Planning your trip to wine country

50thIt’s that time of year again! The time when Google searches, dog-eared Wine Trails magazines, and copies of John Schreiner’s tour books start occupying all of your reading time in anticipation of your trip to the Okanagan this summer. Where are you going to stay? What are you going to do? Which wineries will you visit this year?

It’s almost as fun to plan a wine country vacation as it is to take a wine country vacation. Some people can plan things down to the minute while others enjoy following their nose to find places. It’s all in hope of finding your next favourite wine, tasting room, or experience. Sometimes it’s fun to revisit places you’ve been before. It all adds up to a lot of fun and based on the number of people that are landing on my Big List of BC Wineries these days, I hope that I can be of some help when it comes to figuring out where you want to go.

So as I work on updating the list to include the most current new and soon-to-be-open wineries in the wonderful wine regions of BC, I will let you in on some locally known tips and advice about wine touring from professional wine groupies like myself to help you get the most out of your excursions. Along with a previous post about Wine Touring Secrets, this should give you a good start if you’ve never been to wine country before or if you’re looking for new ideas. There’s a lot to see, especially in the Okanagan Valley, which leads me to tip #1…

Tip #1 – You aren’t going to see it all in one week, so don’t try.

I’ve lived here almost 8 years and there are still a handful of places that I haven’t been yet. There are too many wineries with too many wines that it would be nearly impossible to get through them all. I’ve been to a lot of wineries for interviews for writing stories, blog posts, and podcasts along with regular wine tastings. I’ve seen some people completely haggled from trying to cram in too many stops on their journey. While it’s nice to cover lots of ground, there’s very little chance that they are able to appreciate all of the experiences at each place. Plus, palate fatigue can really set it making everything taste a little more neutral than it otherwise would and you might miss out on something spectacular. From my own personal experience, I know that on a good day I can hit about 6 wineries before it all starts to taste like mush. 2 wineries in the morning, lunch, 2 wineries, snack, 2 more wineries, dinner. I’ve done days that are longer but it becomes a slog and that’s not what wine touring should feel like.

If you have never planned a day at the wineries, I suggest you plan to visit 3 to 4 wineries on each day that you allocate to wine touring. Start at a winery in the morning, have lunch somewhere (or stop at a winery that has a restaurant), and then two more wineries. Call it a day in the late afternoon and head to the pool or beach before dinner. It takes away the slog factor and you won’t feel burned out after one day.

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Tip #2 – There’s more to taste than just wine.

OMG, did you see what I just wrote up there?? Holy #$%^ I don’t think that’s ever been written on a wine blog before! But I wrote it because there are other fine beverages available for tasting in most regions of BC now. The Okanagan has many other beverage manufacturers including breweries, cideries, and craft distilleries and are as uniquely interesting and worth a stop as any of the wineries out there. Plus it is a great way to refresh your palate mid-tour and get you back in the game for more wineries later on. If you really want to go for a full day and cram in as many wineries as possible, this is probably the best thing to do to keep your palate fresh. I’ve done it a few times and it works great. Check out my list of other fine beverage makers in BC (which I am also in the process of updating). The Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley are both starting to see more of these places appearing on the maps. Plan a little detour and check them out.

Tip #3 – Have someone drive you

This should go without saying that driving yourself to multiple wine tastings is a bad idea. Even pros like myself that spit everything can find that wine can have an effect on you and possibly make driving unsafe. From my experience, tasting wine all afternoon makes me hungry. If I forgot to bring snacks or if there is no food stops for a little while, I’m essentially a driver that is distracted by my tummy rumbling when I should be fully alert and concentrating on driving safely. If, like 95% of wine tourists that I have seen, you drink all of the wines that are offered to you, the alcohol can add up quickly. All winery staff are trained through the Serving It Right program to observe customers and we can often tell how “far along” you are before your tasting even begins. Think that winery always pours skimpy amounts of wine? Most tasting bar staff will short-pour for people that are beginning to show signs of the happy-hoopla.

The alternative is to get on with a professional wine tour company that will drive you around. There are tons of options now available for this so check out travel websites to find one that suits what you are looking for.

If you are going to be driving your group around, have someone navigate for you – preferably someone who is actually good at navigating. Valley and island roads are not an obvious urban grid and even the best quality GPS’s give ludicrous route suggestions. Some towns here also have a strange habit of changing their street names every 20 years. Forget the electronic and go with the Wine Route markers along the highway. They are (shockingly) updated quite quickly and often more current than the maps

Tip #4 – Large groups have different experiences

It all depends on what your expectations are but from my own experience as a tourist and as a tasting bar staff member, large groups (more than 6 people) have a wildly different experiences than smaller groups. If having a good time with a lot of friends is what you want to get out of spending the day at wineries, then touring in a large group is going to be fun for you. But if you are really interested in learning about the finer details of the wines, the winery’s story, and maybe more about the region itself, stay on your own in a small group of 2-4 people. You will be able to ask questions a lot easier and wine shop staff will be able to converse with you more directly than having to project the answer to a larger group of people, all of whom (from my experience) will have varying degrees of “give-a-shit” when it comes to actually listening to the answer or adding their own “smart” comments.

