Winery Tours, Part 2: for Experienced Tasters

Several years ago, we wrote about winery tours from the perspective of those who had never taken one before.  For anyone with even the least interest in wine, a tour can be very educational.  There’s really nothing like seeing the process, especially if you can visit Wine Country during the crush.  It really does show you how difficult the winemaking really is.  And in many cases, a tour is a prerequisite for tasting the wines.

Seeing the grapes for Amarone drying at Quintarelli in Valpolicella,  Italy.

But what if you have some experience in wine tasting?  Maybe you have taken numerous tours in the past, so why take another one?  There are a number of good reasons, even if you think you’ve seen it all.

  • You haven’t seen it all. We don’t want to get into the argument about the winemaker’s skill vs. terroir, but surely the way a wine is made has some impact on how it tastes.  Otherwise, they’d all taste pretty much the same.  At any winery, they have a particular way that they harvest (or instruct vineyard owners to harvest), clean the grapes, press them, vinify the juice, blend different varietals, age the wine and bottle it.  If you have been on tours before, you’ll recognize the differences at one winery versus the others you’ve seen.
  • You may be with a less experienced taster. Taking a tour with a friend gives you the opportunity to add your own point of view that the tour guide may not have.  Careful not to be a wine snob, though.

The barrel room at Groth in Napa Valley.

  • Refreshers aren’t a bad idea. Yes, you’ve taken tours, but when was the last one?  It’s not that things have changed all that much (although there have been technical advances) but it’s a good idea to keep yourself up to date.
  • A tour can give you an idea of the quality of the wines. For example, some wineries are sparklingly clean, others less so.  A winery that cares enough to hire and train knowledgeable tour guides is probably more concerned about the tiny details of making wine.  If your guide can’t answer your questions, this will tell you something about management’s perspectives on their customers.  So pay attention to the details.
  • Tours can be fun. Some wineries’ tours are little more than exercises in industrial engineering and about as accessible to the general public.  But we’ve been on others that take you into the vineyards to show you where the grapes you’ve tasted came from.  Quite a few these days combine the tour with the tasting and have bottles stashed in the vineyards or in the barrel room, so you’re tasting as you’re learning.  Quite a deal!

The underlying answer is that there’s always something new to learn.  You don’t have to tour every winery you visit.  For one thing, that can be expensive and repetitive.  But taking a tour every now and again is good for brain as well as your palate.

How to Change Your Mind About Wine…and Not

In our earliest years of wine tasting, we thought that only wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon were worth drinking.  Oh, well, we were young and foolish.  Of course, we’ve broadened our tastes significantly in the intervening time.  Each time we realized we really liked a wine we hadn’t cared for before, we had to change our mind.

The same applies in reverse.  There were some awfully sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers that we wouldn’t be interested in anymore.  Perhaps if we tried them again we might like them, but we doubt it.

Changing your mind about anything isn’t easy, wine included.  So here are some tips for revising your opinions specifically about wine, but maybe broader than that.  Many of these lessons we learned in Sonoma County, the theme of this issue.

Photos courtesy of Kazzit and the dailymeal.com

  • Keep your mind open. You’ll never improve your taste if you aren’t able to accept the possibility that you might learn to like wines you hadn’t liked before.  For the longest time, we weren’t particularly fond of Pinot Noir.  We found them too thin, too acid.  But we have learned to appreciate some Pinot Noirs, especially those from Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.
  • Keep trying. Maybe your ability to appreciate certain tastes and aromas has expanded.  Or maybe you’ll find a winemaker who does a better job than those you have tried before.  One of the advantages of wine tasting in Sonoma County is the vast range of varietals that are available there.  Often one winery will have a dozen different ones.  So if you try wine made from grapes you haven’t cared for in the past, you’ll still be able to sip others you know you like.  Maybe you’ll be surprised.
  • Differentiate the same types of wine from different areas. There are still some Pinot Noirs that don’t appeal to us.  We just can’t get our tongues around this varietal the way they make it in Sonoma County’s Green Valley.  But there are some just a bit south in Petaluma that do please us.  Is it terroir?  Specific winemakers?  Sheer luck?  Whatever the case, we went from “We don’t like it” to “We don’t like some of it” which is one way to change your mind.
  • Go back, you may love it. Sometimes a winery just has a bad year.  Here’s an example.  We have always loved the Zinfandels from Limerick Lane.  But in 2011, the winery changed hands and the new owners, by their own admission, didn’t make wines that lived up to the potential of their vines that year.  We dropped out of their club and didn’t visit again for several years.  When we did we were delightedly surprised.  Now we visit whenever we are in Healdsburg and buy some of their Zins every year.
  • Recognize that your tastes change. It may not be the wine that changes, but you.  Whether your tongue has become more sophisticated or you just have learned to like more wines, go with it.  There’s no reason not to accept your tastes for what they are, as long as you are ready to change them when given the opportunity.

