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how do I plan for 3 days of wine tasting?

We are visiting Sonoma & Napa in December.This is our first time doing this sort of trip. I have read lots of posts about favorite vineyards on chowhounds. Does anyone have any tips on how to choose where to go? plan ahead or not? make appointments or not? how many to plan on visiting in a day? i am a big plan ahead sort of person, but with all the options I tend to get a little overwhelmed. should i visit vineyards that I am already familiar with? such as Ridge & Kunde? or go with those that i have not heard of? My only plan so far is one day in the zinfandel area, another in the pinot, and the third in Napa.

any clarification/guidance would be helpful.

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  1. my only suggestion is don't try to cram too much into a day. Take your time and enjoy the days, and that might give you time to hop into someplace that you didn't plan on visitiing. Maybe set up one appt each day and see where they rest of the day takes you.

    1. bring plenty of advil, lolololol

      Seriously, look for reserve tastings, opportunities to taste soemthing better than mid-shelf wines.

      1. When I go I focus on two things:

        1) Wines that aren't available or hard to come by in my area (you'd be surprised how little non-industrial CA wine makes it to NY)
        2) Wines that are very expensive and I'd like to taste before investing in a full bottle

        I don't bother going to places like Gallo, Kendall Jackson, etc, since I can drink those anytime anywhere (and would rather not anyway!)

        I'd say at the very least plan out what areas you'll be in every day. So pick an area, and then make one appointment there. In my experience, the best vineyards require appointments, but do leave some room for surprises. I've discovered some great little-known places by asking employees or fellow tasters at the tasting rooms I like what *they* recommend. You may also just drive by a place that looks nice and find some great wine.

        Also, make sure you leave time for breakfast and lunch breaks.

        2 Replies
        1. re: oolah

          i agree to skipping the big names, no desire for them. i like the idea of choosing one place to make an appointment and go from there. I have even heard that if you phone a vineyard as you are on your way they will take an appointment.

          are there any good resource books with maps/vineyards/contact/description that anyone is aware of?

        2. Actually, I'd recommend you look at some of the more wine centric boards like vinocellar.com and winodepot.com. Both have lots of posts from well informed wine nuts about their trips to the area, along with recommendations and trip reports.

          A lot of the advice I could give you would depend on what you are looking for. Do you want to tour a winery and see how the process works, meet with wine makers, get to see small operations, etc.

          I would second the advice that you not try to cram too much into each day. I'd also make sure to limit my visits to those wineries that make the stuff you can't get at home. However, if you are going to visit wineries for the experience, and not necessarily to buy wine, you might do well to visit some of the big boys like Beringer because they are set up to show you the whole operation. On the other hand, if there are certain wines you want to taste/visit, you should check to see if 1) they permit visitors (many of the smaller, high end or more famous wineries do not), and 2) whether they require that you make an appointment.

          I'd also caution that Sonoma especially, and Napa too, are large areas with narrow winding roads in many parts that take time to drive, and you certainly want to be sober when doing so.

          Sonoma, especially the Russian River Valley, is very good for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Napa is best for Cabernet. I'd also caution you that with visits and tastings, it is probably not a good idea to schedule more than 4 visits a day, especially if you are making appointments as those visits tend to be longer. You should also look at a map, there is quite a distance between the south end of Napa to the northern end. Trying to get from Acacia to Sterling for example, can be a very long drive.

          2 Replies
          1. re: dinwiddie

            thank you so much for the winodepot.com recommendation. I will be engrossed in this for the next few weeks!

            we actually debated hiring a car for one day, but husband insists that he will swirl & spit!

            1. re: cleopatra999

              You can still get a buzz after a number of swirls and spits.

            1. First, do not set your sights too high. I’d opt for quality, versus quantity. Choose some wineries, whose products you really love, but do not know enough about. Make reservations, and express your desires to the staff. I’d choose three per day, at the most, and stick to the schedule. If you have the strength and the desire, maybe do one more, as you drive past. Regarding driving, I always like to have a driver, either from my group, or a professional. Reach for too much, and you will not truly enjoy the trip. Reach for too little, and a stop at the Oakville Grocery for some picnic fare, plus a few bottles will fill your needs.

