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Tips for Wine Touring

As with all vacations, a little planning is necessary to get the most out of your wine-country trip.

The appeal of a visit to wine country—which these days can involve not only stopping at tasting rooms, but also having dinner at top restaurants and having a grapeseed body polish at a spa—has never been higher. In California alone, wine tourism revenues increased by 50 percent from 2002 to 2005, according to the Wine Institute.

As with all vacations, a little planning is necessary to get the most out of your wine-country trip, whether it's to Napa Valley or the northern Rhône. You don't want to arrive only to discover that the cellar doors are locked. Here are a few tips:

Make reservations in this order: top restaurants, hotel, spa treatments, private winery visits. The hardest reservations to get are often for famous restaurants, such as Napa Valley's French Laundry, some of which are booked months in advance for weekend nights.

When you get that prime table, look for a hotel nearby. After a dinner with great wine, it's nice to walk back under the stars. Moreover, any visit to wine country involves some driving on small, winding roads—wine country is farmland, after all—and it's best to enjoy that rural beauty during the day.

If you want to book spa treatments, let your hotel help you arrange them before you leave home. Ask about unusual services like mud baths. You may be able to arrange massages in your room, too. Late afternoon is a good time, after tastings and before dinner. The morning of your last day is perfect for cleansing treatments.

In the United States and Australia, most wineries accept drop-in visitors. The smallest wineries often require reservations, but sometimes just one day's notice is sufficient. Don't overschedule yourself: Three winery visits in a day—two before lunch, one after—is plenty.

In Europe, wine-country tourism isn't as developed as it is in places like California, and fewer wineries have tasting rooms with regular hours. If there's a winery you want to visit, contact it ahead of time, if possible in the country's native language.

Use the spit bucket when tasting, like professionals do. You can taste more wine and stay fresher that way, and the winery staff will assume you know what you're doing.

Don't purchase any bottles your local wine shop carries, because you won't usually save money by buying at the winery. But you can and should buy wines you don't usually see at home. This includes everything from hard-to-find cult wines to limited, tasting-room-only bottlings (the dry Riesling from Beringer in Napa is a case in point) or "library releases," which are older vintages direct from a winery's cellar (top Napa Cabernet producer Sequoia Grove, for instance, usually has a selection of older vintages available only in its tasting room).

Shipping bottles home is a great idea; among other benefits, you won't have to deal with airport security. (In addition, major delivery companies refuse wine shipments from individuals, and sending wine by U.S. Postal Service is illegal.) Ask if the winery will ship—many will.

Published May 2007
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