Comparing French and California Wines

As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, we endlessly debate the relative qualities of French and California wines.  The famous Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976 established the world-class status of California wines and created the false impression that California makes better wine than France across the board.  Of course, the question of “better” is a foolish one; both make excellent wine (and some plonk, too).

If you’d like to play along with us in this game of comparing the two, it’s quite simple.  Just go out and buy some Californian and French wines.  Open them.  Taste them.  Reach your own conclusions.  Here are some tips on how to make the most of it.

Photo courtesy of Salon.com

  • Ignore the extremes. If you have the wherewithal to compare Château Petrus and Screaming Eagle, don’t let us stand in your way.  But what will that tell you?  And don’t bother comparing Two Buck Chuck with a French wine for under five dollars. (Actually, we don’t know any.)  The best idea is to choose wines in the range that you would normally buy or maybe a little more expensive, to give you a better range for comparison.
  • Avoid varietal mismatches. There’s no point to comparing a Zinfandel with anything made in France.  The French don’t have that wonderful grape. Likewise, don’t look for a Savoyard Chasselas in California.  You won’t find it.
  • Recognize your preconceived notions. If you know up front that you prefer, say, a Chablis to a California Chardonnay, there’s not a lot of reason to try a side-by-side test for your favorite.  Rather, you might use the opportunity to ask your wine merchant to suggest California whites that most closely approach a real Chablis and see if you can tell the difference.
  • Consider price points. There’s no question that a $100 white Burgundy is going to be superior to a Castle Rock for eleven bucks.  And you can say the same if the countries are reversed.  For most people, the choices they make when they go into a wine store are based on what they’re willing to pay on that particular occasion.  Interestingly, it might be better to try comparisons, over time, of wines at somewhat different prices.  You may find that you prefer a $25 California Pinot Noir to a $40 red Burgundy.
  • Use the same glasses. It’s important that you use the same type of glasses for both the California and French wines.  Believe it or not, the way a glass is made does affect the way wines smell and taste.  The good folks at Reidel insist that there is a perfect glass for each varietal, but we’re a bit skeptical.  The point for the purposes of comparison is that they be the same, affecting the wines for better or worse but equally.
  • Be honest with yourself. If you start out believing you prefer one country’s wines over the other, it’s hard to change your own mind.  The best would be if someone else pours the two and doesn’t tell you (a blind tasting).  Of course, the other person now knows which is which and may not be able to overcome his or her prejudices.  Just try your best.

How to Have Fun While Wine Tasting

There is, of course, an elemental problem with this article.  That is, if you don’t already know how to have fun, nothing we say is going to help.  On the other hand, if you already think wine tasting is fun, then we are happy to provide some tips on how to add to your fun whenever you are in Wine Country.

  • Have a fun attitude.  That advice may seem obvious, but there are a number of reasons to go wine tasting – having fun is only one of them.  Your objective may be educational, which may be satisfying but isn’t necessarily fun.  Or you may be in a buying mood.  If you are tasting wines for the purpose of buying a case or two, you ought to be paying attention, not being devil-may-care.

Good times at Domaine Chandon.  Photo courtesy of Haute Living.

