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Visiting vineyards

Part of the attraction of wine is that it is not only a drink, but also an expression of a region’s culture and the local environment of the vineyard in which it was produced. As a consequence, many people—not just wine buffs—find the prospect of visiting vineyards appealing, but some are put off because they don’t know what to expect or how to go about it, or they simply feel that they don’t know enough about wine. Drawing on my experiences of visiting vineyards in California, Australia and Europe, here I will try to answer some commonly asked questions on this topic.

Which regions should I visit?
First of all, choose a region whose wines you are really keen on, or keen to find out more about. Second, it really helps to visit somewhere where you can speak the same language as the proprietor or cellar door sales staff. It is not, of course, essential, but don't expect small producers in rural France, for example, to speak any English. Third, bear in mind that some producers are more used or more geared up to receiving visitors than others. Mid- to large-sized Australian and Californian producers will almost always have a tasting room, shop and visitors centre (or some combination of these) where there are staff dediacted to receiving visitors. The same is true for many larger sized European operations these days. This makes visiting easy. But in many traditional European regions, visiting a smaller producer will require an appointment, and the proprietor will have to take time out of their schedule to see you. This is a whole different ball game: potentially more rewarding, but only for the very keen and adventurous. Fourthly, the most famous producers in Burgundy and Bordeaux have no trouble selling out all their wine on release, and so don't expect them to be to eager to meet casual visitors and pour their wines for you. For this reason, often the most rewarding visits are to the less famed but trying-harder tier of producers. For all these reasons, I'd recommend first time vineyard visitors to choose regions such as Sonoma (California, USA) or the Barossa or Hunter Valleys (Australia) for their first experience of vineyard visiting. And I would choose the mid-sized wineries, in preference to the very large or small.

What should I expect at the winery?
In a Californian or Australian tasting room, it should be pretty straightforward. There will be a list of wines available for tasting, and sometimes there may be a small charge (I'm not opposed to this practice: it dissuades people who aren't really interested in the wine, and takes away any moral compulsion people may feel to buy wine even if they don't like it). It is quite acceptable to taste through the range. It is sensible to spit if you intend to visit more than a couple of wineries on the same day. Feel free to ask the staff any questions you have, and it may also be possible to take a wander through the vineyard if it is conveniently situated. In France, these sort of visitor facilities are less common, but at many larger producers the same sort of procedure may be adhered to. At the smaller producers, you are likely to be the only customers, and there may just be a couple of wines for tasting.

Do I have to buy anything?
In more modern wineries, the tasting room is seen both as a PR excersise as well as a sales pitch. It is generally acceptable to taste and not to buy. The staff are pleased if you display a genuine interest in the wines, but not distraught if you don't purchase. In France, things are less clear. The tasting is most often seen as a prelude to a sale. I have always followed the policy of buying something every time, whatever I thought of the wine, with just one exception: a nameless domain in Chateauneuf du Pape who charged a tasting fee of 10ff for a measly pour of just one mediocre wine. Many French producers are friendly and welcoming, but some are just plain rude! I have also been in the position where new bottles were opened just for me when I requested a tasting: in this position I'd feel very uncomfortable not buying anything. Bear in mind that if you are visiting domaines in the summer you will have to take precautions to avoid letting your wines become baked on their journey home. The temperature inside a car during summer rapidly exceeds wine-killing levels. 

How do I get the best reception at a winery?
Be genuine, polite and take an interest in the produce of the vineyard. I would also advise against visiting during busy hours, such as weekend afternoons: even with the best will in the world, the staff are unlikely to be able to give you the time or service you deserve when they have 50 other people clamouring for service. And don't forget that in France and many other European countries, lunch time (usually 12-2 pm) is sacred. Although the idea of taking a coach tour through a wine region can seem appealing, I would personally advise against it, unless you are sure that your fellow passengers share the same interest in wine that you do. You'll tend to just visit the bigger wineries, and I'm sure cellar door staff must groan at the sight of another bus load of tanked up tourists coming through their doors.

Enjoy your trip!