In the movie "Sideways," the character of Miles Raymond gives his novice wine-touring companion Jack a lesson on wine tasting. Besides telling his friend to tilt the glass of wine on its side to observe whether the color extends out to the rim, he advises Jack to stick his nose deep into the goblet for a good, long sniff. When Miles submerges his own nose in his wineglass, inhales and exclaims that he smells citrus, strawberry, passion fruit, asparagus and a flutter of nutty cheese, Jack looks puzzled.
It's this wine sniffing behavior that bewilders neophyte wine tasters who, like the character of Jack, want to ask the obvious question: "When do we get to drink it?" But perhaps the movie's popularity with audiences is a testament to the perfect pairing -- wine snob with wine oaf. No matter where you fall on the wine connoisseur spectrum, there's a place for you in the wine country.
Wine tours are educational experiences. Besides tasting wine, you'll tour the vineyards and walk the rows of the season's harvests. Depending on the time of year, you may even be invited to pluck a few grapes and sample them straight from the vine. After returning from the vineyard, you'll head inside to visit the production area of the winery. Tours culminate in wine tasting.
A wine tour can last anywhere from an afternoon to two weeks. Some people tour in cars, limos and vans -- others on bikes and even kayaks. And some vacationers even squeeze in a game of golf or a cooking class between tours. Most wineries are open to the public a large part of the year. If you live within driving distance, you can hop in the car and spend the afternoon touring the winery and come home that evening with a new addition for your wine cellar. If you're in the mood for a vacation, you can tour multiple wineries every day.
Why do wineries open their doors to the public? To sell wine. After strolling through the sun-drenched rows of vines and sipping on a few pinots and merlots, it's unlikely you'll leave the tour empty-handed. What else should you expect from a wine tour?
What to Expect on a Wine Tour
There are two ways to take part in a wine tour: You can plan an itinerary on your own, using a map and the Internet. Or you can enlist the guidance of the many tour companies that plan wine tours. If you've never been on a wine tour before, you might like one planned by a professional tour company.
If you're touring on your own, the costs are minimal. The winery typically doesn't charge for the wine tour and sometimes provides a sample of wines for free. More often, there's a small charge to cover the cost of sampling. If you want to taste a specialty wine, such as ice wine, expect an additional charge.
If you decide to participate in a wine tour arranged through a tour operator, expect to spend more. The tour operators provide transportation between wineries. The final cost depends greatly on the area you're touring. A one-day trip that encompasses several wineries in the Sonoma Valley of California may cost a little more than $100, while a two-week excursion through Bordeaux, France, will be in the thousands.
Even within one tour company you'll find variable prices. Some companies provide van transportation and shuttle groups of 15 or more from vineyard to vineyard. They may also work with intimate groups where transportation is a limo, horse-drawn carriage or hot air balloon.
Whether you're on your own or traveling as part of a group, once you arrive at the winery, most tours are similar. You'll walk through the vineyards while your host discusses the types of grapes grown in the region. Once you return from the vineyards, your host will explain the different stages of wine making. You'll see wine in stainless steel vats and oak barrels that are in different stages of the aging process. You then enter a tasting room where you can sample from four to six different types of wine.
After the wine tasting, you'll have time to visit the winery's gift shop to make a purchase. If you're visiting more than one winery, it'll be time to move to the next stop. Some wineries provide live music or gourmet meals on certain dates, and some tour operators plan meals or other extras as part of their tour package. It's important to know exactly what you're getting when you make plans. If a meal isn't offered, ask for recommendations before heading home. The cumulative affect of sipping wine throughout the day, particularly in warm weather, can be offset by putting some food in your belly.
Planning a Trip to Wine Country
The first step in planning a wine tour is deciding where you'll visit. In the United States, the Sonoma and Napa Valleys of California are well known for their vineyards. Michigan, Oregon and the Lake Erie and Niagara regions are also popular destinations. Internationally, France is home to Bordeux, Burgandy, Champagne, Loire and Rhone. In Italy, Tuscany, Sicily, Veneto and Fruili are all popular destinations.
While it's possible to enjoy good wine and have a great experience spending one afternoon in a single winery, for a nice regional wine tour, schedule three or four days. If you're traveling internationally, you may want to allocate up to two weeks. On international trips, the tour schedule typically includes small breaks to visit tourist destinations in the area.
Once you have a destination in mind and know how long you plan to spend in the region, it's time to make reservations. Schedule your wine tour during the growing season. In Europe and North America, that's April to October. In New Zealand, visit during February or March to witness the grape harvest. While some wineries allow visitors during the winter months, when the grapevines are dormant, you'll miss out on the awesome experience of walking through the rows of grapevines with fruit hanging heavily as far as the eye can see.
When making reservations, it's also important to know exactly what's included in the price. Ask about accommodations, transportation and meals. If you're traveling by airline, ask if they arrange transportation from the airport or if you should do that yourself. The best way to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises on your wine tour is to ask plenty of questions.
Wine Tasting 101
A wine tour is a learning experience. So if you don't know anything about wine before you go, that's OK. While most wine tours are filled with others who want to learn, it's easy to feel intimidated the first time you attend one. Knowing the proper way to taste wine may give your confidence a boost.
When you enter the wine tasting room, your host will greet you with several samples of wine. The host will pour one sample and describe both the smell and the taste. Hold the glass up to the light and notice the color. A bright, clean color signifies quality. Tilt the glass slightly to the side. Younger wines will maintain uniform color throughout, while older wines will lose their coloring and become translucent close to the rim.
Smell the wine before drinking. The scent of vinegar or prunes signify that something went wrong with the aging process. The wine is either too acidic (vinegar scent) or has been exposed to air and has oxidized. Wine that has oxidized will develop a prune-like scent and an off taste similar to cough syrup. Smells of flowers, vanilla, coconut, oak and even toasted bread all signify quality wine.
Take a small sip of the wine and let it spread through your mouth. Concentrate on the different flavors of the wine. Listen to how the host describes the flavor and compare that to how it tastes in your mouth.
Next comes the part that many people find awkward: Do you swallow the wine or spit it out? Either is perfectly acceptable. They'll be spitting buckets available, but you can swallow also. Over the course of one day, a person on a guided wine tour may end up sampling 12 to 18 different wines, so many people refrain from swallowing all of the samples.
The host will begin the tasting by offering samples of dry white wines and move to dry reds. The dessert and other sweet wines are saved for last. Wine tours are great fun, and there's no reason to worry about a stuffy atmosphere. If you show up prepared to learn and are interested in broadening your wine tasting horizons, you're sure to enjoy yourself.
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