How to: Plan a Winery Visit
When planning a wine trip, no matter what area of the state, the country, or the world you plan to visit – I highly recommend doing your research first. There are wineries in every state, including our fair state of Ohio. What I’ll share is my experiences going to small production wineries on the east coast. Wineries in California can be a different animal, due to the popularity of CA wine country. Regardless, do your research, make sure you know what you are going to visit. It will save heartburn, an offended palate and sympathy buys.
One of the things that you will come across in wineries from the “Other 46” is wine made from grapes that are not grown anywhere near your winery. Wineries have a few choices when they start making wines. They can grow their grapes, buy their grapes from local vineyards or buy grapes or juice from anywhere in the world. It really depends on the philosophy of the winemaker or owner.
I’m not at all saying wines made from juice from Australia but crafted at a winery in Ohio are bad wines, but I prefer to taste local wines because they are grown and made in the area I’m visiting. The philosophy of “drinking local” is rooted in the concept of “terroir” (terr-wor), loosely translated as “a sense of place”. A wine made from non-local juice might give a taster a sense of the winemaker’s skill, but many winemakers will tell you that wine is made in the vineyard; that it has much to do with what happens to the vines; and on a secondary level with what the winemaker does as he is crafting it.
When you are looking at wineries, pay attention to the types of wine you like to drink. If you are up for an adventure, you will find fruit wines, sweet wines, vitas labrusca, and vitis vinifera in any combination. If you have a particular palate, you will want to choose wineries that make the styles of wines you like. But I’ll tell you, I have been pleasantly surprised by wines I didn’t think I’d like simply because I go into a winery willing to try whatever wines they offer. Its worth it to try at least one or two unfamiliar styles, particularly in Ohio, where tasting wines can be a very inexpensive proposition.
On the costs of wine tastings. Ohio does something that many other states don’t do. They charge for each individual taste, and do so at about the rate of $.25 or $.50 per taste. Some wineries do a full tasting or featured tasting charge for anywhere from $4 to $12 for the tasting.Most other states I have visited do their tasting as a set number of pours for a set price. A reasonable amount is about $6 for 6-10 wines. If a winery in this region is charging more than this amount, for my money, they had better have incredible, well known, award winning wines.
Now you’re in….
Once you are there, its a matter of tasting the wines. As an experienced taster, or a taster who wants to know more about wine, I encourage you to ask questions. Winery owners and winemakers, like anyone else, love to talk about themselves and their wines. Here is a short list of questions I always ask at wineries, or to the winemaker, if he or she is available.
When was the winery started?
A very young winery most likely won’t be making wines from their own grapes. It takes 3 years for vines to produce viable grapes for harvest, so they could be buying grapes, juice, or even wine! It has become a more consistent practice, however, to wait to open tasting rooms until planted vines are producing – again, a little research should tell you if this is an experienced winery and winemaker – or one just starting out.
What is the case production for the winery?
I ask this to get a sense of the volume of wine they produce. Smaller boutique wineries can have a different feel, or philosophy, from larger wineries.
Which of your wines do you consider your “pride and joy”?
Every winemaker has at least one that he or she has puts their heart and soul into.
What wine do you drink if you aren’t drinking your own wine?
I am always looking for new good wines to try – who better to ask than a winemaker?
What new releases are coming?
A sense of the future of the winery! Always fun.
Ok, its in my glass, now what?
Well trained tasting room staff will give you information about each wine you taste, telling you what varietals are in it, the vintage, if it was aged in oak or in stainless steel. If the tasting room associate doesn’t provide the information, feel free to ask! Not every winery I encounter is great about customer service, but when they are, WOW… you may walk away with much more information than you ever thought you’d want.
When tasting a number of wines, always drink whites before reds, dry before sweet, and old before young. This system allows your palate to adjust according to the qualities of each wine.
These are the basic questions to ask:
What is the varietal?
What is the vintage?
Is this estate wine?
