Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wine Country Vacation - Bootcamp for Your Palate.

Every State in the USA make some type of wine. It may be from pineapples instead of grapes, but they all make something. A trip to your nearest wine country, or a trek to the well known spots in California (if you're not lucky enough to be a neighbor of Napa or Sonoma) Oregon, or Washington State can be a great way to learn a lot about wine, and a way to try a lot of different types of wine to expand your wine repertoire.

Pace Yourself & Have a DD
A rookie mistake on a wine tasting vacation in wine country is to go for quantity over quality. Once you visited your fifth or six winery of the day, your palate is going to get overwhelmed, and the intoxication level will be at a point where any more wine tasting will just be adding to tomorrow's hangover. On days reserved for wine tasting I like to start with a couple stops prior to lunch, followed by a leisurely meal, and then three more stops during the course of the afternoon. You can tackle another five or six the next day if you like, but pace yourself so you can enjoy and evaluate the wines you taste. Also, please make sure to always have a fully abstaining designated driver, because even if you spit out all you taste, you will get impacted by the alcohol. As a fun option, consider a wine tour where you leave the driving to others. We had one of our funnest wine country experiences when we toured Alexander Valley in the Sonoma area through a private tour.

Favorite Spots and Wineries in California. 
There is no lack of recommendations out there for wineries and areas to visit, but I wanted to share a few of my faves from those I've been lucky enough to visit.

If you decide to hit wine country in California, I wanted to share some of my favorite areas and wineries for you to consider.

Central California. I am a big fan of Sideways the movie, but even before the movie I was a big fan of Central California Wine Country. If you are looking for a wine experience just a few hours drive from LA, give it a try. Do not expect a clone of glamorous Napa Valley, as the towns here are small, and there are many more motels than hotels in the area. We tend to stay at the Marriott in Buellton, CA which is just a short drive from the quaint town of Solvang, CA. The Marriott is walking distance from the Hitching Post II (for those who've seen Sideways, this is the place where Maya works). Some of the best grilled steaks I've ever had, and they even make their own wine. Lots of great wineries in the area, but don't miss these:

  • Buttonwood. A working farm that makes spectacular and affordable wines. Great Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Qupe & Verdad.  In one tasting room you can sample some great wines from Qupe, especially their Syrah, along with wines from their Verdad line of wines where they are experimenting with traditional Spanish grapes. We bought a bottle of their Tempranillo and enjoyed it with dinner before seeing Book of Mormon at the Pantages in Hollywood, CA - it was really excellent.
  • Foxen. A nice selection of wine including single vineyard wines, and a casual laid-back attitude.  We visit here every chance we get.
  • Lompoc Wine Ghetto. This is actually a collection of tasting room in a more industrial location. I have not been here yet, but have heard great things and plan to visit on our next journey to the area.  With a lot of tasting rooms in one area it makes for easy access to try several wineries.

Sonoma. Sonoma is a bit more laid back than Napa, but home to fantastic wineries. If you are looking for more of a "small town" experience, then Sonoma is a great destination. It is super close to Napa, so consider staying in the Sonoma area (I recommend Healdsburg, CA) and take a day to drive to Napa wine country (near St. Helena or Yountville). Many, many good spots to visit - here are just a few:

  • Seghisio. This winery was the first we visited during our very first trip to Sonoma oh so many years ago. They make award winning Zinfandel and wine from Italian varieties like Sangiovese (the same grape as Chianti).  Some wines I like to try just because they sound cool - and Seghesio's Venom (from their Rattlesnake Hill vineyard) is one of those. At $50+, this will be a splurge wine, but it's on my list!
  • Hop Kiln.  This winery is a fun one to visit - it used to be a brewery. You may have seen their less expensive wines like Old Patch Red in your local wine shop, but their non-mass marketed wines are fun to try. They have also started a premium "HK" line of wines that I have yet to try, but these are also on my list!
  • Korbel. Korbel is a mass producer of sparkling wines, but they offer a great tour which shows you the process to make a good sparkling wine (the same method used in Champagne, France). Also there is a sparkling red wine (Korbel Rouge) available only at the winery. At less than $15 it is worth a try and makes a great Thanksgiving Dinner wine.

Napa Valley. Not much has to be said about Napa. Home to some of the most expensive wines in the USA ($750 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon anyone???). Lots of great wineries, with stellar Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (not all super expensive), and great tours. If you get the chance, take the Opus One tour - it shows the labor intensive process they use to make their wine, and gives you some idea why their wines are so expensive.  I recommend staying in Calistoga or Yountville, as St. Helena is a constant traffic jam. Try some of these destinations, you will not be disappointed!
Darioush Winery

  • Darioush. A beautiful winery with outstanding wines. They make my favorite Syrah (they call it Shiraz, as the family that owns the winery is Persian, and "Shiraz" is actually a city in Iran). Their Cabernet Sauvignon is also excellent. For a special occasion consider one of their wine tasting dinners.
  • Goosecross. Great wines only available through the winery. They also make great gifts including chocolate covered wine bottles...I KNOW - RIGHT!!!
  • V. Sattui. I have never seen a bigger selection of grape varieties than at this winery - and they are all only available at the winery. A great chance to taste a lot of different wines, and they also have a great cheese shop.
  • Chateau Potelle.  I really enjoy every Chateau Potelle wine I've ever had.  Great Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and even dessert wines. Most recently I was able to try their Petite Sirah (no relation to Syrah - a whole different grapey animal!) - outstanding fruit bomb! Their new labels and marketing accentuate their "VGS" designation of their wines. Legend has it this means "Very Good Shit" - and if it doesn't it should!
Chocolate Dipped Wine Bottle - Goosecross

I also need to steer you away from one wine spot in CA that I've visited, but was very disappointed - Temecula (near San Diego). I have not been there for about seven years, so obviously things may have changed, but for your vacation dollar I will point you to spots where the wine is famous on its own based on quality and diversity - and you just don't hear much about Temecula wine outside of their marketing efforts. If you've had a good experience in Temecula, let us know - maybe I just didn't visit the right spots.

Please share your favorite wine country destinations with us, or let me know if you have any questions or want any other recommendations. You can leave a comment or drop me an email.

I love wine and vacations, so spending leisure time in a beautiful wine region is the best of all worlds for me! If you're an aspiring wino - I think you'll have a great time as well.

Intrigued? Here's some ideas on other must see/must do things in California Wine Country:
50 Things to do in Wine Country Before you Die.

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