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Wine Country Travel for Novices

GoGirlfriend guide to your dream wine vacation

Thank you to Grethchen Roberts for contributing this post to GoGirlfriend. We’re a community-based travel blog and we welcome submissions from everyone. Whether you’re a budget-baller or a first class only kinda traveler, we’d love to hear from you. Visit our Writer’s Guidelines and learn how you can share your travel advice, stories and adventures!

Looking for a really great bottle of wine to go with your weekend getaway? What's that? Not sure which wine country to visit? Lucky for us, Gretchen Roberts, contributor to Wine Enthusiast has offered to help us plan a wine country getaway.

Just in case you're not in the know, she's a superstar in the wine world. Her motto, when it comes to wine is Wine Country GetawaysWine Country Getaways"variety is the spice of life." And she maintains she doesn't have a favorite because picking just one is like being asked with of her children she loves most. We love her already...

GG Staff: If you're a wine-aficionado-wanna-be, how do you decide which wine region to visit?

Gretchen: If you're not sure which region to visit, I'd recommend one of these tactics.

Choose a destination based on your favorite grape. If you love Pinot Noir, head to Burgundy, Oregon's Willamette Valley, or the Santa Barbara area of California; if Sauvignon Blanc is your wine of choice, go to the Loire in France or to New Zealand.

Head to a classic wine region so you can learn the basics-a "Wine 101" sort of trip. That means Napa, Sonoma, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Champagne, etc.

Choose a region that offers a lot of variety in the wines they make. I'm a fan of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, which is a mainstream-but-not-overcrowded wine destination. Healdsburg is at the intersection of the Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, and Russian River Valley, which means you get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of types and styles of wine to taste. Another great region for a variety of wines and styles is the Columbia Valley in Washington, which produces wines made with many of the classic grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah.

GG Staff: Are there off-the-beaten-path wine regions worth considering?

Gretchen: The great thing about wine travel is that a region may be off the beaten path for you, even if it isn't off the beaten path per se. The key here is to avoid the usual destinations and go somewhere different for you. Maybe you're really digging Spanish wines-there's a whole new world of exploration in Catalonia and Rioja, for example.

For more general "off the beaten path" recommendations, try Oregon, where Napa-style lavish tasting centers and massive crowds haven't taken over Wine Country TravelWine Country Travel(yet). Many winemaking operations are small, working out of makeshift buildings, even garages, and the authenticity and passion and accessibility of the winemakers is there if that's what you're looking for. The Oregon Wine Board can get you started.

South American tours, such as in Chile, are fun because you can combine wine tasting with other experiences like hiking in the Andes or checking out San Francisco's twin city in the southern hemisphere, Valparaiso. Start a search at Wines of Chile.

Finally, try a wine tour in England, where the southern counties are coming into their own with award-winning sparkling wines made in the style of Champagne. Order a free map of the UK vineyards English Wine Producers.

GG Staff: Wine regions aren't exactly famous for affordability. If you're on a budget, is there one thing you'd skimp on to splurge somewhere else?

Gretchen: I'd absolutely recommend scrimping on everything you can and blowing your whole budget on restaurants you wouldn't normally go to, paying for premium wine tastings in the tasting rooms you visit, Fabulous Food in NYCand buying bottles of whatever you love to take home. That last tip is the most important, because if you don't pick up at least a bottle of something you love, I guarantee you'll regret it when you get back. Sleep somewhere inexpensive, forgo shopping, and focus on the food and wine experience, which is why you're there.

GG Staff: Any truth to these myths?

Wine is cheaper at the vineyard/winery than it will be at home.

Gretchen: This is often true, especially if the winery offers a bulk buying discount, but if you're shipping the wine back home you have to factor in those costs.

GG Staff: You'll find a better selection at the vineyard/winery so buy when you're there.

Gretchen: Very true-often you will taste wines while in wine country that you'll never find back home, so I absolutely encourage you to plunk money down for whatever you like; you may never get it again. Some wineries offer tastings of their "library" wines-those wines they've saved from previous vintages instead of selling out-and these are always fun to try, like drinking a little piece of history.

GG Staff: Always swirl before you sip.

Gretchen: No; many people who go wine tasting don't know the first thing about the "proper" way of doing it. If you're not up to speed, don't worry about it-just do your own thing, or ask the person pouring your wine for help. People in the wine business are generally friendly and helpful, not snobby. They love what they do and are eager to teach others.

GG Staff: Not spitting out your wine is considered gauche.

Gretchen: It's perfectly acceptable to savor every taste and not spit, but you won't be able to visit many wineries that way because, to put it not-so-delicately, you'll be drunk! There are basically two approaches to taking on wine country. You can be really serious about it, scheduling visits to lots of wineries, and spitting so you can taste plenty of wines and buy some to bring home. Or, you can be more casual, stop

in wherever you'd like, sip without spitting, and quit when you've had enough. Even if you choose the second, more casual approach, I do recommend dumping wines you don't like into the spittoon. Life is short, so why waste it on a bad wine?

GG Staff: If you're planning a weekend getaway, how many wineries can you hope to visit?