What oak do you use for aging this wine? (if appropriate)
If you are driving and want to stay sober, but still taste wine, consider spitting. While you may feel weird about it at first,this is an accepted practice among tasters. I carry a opaque travel cup in my car for this purpose, but many wineries will provide dump buckets – they are perfectly fine for spitting. Also, do not feel obligated to finish a large tasting pour. Dump the wine if you do not like it or do not want to finish it. This is also an accepted practice.
And then we have the purchase. You will be charged for tasting in most locations, so please purchase a bottle only if you’d really like to take one home, but ignore that nagging feeling if there’s nothing that you really like. Many who travel the wine trails have purchased the sympathy bottle, and then struggled to remember why. Its okay to offer a polite thank you and go on your way.
However, if the wine is really good, and the ambiance is to your taste, enjoy your visit by extending it a bit. Take in the scenery. Choose a glass or a bottle of wine from the selections provided. Grab a cheese plate, or bring your own picnic if the wineries allow it. Many wineries also provide music on the weekends to make your visit a truly memorable occasion.
What questions do you ask when you visit wineries?
Do you have any other tips I should add to the list?
Please leave them in the comments!
How to: Read a Wine Label
How many of us have walked into a wine store and just stared at the bottles?
We think…. “I want to spend X number of dollars on a bottle”. Or “Oh, I’ve had that wine before.” or “Wow, that’s new to me”.
And then we say…. “its a pretty label, I think I’ll buy it,” and we walk out the door with our purchase.
Wine labels can be confusing, some wineries put a lot of information on the label, others will put the bare legal minimum on it. Neither is wrong, But, at least in the United States, many winemakers and their marketing departments are discovering that a good percentage of consumers, particularly Americans, are likely to buy the pretty/sophisticated/cool label, depending on who we are trying to impress with our purchase.
So, there can be a lot of marketing on that label, but what is important, and what does any of it mean?
Here are a few items that appear on wine labels, and their explanations.
Brand – The name used to identify the product, this may be something other than the name of the winery. For example, Two Left Feet is a wine produced by Mollydooker Winery, Two Left Feet is the brand name for their Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot blend that I love.
Vintage – A vintage date on the label indicates that 95% or more of the wine was produced from grapes grown that year. This is the year the grapes are harvested, not the year it is bottled. A 2007, aged in oak for 18 months, would be probably be bottled in 2009.
Appellation of Origin – Appellation of origin is another name for the place in which (usually) at least 85% of the grapes in the wine are grown. It can be the name of a country, state, county or geographical region. In the Old World (Europe) you will see an appellation rather than a varietal. ie. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis. Italy, Spain and Portugal also use appellations in this manner. In the US, a single county or state appellation requires that 75% of the grapes be grown in the that designated area.
Viticultural Area – A United States viticultural area is a well-defined grape-growing region with similar soil, climate, history, and geographical features and these designations are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). In order for a winery to use a specific American Viticultural Area on a label, 85% of the wine must be produced from grapes grown within the confines of the viticultural area.
VarietaI Designations – Varietal designations are the names of the dominant grapes used in the wine. In the US, a varietal on the label means that at least 75% of the wine is from that particular grape varietal. Examples include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Tempernillo, and Pinot Noir.
Name or Trade Name – Name or trade name and address or location of the winery. (or importer)
Estate Bottled – Estate bottled wines must come strictly from grapes that are either owned by the winery or under its direct viticultural control through a long-term lease. And the wine must be completely produced, aged, and bottled at the winery. The winery itself, as well as all of the grapes used, must be from the same appellation of origin, and that appellation must be designated on the wine’s label.
Alcohol Content – A statement of alcohol content in percent by volume appears on most labels. ie. 13% ABV
Vineyard Name – there is a distinct difference between a winery and a vineyard. A winery may own several vineyards, which all carry a distinct name, or the winery can also be a vineyard (grower of grapes) There is a trend toward single-vineyard wines, in a era where it is acceptable and useful to blend grapes from several vineyards to achieve a desired wine. If the wine is single vineyard, typically the winery will put the name of the vineyard on the wine.
These are the primary items you will find on a bottle of wine. Remember each country has its variations, but generally, this information will help you better understand your wines – so you can concentrate on the beautiful label art.