How to Plan the Ultimate Wine Road Trip

How do you turn a wine tasting tour into the ultimate road trip?
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Wine tourism has grown exponentially in the United States since the 1970s. Before then, Americans didn't drink too much wine, and the country was certainly not known for producing quality wine compared to other countries like France, Italy and Spain. But the reputation of the United States (and California in particular) has risen over the past few decades as a contender in the international scene of wine producers. And the prospect of scenic agrarian landscapes, charming wineries and exquisite wine tasting has prompted more and more tourists to hit the road to explore the country's wine regions.

Making wine is a multifaceted process, involving growing, harvesting and crushing grapes, fermentation, filtering and blending, and bottling and storing. Many wineries often have their own vineyards where they grow and harvest grapes, but some simply choose to buy grapes from other growers. Besides the allure of going straight to the source to try particular wines, another attraction that brings tourists flocking to wineries is the chance to tour the facilities and learn about a particular wine-making process.

Of course, because multiple wineries are often clustered around the best wine-making regions, and few tourists are satisfied with one visit after a long drive, it makes sense to make a day of it -- or even multiple days. But the best wine road trips involve some planning.

The first and most important step, of course, is to pick a wine-making region appropriate for your trip. And you might be surprised to find that a good wine country is nearer to you than you think. Although California, replete with well-known wine regions like Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Mendocino, has the most popular wine tourism destinations, some regions in other states are worth considering, too. Some examples are the Walla Walla and Columbia valleys in Washington state, or the Willamette and Columbia valleys of Oregon. New York even has very respected wineries centered in the Hudson River Valley and Finger Lakes area. Wine producing regions of Virginia, Colorado and Texas are also worth visiting.

So, if you live far from California, and you're interested in trying what other regions have to offer, look for a wine country near you. And if you have a favorite wine, like merlot or zinfandel, look for regions that specialize in that.

Tips for Planning Wine Road Trips

Once you have a wine region in mind, the next steps are the logistics. You don't want to wait until you're on the road to plan which wineries you'd like to visit and risk wasting part of the day with excessive driving. You may want to plan to visit a string of wineries that are close together to save time, or opt for one that specializes in your favorite type of wine. Of course, since you'll be exploring an unfamiliar area, be sure to equip yourself with a GPS or a set of maps. Most wine regions have tourism Web sites and pamphlets that provide information on wineries and their locations.

You may also want to plan which wineries to visit based on their hours and tour schedules. It's always smart to call a winery ahead of time to confirm these details. Some are only open seasonally, and others may offer tours on certain days. Speaking of tours, you may not want to plan on taking one at every winery you visit. Some people find it monotonous, as the tours might end up seeming increasingly repetitive.

Don't overextend yourself and plan to visit so many wineries in one day that you rush your way through them. Plan enough time at each winery for the tasting, as well as a tour if you want to take one. Most important, make sure to schedule time for eating. The last thing you should do is drink all day on an empty stomach. Wine is meant to pair with food, anyway. You may want to research local restaurants on your route, but many wine tourists choose to pack a a picnic to enjoy in the scenic countryside.

Although wineries are usually clustered in rural areas and require a road trip, the drawback is obviously the problem of drinking and driving. Some groups choose to charter a bus or limo to shuttle them to the different wineries. Otherwise, you'll have to bring a designated driver. That doesn't mean the driver can't have any fun, though. Wineries provide receptacles for those who want to spit out their wine after tasting it. In fact, wine connoisseurs often do this so they can keep their wits while they test several wines other the course of a single day.

Overall, the ultimate wine road trip should be relaxing, fun and educational.

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  • Hall, Colin Michael, et al. "Wine Tourism Around the World." Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002. (July 11, 2011)
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