine… Yeah, they’re all about their wine.  These types of places draw (prey) on certain crowds that like to be seen, etc.  If that’s your bag, then that’s OK.

3. Avoid the limo/bus stops

When you arrive at a winery where either there’s a lot of dedicated space for buses and limos or you actually see said buses and limos, it’s usually best to avoid it, even though it may be a perfectly good winery.  I think the answer is rather obvious:  buses/limos hold a lot of people.  A lot of people usually means “party”.  “Party” means fun, but also potentially loud and raucous.   Loud and raucous usually requires baby-sitting; and baby-sitting is not good for your prospects of getting personalized attention from the host staff.

4. Go early and limit your visits to three wineries

The earlier you arrive is usually better.  For one, you avoid crowds – especially those that arrive later in the afternoon after a big day of playing “winery golf” (attempting to visit 18 wineries in a day).   Also, by limiting the number of wineries you visit you will have a much better learning experience.  Your palate will be much fresher (where you will be able to actually tell the difference between different varietals, vintages, etc.).   Your pocketbook will also benefit.

5. Ask questions and have fun!

If you really want to learn more and expand your knowledge of wine, this is the most important tip. Following the above tips will help you with this too.  Simply put ask questions.  Ask about where the grapes are from – whether they simply buy grapes from other vineyards, whether they’re grown on the estate, or where else they’re grown.  Knowing where the grapes are from will give you knowledge of “terroir” – essentially the sensory effects you get from the land, soil, weather, etc.  Ask about the winemaker and what his/her background and passions are.  This knowledge could also help you understand more about the particular style the winemaker is aiming for.  And most importantly, have fun – it isn’t a test of how much you know, but an open book to how much you want to know!

The added benefit of all this is that your winery host may provide you with extra benefits, such as special tastes that are off the list, further tips and advice on other wineries, and perhaps even a bigger discount than you might have figured.!

Stay tuned for tips on purchasing wine at wineries…