Nick and I are currently making our way back to New Orleans from a four-night visit to Napa Valley, Ca. This excursion was significant for several reasons not the least of which is that it is our first trip away without Cheerio, who will be celebrating his 1st birthday in late October. It was also significant because this is my first trip to wine country as a hobbyist..I have been to Wine Country in California and Oregon several times but only while working as a representative of a large restaurant company with tens of millions of dollars in wine sales. When you visit Wine Country in that role things are much different - you stay with wineries, wake at the crack of dawn to walk vineyards with owners and can easily try 60 or 70 wines in a day. It is exhausting. This time, things were a bit less corporate. This trip was on our own dime and existed solely to satisfy my passion for and Nick's curiosity about American wine..
The first thing I realized about a trip to Napa Valley under my own auspices was that I was going to need to do some work. I was going to need to plan our winery visits, plan our route and beg for restaurant reservations. As it happens I was right, and my planning served us well. I have learned a lot about Napa Valley on this trip, and I think I can pass along a few helpful tips if you have an inkling to head west yourself...
The most important thing to think about when considering a trip to Wine Country is to consider what kind of experience you want to have. Do you just want to try some of your favorite wines in their native home? Do you want to discover new wines? Do you want to buy a lot of wine? Do you want to leave and make no purchases? Your answer to these could greatly influence your decisions on which wineries to visit.. Once you have a game plan - let's say you are there for 3 days of wine tasting and you decide to do four wineries a day, two wineries before lunch and two wineries after lunch - then start thinking about which wineries you want to visit. To do this, think about what kind of wines you like and accept advice from wine lovers whose opinion you trust - people who can respect your budget. Talk to your neighbor with a big wine collection, or even look up articles by wine writers you really like to see if they have written an article recommending wines that you find intriguing.
Once you select which wineries you would like to visit, phone them in advance to see if you need reservations. Many wineries are indeed "Open to the public" but only by reservations. Also keep in mind that it can sometimes be a bit awkward to leave a private tasting without purchasing wine.
If you are planning to come home with wines, think ahead about your budget in advance and keep that in mind as you visit wineries. If you are on a tight budget, keep that top of mind when you make your travel plans. What we realized this weekend is that small changes can give you a big opportunity for bringing wine home. For instance, opting for an inexpensive rental car instead of a convertible will actually pay for a case of wine from a visited wineries.. Another thing to keep in mind is that you do not receive discounts for purchasing wine at vineyards. Frequently, in fact, you can wind up paying more for wine if you buy and ship from a winery than if you just buy and from your hometown wine shop. The upside to visiting wineries is that you can buy wines produced in small quantities that you just can not buy from your local wine shops or you may even visit wineries that do not sell wines through retailers in your home city or state. .
Ask locally for a recommendation for a local wine shipper. For instance, in Napa there is a FANTASTIC place called Buffalo Shippers where they not only provide the shipping containers, insurance and guidance about what the weather can do to your wine shipment, but they even recycle the cardboard wine carriers you bring into the store..
The last tidbit I would offer would be to balance the opportunity to make reservations in advance with leaving the opportunity to discover local recommendations. There are fantastic restaurants in Wine Country and advance reservations can frequently be required for some of the top culinary experiences, but you could also discover local favorites while you are there. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge. Our best experience this weekend turned out to be a tapas restaurant, Zuzu, in downtown Napa. We stumbled upon Zuzu after a late arrival on Friday night and we liked it so much we dined there again Monday night before our departure this morning.
Lastly, if you can't make it to Napa but are interested in a mega wine tasting - make it to Gambit's Reds Whites & the Blues wine celebration in City Park on Thursday, October 16th from 6pm to 9pm. .Cheers!