              Also, you might want to do some “practice,” prior to the trip. Set up a tasting per week with maybe 10 wines. See how you do. I always spit, when doing a trade tasting. OTOH, I do drink the great ones, and let the driver handle the task of getting me to the next stop. If you want to find the next wines to lay down in your cellar, spit. If you want to just have a great time, spit/dump the average, but drink the great ones.

              Most of all, be safe and enjoy,

              4 Replies
              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Tips from local wine-country girl...

                1. Always eat a hearty breakfast.

                2. Have some form of cooler (either a padded one with refreezable ice paks or a cheap styrofoam one you buy at a drugstore) in which you keep lots of cold water, other drinks, snacks,etc. Keep it in the car, and drink water after every winery stop.

                3. Have a plan for lunch before you set out. Get a restaurant reservation as far ahead as possible. Or call a gourmet deli in the area a day before and order sandwiches and deli salads that you can stop by and pick up. Confirm by phone the day of that you'll be stopping by and want everything packed up for you (napkins, utensils included) -- you just want to grab the bag and pay at the register. Waiting in line at the delis here can take forever, especially on a weekend.

                From my understanding, you'll be in in Sonoma more than Napa, so scout out where to go before you set out for the day. Don't leave this to chance once you're out on the back-country winery roads -- there are almost no grocery stores or restaurants on those roads, usually nothing more than vineyards and wineries. If you don't plan ahead, you can go far too long before you finally eat lunch -- and that's a bad thing -- getting too loaded, tired and unsafe is oftentimes the result. In Napa, Oakville Grocery is good as Hunt says; I prefer Sunshine Market. Sonoma County is very spread out, much larger than Napa Valley, so ask around what's nearby for lunch when talking to hotels or wineries. You can even picnic at some of the wineries, but you must purchase a bottle of wine. That's a lot of wine to consume, though, as part of a day of tasting. But you don't have to drink it all, of course.

                4. Always make a reservation at the winery. When you do, it seems that "special" wines have a greater likelihood of being opened and poured. You'll get more staff attention, and your tasting fee is sometimes waived. It means you're going to have to do some homework though -- read the reviews for Zin and Pinot wineries (once again, found on the SF Bay Aread board) and then check out the online maps to see which wineries are fairly close together.

                5. Don't get drunk, or loud or obnoxious. Drive safely, take breaks, stop the car and take in the stunning views.

                6. Have a way to take notes, or ask for a tasting sheet on which you can take notes.

                7. If you're interested in purchasing wine, you can have the winery ship it (if it can ship legally to your state -- find out before you go.). You can also buy styrofoam shippers that can be checked as luggage, or you can go to one of the many shipping stores in wine country that specialize in shipping wine.

                8. Get back to your hotel after wine-tasting in enough time to take a short nap and shower before heading out to dinner. The days can get too long and tiring if you don't.

                9. Learn to spit. Learn to spit with aplomb. Get the spit bucket right under your mouth and let the wine out. You'll get smashed otherwise.

                Don't mean to sound like your mother, but a little planning can make the day smooth as a baby's butt, rather than frantically trying to navigate, find food, and drive (unsafely) on unfamiliar, sometimes very twisting roads.

                Have a blast. You're about to embark upon one of my favorite activities.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I'm sure this is a stupid question, but having only been out about 3 times, I am not fully immersed in the ethics. Do the people in the tasting rooms ever get offended if you spit? I know it is common industry tasting practice, etc. - but nonetheless, if you are clearly just there for recreation, do they ever look askance at you for spitting, especially if you spit everything? I often will take a sip, then pour the rest out, and to be honest, even that sometimes makes me feel a little weird. Some places, it seems, also don't have the spit bucket as prominently displayed as others....

                  Also, esp if you are at a place that does not charge for tastings, is it considered poor etiquette not to buy something?

