This post is sponsored by UncommonGoods, an online marketplace offering creatively designed, high-quality merchandise at affordable prices. (Bonus: $1 of every purchase is donated to one of several charities including City Harvest, an organization working to end hunger in New York Ctiy.) Read on to discover my top 10 tips for wine tasting, recipes, books, and films to inspire you at home, and accessories to tote on your next adventure.
I was fortunate to turn 21 in a town devoted to food and wine, at which point my extracurricular activities started including tasting classes and picnics in nearby Santa Ynez. Ten years and four wine clubs later, my husband and I have learned a thing or two about how to taste and travel in wine country.
You don't win at wine country the same way you do at the blackjack table in Vegas. Wine country pays in landscapes, relaxation, and in a few good bottles to take home. It's an experience worth savoring, and if you do a small amount of advanced planning (with time booked to see where the road takes you, too), you'll walk away feeling like you can't wait to go back.
10 Tips for Wine Tasting
1. Map it out. When it comes to planning an excursion in wine country, know this: You'll spend a lot of time driving, so the best course of action is to plan ahead. A good rule of thumb is to start at the winery farthest away from where you're staying and work your way back. Look up the wineries on Google maps and plot a route that doesn't have you going back and forth from one valley to the next.
2. Conserve your palate. Three to four wineries per day is the most ideal. Five at the absolute most. Any more than that and your palate starts to dwindle, which means wine in the second half of the day will start to taste the same, and the wine you'll order at dinner won't be the shining star the sommelier promises.
3. Avoid tourist traps. Steer clear of any wineries themed like a medieval castle (or equivalent), or whose tasting rooms feel more like gift shops. If there's a charter bus parked out in front, head down the road, or be prepared for a less-than-ideal tasting room experience.
4. Trust the locals. This goes for restaurant recommendations, attractions, and other wineries. When you're chatting with the guy pouring your wine, ask him where he goes after work.
5. Dress appropriately. A visit to wine country can include a fair amount of walking, especially if you're participating in winery tours. Outside the tasting room, wineries have dirt, dust, and uneven terrain. You can still look cute, just be comfortable (translation: leave your heels at home, ladies!).
6. Timing is everything. To experience fewer crowds and enjoy a more personal tasting experience, visit during the week or during non-peak seasons (avoid weekends in summer and early fall). Many smaller, family-run wineries require appointments, so start making them up to two weeks in advance of your trip.
7. Don't feel obligated to drink everything. The purpose of wine tasting is to taste wine. Sipping versus guzzling is recommended, and buckets are provided for a reason. No one will be offended if you take a taste or two and pour out the rest. For couples, share tastings. A pour is plenty for two, and can save you money, as tastings can range anywhere between $5-$25 on average.
8. Engage. The best tasting experiences are ones where you can get to know the staff and learn something along the way. Ask questions about how the wine was made, the philosophy of the winemakers, and food pairing recommendations. Most staff are eager to share their knowledge, and you'll walk away better informed and inspired. If you're in the market, this is also a good time to ask about wine clubs. You don't have to sign up on the spot, but take the brochure home so you can compare them with a level head.
9. Take notes. You can do this between tastings, but it helps to pull out a notebook, or start a note on your phone to record key findings, like the best white wine you tasted that you'd like to order for your next backyard party, or how the flavors change in a Cabernet that's been decanted for an hour. The more wine you taste, the harder it will be to keep track of them throughout the day, so record the star bottles or any wineries you'd like to revisit.
10. Marvel. If you're in a rush, you'll miss what the region has to offer. Slow down, enjoy your tasting, and linger on the patio to take in the view.
1. Single Wine Tote. Carry your favorite bottle in style to your next picnic or event. 2. Wine Tasting Notebook and Pen Set. Remember the nuances of your favorite bottles in a made-for-wine-lovers notebook. 3. Wine Cork Place Holders. Set the table for your next dinner party in wine country style. 4. Silicone Wine Glasses. Unbreakable cups are perfect for a meal outside. Take them to a concert or the beach, and never worry about cleaning up broken glass.
Books About Wine
Napa: The Story of An American Eden by James Conaway. A historical look at the rise of two family dynasties, the Mondavi's and the Gallo's, in a story about money, land, power, and prestige.
The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Banjamin Wallace. Based on the true story of a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux—supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—this book reads like a mystery for wine lovers.
A Good Year by Peter Mayle. This novel was turned into a film (see below), and follows a London banker on a quest to find out what's important in life.
The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink by Kevin Young. This new anthology of poetry is about "everything else that accompanies food: the memories, the company, even the politics."
Films About Wine & Films to Watch While Drinking Wine
Bottle Shock. The true story of the 1976 wine tasting that pitted French wine against American, and the Chardonnay from Chateau Montelana, "kids from the sticks" in Calistoga took home the grand prize.
A Good Year. This book-turned-movie is set in Provence. Pack your bags for a romantic tour through the countryside. It might make you want to buy a winery, too.
It's Complicated. Set in idyllic Santa Barbara, the film follows the complicated relationship of a long-time divorced couple. Meryl Streep's character, Jane Adler, also runs a local bakery, shops at the farmer's market, and makes croque monsieur during a romantic date.
Sideways. Merlot sales plummeted after the lead character refused to drink the varietal, but Santa Barbara wine country tourism peaked shortly after Sideways was released in 2004. This indy film follows Miles and Jack, two friends on a bachelor party weekend in Solvang.
Ratatoullie. In this Pixar film, a French rat with an exceptional palate finds lands his dream job in a Paris kitchen.
Recipes with Wine
In wine country, farm to table dining is a way of life. Local ingredients shine, menus change with the seasons, and cooking can often involve pouring a cup or two of your favorite varietal into the pan. Try these five recipes at home to bring wine tasting into the kitchen.
1. Rose-steamed mussels from La Domestique are a lovely twist on the classic white-wine version. 2. A luxurious sauce from The Kitchn adds elegance to scallops with white wine buerre blanc and lemon orzo. 3. My leek risotto is a community pick on Food52, and uses a secret ingredient to make the finished dish extra creamy. 4. A refreshing treat from Martha Rose Shulman, raspberry rose sorbet will end your next dinner party in style. 5. The Italian Dish's Drunken Pasta puts your favorite bottle of red to good use.