While there are some wineries in BC that can handle large groups, many can’t cope as easily. Sometimes it’s a space issue, sometimes staffing, and sometimes it’s a winery that is just too darn popular and gets overrun easily. Wineries that have the extra space will sometimes bring groups into another room away from the main tasting bar area so that they can focus on the group without distracting other people in the wine shop. This is a good thing for both the large group (who are getting special treatment in a way) and the other patrons in the main tasting bar.

Groups get goofier as the day progresses so little can be experienced in that situation. Wine shop staff know this and most inwardly groan at the mere site of a large group because they know that they will have to work very hard but won’t be able to actually sell very much. Many wine shop staff have trouble with groups because it requires a lot of extra energy to keep a group’s attention focused on what they are saying. Using the same sales pitch as a small group on a large group doesn’t work either and so a good staff member will have to tailor their spiel to suite the group.

When I worked in winery tasting rooms, I actually enjoyed presenting to groups because I found it fun, challenging, and was a change of pace from the rest of my day. I was comfortable with improvising so I rarely said the same things twice. I’m sure it also helped that I can be loud when I need to. However I recognized that the experience that the groups were getting was far different from the ones that a twosome would get. At one winery I remember a couple that had been part of a group came back the next day and did another complete tasting. They really enjoyed the wines and wanted to try it but without their friends in the large group. I conducted both tastings and it was completely different because I could answer their questions directly and clearly without the extra distractions.

Tip #5 -You will buy more than you planned

Especially if you hit a series of wineries with especially well-trained tasting bar staff who can really chat up the wine. Wine touring is weird that way because, if you think about it, you are essentially travelling from sales pitch to sales pitch. Imagine cruising down the potato chip aisle at the supermarket with a person representing each potato chip maker there lined up with their portfolio of chips ready for you to taste. It’s a little bit weird if you think about it but wine touring is essentially like that. What other industry relies on product tasting before purchase?

Ok, stop thinking about it.

The point is that you will probably try a wine that you didn’t expect to like, fall in love with it, and buy half a case. You only had two spaces left in the case of wine in your car when you went in but there you are buying more. It happens and it’s not a bad thing at all. (Although you should control your finances – Wine Country BC does not assume any liability for indebtedness incurred by or related to extraneous wine purchases made under the advice of the tips hitherto presented.) It’s what makes wine touring that much more interesting because I guarantee that you will remember your trip each time you open one those bottles.

Tip #6 – Put the phone away

The best way to experience something is not to hold up your phone right in front of it. Contrary to what you would imagine, it’s the older generation that seems to be more distracted by playing with their phones at a wine tasting. Rarely have I seen anyone under 30 not be fully attentive at a tasting bar because they are texting, Faceplanting, or Tweetgramming. Of course if there is something interesting that you like to have a picture of, go for it. There is absolutely no shortage of stunning imagery in wine country. For whatever reason, vineyards are rarely planted in ugly places so capture those memories. But please don’t forget to fully experience standing at the top of the vineyard with no sound except the wind blowing the vine leaves or the woody and fruity smell of a barrel room. These things can’t be stuffed into a phone or camera and I can guarantee that you will be missing out.

Tip #7 – Have fun

Visiting wineries should be fun. If you aren’t having fun at a winery, then leave. It’s as simple as that. There are plenty of wineries out there and you are under no obligation to buy anything. If you aren’t having a good time, then you aren’t going to enjoy their wine and I would even go farther and say that you will never enjoy their wines again. I’ve had bad experiences with a small number of wineries and to be honest, it’s hard for me to enjoy anything produced by those wineries. It’s probably a psychological association but it happens all of the time. That’s why it is so important for wineries to do everything that they can to make sure that their customers enjoy their experience. It’s also up to customers to keep their expectations within the realms of reality and not make silly demands. Unless you already know someone at the winery, demanding a private barrel room tasting with the wine maker for free is not going to get you the status and respect that you are craving.

Customers should enjoy what the winery is offering you and if you don’t enjoy it, move on to one that you do enjoy. Thankfully, not all wineries are the same otherwise it would be a very boring wine tour. Find a winery you enjoy and you will relive that experience every time you open a bottle of their wine or see their label in the store months or even years later.

Wineries should offer more than just a few dribbles, a plate of stale crackers, and tasting bar staff that only offer canned conversation and get their wine information from the back label. Customers don’t travel all the way to your wine shop for that. Time to up your game.

Tip #8 – Plan local

Keep things close to where you are staying. If you are staying in Kelowna, don’t plan a trip to Osoyoos because you will spend more time driving than sipping. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful drive and well worth it, but make it part of the trip and stay in Osoyoos. Penticton, being fairly central in the Okanagan with lots of amenities, is nicely situated with quick access to many different regions – Naramata, Summerland, OK Falls, Oliver/Osoyoos, and the Similkameen.

Another good idea to drive father in the morning and then work your way back to wherever you are staying. That makes for less driving at the end of the day when you might be more tired.

Enjoy yourself on your trip and let me know how it went! Share your touring tips and comments here or on my facebook page.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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