We all have those friends. The ones who go off on a wine trip to some obscure winery in California and return with tales of glory: huddling in a drafty barrel room while a grape-stained vintner dips a siphon into a puncheon, doling out a few precious drips of next year’s release that nobody else has tasted yet. Or the spontaneous vineyard tour where perfectly ripened Syrah grapes are sampled right off the vine. Or how an unlikely kindred spirit in a tasting room begets the appearance of a rare bottle from the library to be enjoyed with new friends…on the house of course.
Want to be those friends? Want a meaningful wine experience where you can really get a sense of place and time? There is a map for this.
FIND THE WINE REGION LESS TRAVELED.
Everyone knows there are world class wines are produced in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but competing with wine-fan filled limos for a tiny piece of real estate at the tasting bar, and spending $100 per flight for the privilege, might not be the intimate experience you are seeking. Instead of Napa Valley (or even Sonoma County), check out the Rhone style varietals on the west side of Paso Robles and then head over to Tin City in Templeton or the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc. In these less obvious locales, you will find mad scientists in warehouses and garages making everything from Pinot Gris to Petite Sirah. Like Pinot Noir? Spend a few days in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Zinfandel your thing? Head to the Sierra Foothills. What all of these regions have in common is a smaller, quieter, more personal experience waiting for you to enjoy. You will not be given the hard sell on a wine club. In fact, many of the producers you find will have such limited inventory that you will have to ask them nicely to get on the list.
FIND YOUR WINE STORY.
Whether it is the story of the land, the people, or the way the wine is produced, a great winery experience means a great story. Sure the story is meaningless if you don’t like what is in the glass. But there is plenty of great wine out there with great stories. Find the story that reaches you. You will know it when you find it. If you have time, the best thing you can do is head up to a region and just spend a few days exploring. Once you find one winery you connect with, ask the operators at the winery for other producers worth checking out. My favorite wineries are ones that I learned about from the winemakers themselves.
Go beyond the big wine websites for information. Each of the regions I mentioned has hub websites that describe the history of the region and include discussions of different wineries. There are also bloggers out there who dedicate themselves to writing about California sub-regions. Go down the search engine rabbit hole. Utilize social media. Go to your favorite local wine store and ask them to help steer you in a direction.
NOW SEND THE WINERY AN EMAIL OR GIVE THEM A CALL.
If they have tasting room hours, you can just show up. But depending on the time of year, a lot of the small producers sell out of wine. Get in touch. Explain how you have learned about them, how you are just in town for a short time and would like to stop by. Give a little backstory as to how you found them, what you found interesting. Keep in mind that post-harvest in mid to late fall is often a good time to go. This is when wineries are involved in the making of wine: punchdowns, pour overs, lees stirring and all that other fun wine nerd stuff.
YOU ARE GOING THERE TO LEARN. YOU DON’T NEED TO BE AN EXPERT.
The small winery experience is one of the best ways to learn about wine. There is no need to feel intimidated or insufficiently informed – that is what these experiences are for. When you find the right place they will be happy to talk you through it. Relax, enjoy, be curious and ask questions. Nobody knows “everything” about wine, it is an endless learning process. That is the fun part.
Wine is like anything else in life, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Spend your time, do some research, explore a small wine region, and at some point you will leave with the same great experiences your show-off wine friends always go on about.