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The novice’s guide to planning a wine country getaway

Choosing a wine region from among the many options around the U.S. is the first step to planning a wine country vacation. Then it becomes a simple matter of determining your budget, choosing wineries, and deciding how to get around while you’re there.

Decide on your wine country
Determine your budget
Choose wineries
Figure out how to get around

Decide on your wine country

Gone are the days when the term “wine country” could be fairly safely associated with a few regions in the U.S. These days, almost every state has at least a handful of wineries. Yes, even Alaska, though the wines there derive from wild berries and flowers. Certain regions still dominate the public imagination, but across the U.S., smaller growing regions are bringing wine culture closer than ever before.

There’s no single way to decide which wine country to visit. Any one region may be the right choice because it’s within driving distance, it’s near someplace you’ve always wanted to go, or it’s close to a destination you’re already planning on visiting. It could also be a region that specializes in a type of wine you enjoy. A few of the other reasons that wine countries offer extra visitor appeal include attractions and activities, famous restaurants, and renowned architecture.

Along with the where comes the when. Spring, summer, and fall tend to be the busiest seasons, while winter is the quietest. In most regions, summer, when the vines are lush and the weather is perfect for picnicking, attracts the most visitors. Fall brings the harvest and the crush, and is the time when many wineries offer ways to get a glimpse into the winemaking process. Winter, when the vines are bare, is generally the cheapest and least crowded time to visit, though wine countries with other points of interest tend to attract visitors year-round.

For help choosing a region, review the wine countries on a site such as Vino! Narrow the search by looking for information about a specific region on your preferred search engine. Get specifics by visiting the region’s site, or by finding a guidebook for the region.

Next>> Determine your budget

Determine your budget

Though wine countries will never win any awards for affordability, many of them do effectively cater to a variety of budgets. Motels in or near wine countries will be the least expensive, while B&Bs, hotels, inns, and resorts tend to be pricier. Midweek rates are generally cheaper than weekend prices. And, location does affect price. For instance, in California’s Sonoma, staying in quaint Glen Ellen is almost always going to be more expensive than staying outside of the heart of the wine region in the more workaday Santa Rosa, where visitors will have a wider price spectrum to choose from.

Many wine countries are located within an easy drive of major metropolitan areas. Long Island is close to New York City, Napa and Sonoma are about an hour from San Francisco, Willamette is an easy day trip from Portland, Temecula is within shouting distance of San Diego, and Hill Country is a short drive from both San Antonio and Austin. If you’re willing to head to the wine country for the day instead of overnight, you can take advantage of the broader accommodations pool that cities and their suburbs have to offer.

However, there are reasons to consider staying in the wine country you visit. There are often restaurants worth staying past dinner for, and evenings and mornings can be blissfully free of the day crowds. It’s also an excuse to wake up and breathe fresh country air.

Accommodations aren’t the only thing to factor into a budget. Upscale, award-winning dining is something that’s part of the allure in some wine countries. But along with the great restaurants come the mediocre ones that want to charge the same high prices. A little research can help to determine what’s likely to be worth the premium. And, knowing about the dining scene ahead of time can clue you into less-known, reasonably priced spots.

For some, there’s the risk that too many tastings will result in lowered spending inhibitions, which might then lead to purchasing a case of something at a price that will be regretted after the wine wears off. A simple way to avoid such indiscretions is to determine ahead of time what to spend on wine overall. Having a budget in mind can help ensure you buy only the wine you truly want.

Buying directly from the winery doesn’t generally mean spending less than you would at a store, unless you join a specific winery’s club that offers discounts. However, there are times when buying at the winery has significant benefits. Peter Marks, Director of Wine at Copia, the American Center for Wine Food & the Arts in Napa, notes that sometimes wineries have an oversupply of a certain wine, and will offer discounts of 40 or 50 percent in order to make room for new vintages. Wineries are also the only place to purchase smaller production lots, often reserve or experimental wine batches that can be great unique wines.

