A winery visit can be spectacular – or a complete bust. What makes the difference? After visiting more than 100 different wineries, here’s our inside scoop.
I just recently glanced at our winery reports page and counted 133 entries. We’ve visited many more than that, probably closer to the 150 mark.
Some of those visits have been memorable – sipping outstanding wine in the dappled sunshine while being caressed by gentle breezes. But some have been memorable for the wrong reasons.
The bad winery visits can remind you of an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey going ballistic after discovering an oozing mess in the walk-in cooler.
Well, what is it that makes a winery visit an experience to savor?
Based on our experience, we consider three factors. If a winery scores big in all three dimensions, you can ink in a big star on the wine trail map – marking it for repeated visits.
In our experience, you need the “three goods:” 1. Good winery grounds and tasting room, 2. Good tasting room staff, and 3. Good wine.
Number One: Good Winery Grounds And Tasting Room
Upon arrival, nothing sets the stage like seeing an impressive, quirky or scenic winery building. It gives you good vibrations right from the start. There’s nothing worse than rumbling up to the next stop on the wine trail, looking at your companion asking, “Should we go in, or just turn around?”
Having an awesome tasting room doesn’t mean you will have world class wine, but it shows the caliber of the operation. Chances are that even average wine will taste a lot better in a tasting room with a floor to ceiling window overlooking a lake than in what appears to be a farmer’s converted garage.
One of the nicest tasting rooms we’ve visited is Heron Hill in the Finger Lakes. You are impressed from a half mile away and even more blown away once you are inside. Lamoreaux Landing and Glenora are two other stand-out Finger Lakes establishments. The winery buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stellenbosch (South Africa), and Lake Okanogan (British Columbia) are also spectacular.
There is also a lot to be said for grounds with picnic tables and scenic views of mountains, vineyards or lakes.
Number Two: Good Tasting Room Staff
Someone save us from uninformed, unhelpful and unpleasant tasting room staff. You’ve made the decision to stop for a tasting and enter the building. The next moment of truth is the tasting room attendant.
In some wineries, like Bully Hill in the Finger Lakes, the staff ARE the attractions – entertaining guests with humorous stories and gags while dispensing detailed knowledge of the winery’s goods. A good staff can also help guide you to the wines you will most enjoy.
On a good day, your tasting room attendant will generate warmth, be a helpful advisor and sell a lot of wine.
The other end of the spectrum includes those who are too busy to tell you about the wine, those who don’t know what is in a particular wine and those who are doing it without a true love of wine.
This factor is probably even more important than an impressive building. At this point you're already invested in making a stop and if you get a bummer of a host, you’ll feel it’s been a waste of time.
Number Three: Good Wine
Excellent wine can supersede almost any other flaw in your winery visit. This is the final piece of the puzzle. If you’re sipping an especially robust Cabernet Franc in a groovy tasting room while the tasting room attendant is telling you an intriguing story about how the owner started the winery, you have hit the trifecta!
If Numbers 1 and 2 are locked in, you have a better than even chance you’ll be tasting some good wine. But there is no guarantee.
While we were up in the Niagara Peninsula, we made a stop at a winery that looked very impressive from the road. The building was of a modern design built from local stone. Inside the tasting room glittered as track lighting glinted off racks of bottles in impressive displays.
Unfortunately, the wine was just “mehh”…
Once you have achieved the “three goods,” that is the time to turn to your companions, smile and raise a toast. You are living the good life!