Wine Tour? What's a Wine Tour?
I have seen more than a little confusion over the words "wine tour" recently. Everyone seems to have their own version of what it means and how involved it is. There are 'wine touring' companies. You can go on a guided or self-guided 'tour' of a winery. You can 'tour' wine country with your friends, family, or significant other. Wine writers, tourism literature, and folks in the wine industry sometimes forget that for people who have never done it, the concept of a 'wine tour' isn't a simple thing to pin down.
In searching for a wine touring analogue, I've come up short. There really isn't anything else that is like it. The closest I can come up with is a spending a day or two touring museums in Vienna or Paris. Visitors spend parts of the day at one museum before heading off to another. You see some art, you buy a book, and then move on to the next museum. Wine touring essentially operates this way. Instead of looking at art, you get to taste through a selection of wine samples, buy a bottle or two, and then move on to the next winery. You get to experience the wine, wine shop, and vineyards, and then sample the wines at many different wineries over the course of a day or more.
People new to 'wine touring' seem to think (as I did when I first started wine touring) that it is a passive experience where they can just sit back and go on a wine tour as if it were a theme park ride. They walk into a wine shop and expect to be whisked away on an experience of some kind. In reality, wine touring is an active experience that requires participation, a sense of adventure, and a desire to explore a little. I believe this difference in expectations (passive vs. active) can give a newbie wine tourist a bad impression especially if the first winery that they visit isn't particularly welcoming or instructional to newbies.
At it's basic level, wine touring is this: You and perhaps some friends (and hopefully a designated driver) spend the afternoon, day, or multiple days driving around to different wineries and tasting their wines. Every wine shop has a tasting bar where they will pour you samples. Try whichever ones interest you (you don't have to try them all) and then purchase whichever wines you like and then head out to the next winery. It's really that simple.
A note about the 'samples'. Wineries are required by law to limit the amount of wines that they can pour for you. All wineries and their staff know this. So if it seems like they are not pouring you enough, please don't be rude and demand more. They are pouring it for you hoping that you will be buying something from them and the sample should be enough for you to get a good idea if you like the wine. You should take your time with each wine. The best way to get your samples reduced to a trickle is to down your wine like a shooter as soon as it's poured and without at least smelling the wine first. That's the most obvious sign to the wine shop staff that you are in it for the free booze. Wine shops are not places for you to have a party any more than a furniture store is not a place to watch the whole Super Bowl with your friends.
Wine shop staff are different at every winery and all have a different level of training, wine knowledge, and customer service skill. It could be that even the most apparently austere wine shop has some of the friendliest and most welcoming staff. Conversely, there are some truly beautiful wine shops but the staff appear rigid and unwelcoming. Appearances aren't always the best way to judge a winery.
You might find your favourite winery completely off the beaten path at the end of a small road in the woods. I met a couple a few years ago who asked me about the hardest-to-find wineries. They wanted to find that special gem that was hidden away on a back road and avoid the ones with crowds, big signs and parking lots. Having never been asked that question, I took a little extra time to come up with a small list of wineries that I though suited their request and then they were off on their adventure.
Wine tour companies operate the same way except that they do the driving and can suggest wineries that you might like. Because they've been to many wineries over many times, they know exactly where you'll find the best winery to suit the your tastes. Some of them have good relationships with wineries and may even be able to get you some special perks at a winery.
Medium and larger sized wineries will be able to offer guided tours of the facility and sometimes that's a great way to start your first day of wine touring. Check the winery's website or phone ahead to ask if they offer this option. It will usually cost a small fee but, in my experience, has always been worth it. Some wineries offer self-guided tours which, although less common, can also be fun and informative.
The main purpose of wine touring is to have fun. Wine is about conviviality and sharing new experiences. Months later when you open up a bottle that you purchased on your first wine tour, just smelling the wine will remind you of every second of it.
Cheers from wine country!
This article was written by our wine writer, Luke Whittall. Luke is passionate about wine and writes and develops podcasts on his website www.winecountrybc.ca