12 Tips on Wine Travel

Recently I was invited to appear on “Wine Time,” a monthly wine show on Blab!

Till then, I'd never heard of Blab! It's a newish thing: a corner of the internet where you can do talk shows, interviews, workshops, or just shoot the breeze with up to four people, live-streaming while followers send comments via Twitter and Facebook.  As technology goes, it’s about where public access television was back in the early 1980s. Crude, but fun!

The host was Debbie Gioquindo, a former travel agent with whom La Dolce Vita Wine Tours had worked. We and guest Kristie Unsworth of Cruise Planners talked for an hour about wine travel, both DIY and through tour operators like us.

Click to watch the show.

I'd made a few notes to organize my thoughts before going on-air. It's good information, so I share it with you here:

5 Reasons to Use a Tour Operator When Traveling to Wine Country

Of course you can plan your vacation through the Internet.  It’s definitely the cheapest way to go. But when you’re old and grey, looking back at this trip, will you really remember the few dollars you saved? Or do you want to remember a great experience full of surprises—the good kind. If your objective is to have a fun, stress-free vacation with the best-possible experiences condensed in your allotted time, there are definite advantages to booking with a wine-tour operator:

1 You’re busy! Who has time to wade through the Internet’s information overload? It’s better to delegate to an expert.

Sure, you can troll through TripAdvisor's hotels and restaurants; you can Google car rentals and wineries. But do you really have the time?

Most vacations are planned by women. And many busy women do this over their 15-minute lunch break. The amount of information you can dig up this way in no way compares to the expertise of a tour operator. Remember, we’ve been doing on-the-ground scouting for 17 years. You might luck out with your choices, but then again, you might not.

2 Distances can be deceiving. You don’t want to spend your entire vacation on the autostrada or in trains getting from point A to point B

The most common mistake travelers make is being overly ambitious with their schedule and underestimating travel time. Yes, it is humanly possible to visit Venice, Rome, and Florence in one week, but 50% of your waking hours will be in transit.

Even within a region, what looks like a 10-minute drive on the map could in reality be 60 minutes on torturous, winding roads. (That’s Chianti by definition.)

We know how long is takes. We build that into our itinerary.

But those windy roads bring us to another point:

3 Don’t drink and drive

Enough said. Besides, who wants to be the dedicated driver while on vacation? Leave that to us.

4 European wine country isn’t Napa.

Many European wineries are owner-run, small family farms—and that’s part of their charm. But drop-in tasting rooms are rare as hens' teeth. A winery might have a tasting room, but that’s just a physical space, without a dedicated staffer ready to pour. It’s a bit rude to drive up and expect the family to drop everything just to pour for you. That's why appointments are essential.

5 Not all wineries are alike

Some wineries are commercial and anonymous. Some marquee names might be indifferent to your presence, or give lousy tours and stingy pours. Some might not let you in. Some might expect a 350Euro donation to a charity on their behalf.

We’re constantly updating where we go on our tours, cognizant of staff changes, personalities, and the quality of the visit. We skip the duds (even if they’re big names) and visit spots that are warm, welcoming, and offer great wine. That’s not something a 15-minute Google search will reveal, nor high ratings in Wine Spectator.

If you insist on going it alone, here are Seven Essential Tips for a DIY Wine Tour:

1 Make appointments

Get a good wine guide with contact info, such as Gambero Rosso or Slow Wine(both have English editions).

2 But leave time for the serendipitous discovery

Ask the winemakers you visit to suggest other wineries. We ourselves have found some hidden gems that way.

3 For a power tasting, visit the Enoteche Regionale

Places like the Castle of Barolo or the Enoteca in Greve in Chiantihave enomatic dispensers with an array of bottles. No appointment necessary.

4 Read up

The more informed you are, the more stimulated your hosts will be and the more likely they’ll open some special bottles, perhaps older vintages. If Italy is your destination, one good place to start is Vino Italiano, by David Lynch and Joe Bastianich.

5 Winemakers don’t expect you to buy on the spot.

So don't feel obliged. But do ask for their importer &/or regional distributor, so you can find their wines once you’re Stateside.

6 Shipping

Most Italian wineries do NOT ship. In wine country, you'll find  Mailboxes Etc. that are experienced and reliable wine shippers. But caveat emptor: Shipping internationally adds between $10–15 per bottle.

7 Restaurants do not have a corkage-fee system and frown on bottles being brought in.

But if you buy a special bottle at a winery and want to drink it that night, ask the winemaker to call the restaurant on your behalf. They're very obliging.

If you drink from the wine list instead, you'll find the price of wine at restaurants in Italy is completely insane! The mark-up is only around 20%, rather than the blistering 200% you'll find Stateside.

That said, cin cin and buon viaggio!