Gretchen: That depends on whether you're sipping or spitting, as I mentioned above. But seriously, if your idea is to get to as many wineries as possible with the view of stocking your cellar back home, then the sky (and your exhaustion level) is the limit. Realistically, if you're in wine country to have fun, relax, taste some wine, and go home with great memories, then five to eight wineries each day is plenty, and maybe even too much. Stay flexible and don't overdo it, or you'll look back on your dream wine vacation and only remember the exhaustion.

GG Staff: Should you look for anything in particular when deciding which wineries to visit?

Gretchen: When you're staring at a map of wineries, it's tempting to pick out the big names-the brands you see in the grocery store and are familiar with-and stick to them because they're safe. I urge you to seek out smaller and less-known producers as well. It's hard to know where to go when you don't recognize any of the names, but if you think of it as a scavenger hunt, an adventure, you'll love it. Pick one or two wineries you know you want to visit, and let the rest unfold. Keep it flexible, stop into out-of-the-way places, and surprise yourself.

GG Staff: Is there a perfect time of year to do a wine country getaway?

Gretchen: Winter is a great time to go because it's the off season, hotels are less expensive, wineries are less crowded, and you may even run into the winemaker or owner since he or she isn't slammed with work. But the most exciting time to go is during crush in the fall. Crush is another name for the harvest (when the grapes are crushed), usually around mid-September in the Northern Hemisphere and mid-March in the Southern Hemisphere, but it really depends on the region, so do your homework.

During crush, the leaves on the vines are beginning to turn beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow; wineries are in full swing with production; many wineries offer barrel tastings and tours of the harvest in action, and lots and lots of people are around. If you love excitement, crush is for you; if you love solitude, try a winter getaway.

GG Staff: Any other suggestions for planning the perfect wine-soaked getaway?

Gretchen: A couple of tips:

Don't focus on free tastings just to save $5 or $10. The premium tastings will open your palate up to some fantastic wines that are great examples of the vintage varietal, and region. You may not end up buying them, but you'll be glad to have tried them.

Plan time to exercise. All that wining and dining will make you sluggish if you don't get out and do some walking or running.

Take notes while you taste, or all the wines will blur into each other, even if you have a brain like a file cabinet and never forget a face. Trust me.

My best advice is to enjoy yourself. Wine country is beautiful, romantic, and seductive. I don't know a single person who hasn't gone to wine country and thought, "I could do this full time." Wine puts the "dream" in "dream vacation."

Gretchen Roberts writes about wine for magazines like Wine Enthusiast, Cooking Light, Relish, and others. Leave a comment for her below or contact her through her website.

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Really nice blog. I visit many wineries as part of my job, i travel the world tasting many different wines. It is a really nice job. I agree albetech the us has a lot to offer.

This is just an amazing post. With all that one needs to know while travelling to a wine country. The tips and the interview is of great help. BTU sure that we would have to plan the trip well ahead to enjoy it to the best as explained. Regards.

The largest wine region in the Eastern United States is Finger Lakes Wine Country. The region is home to more than 100 wineries, world-class museums like The Corning Museum of Glass, and spectacular naturaly beauty disocvered around every corner. The region is leading with aromatic white wines, especially Riesling, though some very good reds, including Cabernet Franc and Lemberger are emerging. July 19 - 20 is the Finger Lakes Wine Festival, the largest wine festival in New York with over 500 wines from 90 wineries. Music and culinary experiences too! With high airline prices, forget about flying west or going to Europe this year. Finger Lakes Wine Country is lcoated within a 6 hour drive of every major East coast city. The region is affordable from its wines, lodging, and to the restaurants. Visit www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com for complete infomration.

Love this post - Thank you for sharing your tricks of the trade - I agree with the person who commented on France - I just returned from the Loire Valley and you do need to do your homework ahead of time and make appts. The wine in the region is very good and the scenery is to die for. There is no other place I can think of where can you taste wine in caves or in such amazing chateaux. Oregon is great as well - Just tasted the wines from Evergreen VIneyard - Spruce Goose: The Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are fantastic. Looking forward to coming back for more tips and insight. Cheers Cathy

For independent wine travel in France and the rest of Europe I would emphasize that planning your trip is really important as you can't always find the best wineries simply by just cruising around. Regional brochures and websites are getting better and better, but there is so much choice out there! For on-line travel guides to wine country winetravelguides.com has 46 guides to French wine regions, and in the future there will be guides to other European wine regions and beyond. All the guides are written by top wine and travel writers with no advertising/sponsorship so it is a subscription site. The careful selections of recommended wine producers, restaurants and much more make it easier to plan your trip. Note that apart from in Champagne and Bordeaux, tastings are mostly free in France and other European countries, so you need to pick out the good places carefully. Also, not only will you be treated better but you will also be more likely to find someone at home (these are often small family-owned wineries) if you make an advance appointment. Thanks for a great article and interview.

For those of you who live in the northeast US the Finger Lakes in upstate NY makes a great wine tasting vacation. Fantastic wines, spectacular scenery (the lakes themselves are lovely), and a gentle summertime climate. FYI, the area is becoming a world class producer of Rieslings. For info about who makes the better Rieslings in the area visit Winesny.com. Print it out and take it with you.

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