Next>> Choose wineries

Choose wineries

There are two easy ways to get an overview of a region’s wineries. Wine countries are well represented online, and most of the winery information you’ll need should be fairly easy to find in a search that uses the region name and the term “wine country.” Additionally, there are guide books about many of the wine countries in the U.S., and most of them offer overviews of wineries open to the public.

Choosing wineries to visit can be as simple as heading down the main roads and looking for the buildings next to the fields of grape vines. However, a little research beforehand can yield plenty more reasons to visit specific wineries.

If wine is the top priority, start by selecting wineries that make wines you already know and like, and also seek out wineries that make the types of wine that appeal to you. After you’ve chosen strictly on the wine, you can look for different winery types, places that offer tours or classes, and wineries that have a little extra something such as art collections or notable restaurants.

Though wineries are all based around the same concept, they vary tremendously. Some are tourist magnets that are open all the time, while others that cater to smaller audiences may require appointments. Some wineries offer free tastings, while others charge a fee. And, some are formal while others make a name on being laid-back. Selecting wineries that fit your style can make a huge difference in how much you enjoy the experience.

Another way to make a day of tasting more worthwhile is by selecting at least one winery where you can get beyond the basic tasting-room experience. Many wineries offer tours, private tastings, wine pairing seminars, or other classes that are available only by appointment. Copia’s Marks notes, “You can learn so much more by getting behind the scenes, and learning in small groups makes it less intimidating to ask questions.” Visit specific winery websites for information on how to check offerings and book tours and classes in advance.

Wineries have long been about more than just wine. In addition to tasting rooms, they may feature formidable art collections, innovative and unusual architecture, picnic areas, or destination restaurants. Choosing wineries that appeal to interests beyond wine can add more variety to a day of tasting.

For lists of wineries in a region with links to individual sites, type in the region name (or even the state name) with the search term “wine country” into your preferred search engine.

Most people can comfortably get to about four wineries, with a winery tour or two thrown in, in a day. It’s a good idea to mix and match activities to avoid burnout.

Next>> Figure out how to get around

Figure out how to get around

If wine tasting is to be the focus of a wine country vacation, it’s important to decide how to get from winery to winery. Bicycle tours are popular in wine countries such as Napa Valley, but in places where large hills stand between you and the next tasting room, or where wineries aren’t clustered as tightly together, cycling is a less-than-ideal option.

The simplest option may be to select a non-drinker to drive the group around. Designated drivers don’t have to be totally left out of the wine tasting fun, as most wineries provide spit buckets for those who want to taste but not drink.

Couples or groups who want to participate equally in the wine tasting experience can look into shuttle and private car services. Services vary widely among regions, though most offer at the very least some way of getting from a starting point such as a hotel to a number of wineries and back without ever having to get behind the wheel.

Shuttles are generally the cheapest option. They commonly pick up from hotels in an area and bring groups around to predetermined wineries. The driver often acts as a tour guide, offering bits of information along the way. Depending on the duration, shuttle circuits will often include a lunch stop at a restaurant. Shuttles are well-suited for those who don’t want to drive themselves, don’t want to spend too much money, and don’t mind not controlling the itinerary.

People who do want to visit specific wineries or restaurants over the course of a day, and who don’t mind spending a little more, may be better served by private car. The other major benefit over shuttle service is that the passengers, not the itinerary, determine the time spent at each winery.

Though it’s not available in all wine countries, some regions offer unusual vehicle service. For instance, in both Long Island, New York, and Sonoma, California, groups can charter a street-ready cable car. Santa Barbara County has jeep tours, and in Napa, classic luxury cars are available for service.

The two best ways to find transportation in the wine country you plan to visit are to look on the region’s website, or to type the wine region name plus a search term such as “shuttle,” “tours,” “transportation,” or “private car” into your preferred search engine.

However you decide to get around, make sure the wine you buy gets the proper care. Leaving wine in a hot car can ruin it, so on hot days either bring along a cooler to keep in the trunk or be certain the service you use has some way to keep your newly purchased wines from overheating.

Wine regions offer the sensory delights of the country and the sophistication of the city. A bit of simple planning makes it easier to get the most out of a getaway, one that everyone from the novice to the expert can enjoy.

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