It’s wine touring season again! Time to squeeze up to the wine shop bar, taste a few wines, buy a blingy t-shirt with a half-case, and head to hotel lounge before dinner. Wine country touring can sometimes feel a little more rushed less vacation-like at times, but the fun is always there for you to find. Here are a few of my tips from the many seasons spend touring and living in wine country.
Here are few things to think about as you plan your trip:
Riverstone Estate Winery
Firstly, there are seasons to wine touring. The busy season generally runs from mid-May (Victoria Day weekend) to Thanksgiving in October. The truly crazy months are July, August, but September has been punching above it’s weight class in recent years and October is remarkably busy for the Fall Wine Festival. Expect crowded wine shops at this time of year unless you know this: Wine touring secret #1: wine shops are not as busy in the mornings. You can get all the help and information you want from wine shop staff at that time and all without having to jostle for a place at the bar. If crowds and getting more than an arm-width at the bar is more for you, this is a good thing to know. Tour early, have a long lunch, then maybe head back late afternoon when it starts to slow down again. Call ahead though because sometimes smaller wineries don’t open until later in the day.
The shoulder seasons (March break to May 24 and Thanksgiving to Christmas) are also good times to get in some quality wine shop time. Again, some smaller wineries may not be open at this time of year, so check their websites or call ahead to make sure they are open.
Only middle to large production wineries (those are the ones with big parking lots) are open in the winter but it seems that there are more wineries trying out off-season hours. If you’ve ever toured in the winter, wine shop staff (who are usually owners or managers at that time) are more than happy to chat with you for as long as you want.
The biggest thing that people seem to forget is that wine production is also naturally seasonal. Wine can only be made once a year. Wineries harvest grapes in the fall and then make wine out of them. The whites are generally released the next spring while the reds will be released a year or more after that. If you are interested in fresh whites, the best time to get them is in the spring when the new vintages are released. If you decide to come to wine country in the fall, you may not be able to find your favorite Pinot Blanc or Ehrenfelser because it likely sold out in the middle of the summer. Wineries can’t just make more wine at any time like making soda pop or cookies. (I wish I was making this up: I had a customer ask me to call a winery to find out if they could make more of her favorite wine. This was in late July and she truly believed that wineries could just manufacture more on demand.)
What to not wear
Wine touring secret #2: Wear comfortable everything – shoes, shorts, shirts, hats, whatever.There are very few wineries that offer comfortable places to sit. Shoes are important and well as clothes for the heat (in the summer) or layers (for the unpredictable spring and fall). Hats are especially valuable in all seasons, especially when the sun is out. In most places the sun “shines” but in the Okanagan summer, the sun “beats down” more often than not. (At my very first job at a winery, I noticed that I was the only one sitting in the sun during a lunch break – everyone else was in the shade. I mentioned it and a coworker said, “You know, I’m kind sick of summer.” He might as well have said, “You know, I’m kind of sick of oxygen” but I learned to understand it the more I lived here. The heat and sun can be oppressive here at times.
Another thing to not wear: perfume, hairspray, or scented products beyond light deodorant. You might think that you are blending in but trust me, you would stand out less in a wine shop wearing day-glo pink unitard and a sombrero. People who work in wine shops use their noses, a lot. We smell wine everyday. We can tell when a glass is truly clean by how it smells (it shouldn’t smell at all). It’s not just the people behind the bar though; anyone who has spent a day or 2 with their noses in glasses of wine will be more tuned into that sense, and they will find it distracting as well. Interestingly, I find that synthetic odours (perfume, etc) will stand out and interfere with wines’ aromas more than natural ones (mild body odour, bouquets of flowers, etc).
Protect your wine
Looking south from the northern edge of Clos du Soleil’s vineyards.
Mostly from the sun. The interior of a car can heat up to dangerous temperatures before you even get to tasting the reds. Wine left in a car can heat up and will “cook” in minutes. Ever wondered why the wine doesn’t taste the same when you get it home? That might be why.
There are 2, maybe 2.5 wineries in the Okanagan, that have any shaded parking at all. Kudos go to Silver Sage and Mission Hill for planting a tree or two. (Honorable mention to Cedar Creek.) The problem has more to do with the fact that trees create shade which is not what vines need – they need sun. I have personally walked through vineyard where the grapes closer to trees (i.e. in shadow part of the day) ripen weeks later than vines that are farther away (no shadows ever).
Wine touring secret #3: Bring a big, warm blanket. It seems weird in the summer, but it isn’t. Keep your wine on the floor of your vehicle (the lowest and therefore coolest part) and insulate it with the big blanket. That keeps it out of direct sunlight and gives you a chance to make it through the tasting before the temperature in the car gets to the wine. Don’t forget to use your car’s air conditioner between stops.
Have a Designated Driver
This should be stupidly obvious by now. Since most tourists aren’t comfortable spitting wine (which is totally acceptable – that’s what the pro’s do), you need to have someone drive you safely where you’re going. If you are doing multiple days, take turns being the DD. Many wineries have added special perks for the DD of a group.
Wine touring secret #4: Buy a wine for the DD at every winery you visit. It’s a great way to say thanks and also keeps them involved in the touring experience. I’ve seen DD’s wander around the wine shop and miss out on some of the great conversation at the bar. Also, there’s no harm in just smelling the wine and you can learn a lot about a wine that way.
The other option is to book a trip with one of the valley’s many wine tour companies. Most will take you around to wherever you want to go and even have some great ideas on wineries that you may not have heard about. (Well, not you personally, because as an avid Wine Country BC.ca reader / listener you are already most likely ‘in the know’…) Look for a podcast featuring interviews with local wine tour operators coming soon.
Eat something between wineries
Here’s a shocker: Wine makes you hungry. At my WSET classes years ago, only a visit to my favorite sushi restaurant right before my class could keep me going through the 2 hours of tasting and talking about wine each week. Even that was no guarantee however. Wine, for whatever reason, stimulates our digestive system and we react accordingly. Plus, eating between wineries refreshes your palate and can really extend your wine tasting day.
Wine touring secret #5: There are some great local bakeries, delis, and coffee shops in all of the towns from Osoyoos to Lake Country. Non of them have paid me for advertising though, so you’ll have to search for them yourself. Pick up an assorted selection of eats for the day – breads, fruits, and cheeses can go a long way. Bring a bag or a picnic basket to use or just store them under that big warm blanket next to the wine. You will be much happier that way, even if you go for meals at winery restaurants. Snacks between wineries also helps to cleanse your palate so you can try even more wine. That’s how the pro-wine tourists like myself build up endurance. Practice makes perfect.
So there you go, wine touring secrets from someone who has done my fair share of touring for over a decade. Leave a comment if you have any other tricks or secrets that you’d like to share.
Cheers from wine country!