Traveling to wine country has completely and utterly become a thing in and of itself. Yes, there’s plenty of wine, but there’s also typically quaint small towns as well as, world-class food. But, as you might expect, not every wine region is created equally. Some feature monuments and activities hundreds of years in the making and others show how their region is being changed by an influx of tourists and their dollars.
Here’s 5 well worth your time and money.
Before I go on, it’s important to note that I own and operate an online wine club, called Uncorked Ventures and part of my “day” job brings me to these regions on a consistent basis. Yeah I know, tough part of the job right?
Napa Valley, California:
Ok, so Napa Valley is at least an hour drive from north to south along highway 29, so there’s actually way more than a single region here to visit. For first time visitors, the most quaint and approachable part of Napa Valley, without a doubt, is Yountville. A small town of about a thousand, it’s been referred to as America’s Restaurant Row because of the number of Michelin Stars in this small town.
It’s also home to America’s most famous bakery, Bouchon as well as America’s most famous restaurant, French Laundry. Yountville also boasts a number of wine tasting rooms and small vineyards on the prolifery of the town. It’s also all walkable, with free parking, both huge pluses in my book.
Walla Walla, Washington:
Walla Walla isn’t necessarily easy to get to and even once you’re there, it’s not the easiest spot in the world to navigate, it’s a very small town and in some ways struggling with an influx of tourists that didn’t exist a decade. As an example, I waited close to 2 hours for the single rental car company to show up at the airport, even though I made a reservation online weeks before my flight.
Yes, there’s a single company. The good news in regard to Walla Walla is that downtown is quickly becoming walkable and the outlying wineries are all within a quick 20-minute drive.
They are also small enough to offer access to winemakers and vineyard owners in ways that more established regions simply cannot. One spot that most pass over without visiting is a small region by the airport, where the city of Walla Walla, the port of Walla Walla, Walla Walla City College and winemakers have come together to build something of a wine incubator program.
Recent graduates from Walla Walla City College’s esteemed winemaking program are offered affordable rents in spaces, literally made for winemaking.
So, I won’t get into the challenges that face spots in South America, especially when they consider trying to market to American consumers, who aren’t confident in their ability to navigate a country in Spanish. But, Santiago is very easy to get around, even with limited Spanish language skills. Maipo Valley is only a short 20-minute drive from downtown Santiago and offers a series of French-inspired wineries.
Most of them are even kid friendly! One of the highlights for most wine drinkers is a tour of Concha Y Toro, Chile’s largest winery. Show up without a reservation and you can have a half hour tour, in at least five languages. As with most larger wineries worldwide, there is a restaurant on site and they pride themselves on high-quality customer service. Plus, Santiago is a fun visit.
The first time I found myself in Orvieto, I thought I was in a different world. Traveling from Florence we had taken a bus, I had fallen asleep, the time change catching up to me and found myself sitting under a church spire, in a mountainous Tuscan village, drinking a white wine. From spiral staircases that date to the 14th century and the entire facade of the village dating at least a hundred years prior, Orvieto should be on any wine lovers list for a visit to Italy.
You can not only feel the history, but you can also taste wines largely based on two relatively obscure grapes Grechetto and Trebbiano. An added bonus of Orvieto though is that it’s an easy day trip from Tuscany and for wine lovers, a better stop that is the Leaning Tower of Pisa (an architectural mistake, which seems par for the course once you see the town).
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So much ink has been spilled over the years about Bordeaux and truly no wine region on the planet, takes up as much of the average wine drinkers consciousness, as does Bordeaux. From the left bank to the right bank, there’s something here for everyone. From historic estates to newer negociant winemakers, there’s something for everyone in Bordeaux.
A personal favorite of mine is the historic Monolithic Saint Emilion Church and spire. Built largely below ground and out of limestone, it helps to tell the tale of the wine trade in Bordeaux. If you aren’t familiar, Limestone is still considered the ideal soil for planting grape vines because it makes the vines struggle, but it porous enough for the vine roots to penetrate completely from one side to the other.
If you’re like most drinkers, the idea of a vacation in wine country seems very appealing. I hope my guide to 5 wine country destinations gave you something to think about. While I personally wouldn’t want to have to choose between any of these five choices, you’ll normally find a wine region about an hour outside of most large, international cities. If you’re wondering why, city folks have always been hungry and thirsty and these regions took advantage of easy home markets, to grow their customer bases locally before needing to compete with others on a larger scale. Napa is right outside of San Francisco as an example.
Best of luck visiting wine country and I hope you’ll remember that some people do live in their regions, so please behave accordingly!