                  I am sure I am being oversensitive - but nonetheless, I know that many of these places (at least, the ones I try to focus on) are small businesses, and I know they aren't in the business of giving their product away just so people can have a good time. Still, I can think of 3-5 bottles, at least, that I have bought out of guilt, rather than out of genuine interest. Any thoughts on this?

                  I should add that I am still (barely) under 30 and probably look a little younger than that, so this always adds to the awkwardness of it. I suppose I get the feeling that if I don't buy something, they will think I am free-riding, when in fact, I would never visit a tasting room that sold wines that I can't afford.

                  1. re: jonasblank

                    >>Do the people in tasting rooms ever get offended if you spit?>>>

                    Never. You look like you know what you're doing when you do. More likely, they may look at you askance if you don't spit, or appear loaded. Ask for a spit bucket if you don't see one handy...usually the staff immediately apologizes that one is not out.

                    <<<Also, esp if you are at a place that does not charge for tastings, is it considered poor etiquette not to buy something?>>>

                    No. A tasting room never knows whether you like the wines or not (unless you indicate otherwise). Or, you may like the wines but they are too expensive for your budget, which you must respect. You are never obligated to buy wine, and if you feel guilty, please stop doing so. Some tasting rooms (I hate this type) really are interested in sales, sales, sales -- and will try to "guilt" you into buying wine. Don't let them. If pressed, you can always say that you haven't found what you're looking for, or that the quality/price ratio didn't work for you. "I love it but it's a little pricey for us," is often heard. No blame.

                    These are great questions. Most of the good tasting rooms never pressure you. They realize each person has a distinct palate and mouth chemistry, and a budget for purchasing wines, whatever that may be. Have fun, and don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Keep asking questions, and remember, the only stupid question is the one that isn't asked.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      I agree with Maria Lorraine (what's new?), and would like to add that when attending the tastings, I like to take an opaque plastic cup with me. I'll turn from the counter and quietly, and discreetly, spit into it. When the tasting is done, I can empty this cup into the "dump station." It's easier, than getting to the dump station in most cases, and also leaves the counter as free as is possible. Depending on the # of wines tasted, the amount of the pours, etc., I'll often use this cup (about 16oz.) to pour out any excess wine from my glass, being careful to not exceed its capacity, before forging to the dump station.

                      As for the commercial aspect of the wineries, I'm glad that you noticed that. Too many do not. Yes, they are in the business of selling the wine that they produce and, hopefully, at a profit. However, well thoughtout questions on their operations, their wines, their vineyards go just as far as a "guilt" bottle, in most cases. Since I'm in AZ, I always inquire as to their shipping to my state. If I have driven, I'll purchase and fill the empty styro-shippers, that I have brought for that purpose. If I like the wines enough to buy, I'll have them shipped, either to my residence in AZ, or my locker in Napa, or inquire as to the distributor in AZ and any retail outlets. See, the wineries are in the business of selling wine, but sales AT the counter are not the biggest profit center, in most cases. I also join the "wine clubs" of any producer, whose product I fancy - provided that we can work out some shipping arrangement. Tasting rooms are really demo-sites, though many do offer wines, that are not sold through normal retail channels.

                      The main concepts of individuals doing tastings are: 1.) learn about the wines/wineries, 2.) experience wines that are unknown and 3.) to enjoy one's self safely - recreation. I'm always trying to do all of these, unless I'm there as a consultant for an outside agency, then the recreation is kept to a minimum, though I still gain enjoyment from #'s 1 & 2.

                      As has been said, enjoy yourself,

              2. This is SO dependant upon personality. But personally, I like to make 3 appointments per day, and if I have extra time, I may stop by an open-to-the-public place or two in between the scheduled appointments.

                The exception to this rule is the Russian River Valley where I would consider a stop to Hartford or Martinelli and 'appointment' inasmuch as I think those are basically manditory stops. However, you do not NEED an appointment for either of those wineries, but as maria said, if you get one, you'll probably get better wines poured for you.

                Also, rember...

                Drink LOTS of water, take loafs of bread with you, and SPIT! BE SAFE!!! :-)