  • Go where the fun is. Now this is a matter of taste.  If you think it’s fun to be in a crowd, drinking more than tasting (not our idea of a good time) then go to a popular winery on a holiday weekend.  This mostly applies to the major California destinations.  We’ve never encountered a partying crowd in Europe, but we have in Australia and South Africa.  In our experience, Domaine Chandon and Miner, both in Napa Valley, fit this bill.
  • Book a sit-down tasting. This alternative is a bit more restrained, but you still get to meet some (usually) nice people while you taste.  Best of all is a tasting where the winery also gives you some bites of food so you can truly experience what the wine might taste like at your dinner table.  Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Alexander Valley is our favorite in this regard.

Reims Cathedral.  Photo courtesy of Viator.

  • Make time for a really nice lunch. In general, wherever fine wines are made there are excellent restaurants nearby. So instead of making the objective for the day to visit wineries, grabbing a quick meal in between, consider a day built around a lunch at a top restaurant, with a bottle of the local wine, of course.  This describes wine tasting almost anywhere in Europe.  We have particularly warm memories of meals on the square in Montalcino, in front of the cathedral in Reims and on Main Street in St. Helena.  But, be careful how much alcohol you consume during the day.
  • Do something else. Just because you’re on a wine tasting trip doesn’t mean you have to only taste wine.  If you’re near the shore, declare a beach day.  This works in Santa Barbara, Tuscany and Languedoc.  In some places in California, France and Switzerland, you can taste wine one day and go skiing the next.  And almost everywhere has some interesting landmarks, sights and cities.  Leave yourself some time to take them in.
  • Visit wineries for reasons other than wine. Some wineries are landmarks in themselves.  Two examples are The Hess Collection in Napa Valley and the wine museum at Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.  Winemaking is an art, so why not mix in some art with your wine tasting?

Driving Tips in the Southern Rhône

In some sectors of Wine Country, there is one main road that sort of ties the entire region together.  There’s Route 29 in Napa Valley, the D2 in the Médoc or Main Road in Long Island’s North Fork.  But if you want to spend time driving around  the Southern Rhône to taste the wines, it’s not so easy.  For one thing, the sector is really large, around 140,000 acres in the Côtes-du-Rhône.  For another, many of the villages are very far from even the relatively large routes.

Châteauneuf du Pape.  Photo courtesy of La Mirande.

So if you do plan to drive around the Southern Rhône, here are a few tips to make your travels easier and your tasting more fun.

  • Choose a few nearby villages for a day’s tasting. Châteauneuf du Pape and the area around it is the most famous in the region and it justifies a day (or two, or a lifetime) by itself.  Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas and Vacqeyras are quite close to one another as are Rasteau and Cairannne.  Further north, Vinsobres and Visan are near to one another.  Try to minimize the driving so you can have more time for tasting and visiting the villages.
  • There are some spots where you don’t have to drive very far between wineries. For example, at the intersection of the D69 and the D975 in Rasteau, you can visit Domaine du Trapedis, Domaine la Soumade, the really excellent Cave de Rasteau cooperative, Domaine des Nymphes (for dessert wines) and Domaine Côteaux des Travers all within a few kilometers of one another.  That’s really a day’s tasting in one small place.
  • Get a good roadmap. You may have a car equipped with GPS or you may want to use your cell phone.  But we have found that these systems calculate the shortest route, not the fastest or most sensible one.  So you wind up driving through somebody’s vineyard with no village in sight for miles.  Michelin sells very good maps and there are others, all available at the local tabac or gas station.  Buy one that’s specific to the area you plan to visit.  Maps that cover a broader area may save you a little money but they lack the specificity to keep you from getting lost.

Gigondas. Photo courtesy of Our House in Provence.

  • Trust the signs. The roads are very well marked.  Since many of the villages aren’t on major roads or even large minor ones, your map might not be enough for the last mile.  But if you see a sign indicating that Gigondas is this way, keep going until you see the next sign for the village.  You’ll get there (and you’ll be glad you did).
  • Make time for lunch. You may as well, because all the wineries close up from around noon to 2:00.  So aim to be in a village just before lunchtime.  That way you can scout around and find a restaurant or café to your liking.  The better ones fill up, so you might need a reservation.  Even the more casual ones become full with locals, so make sure to get there around noon to make sure to get a table.

 

Organic? Biodynamic? Natural? What’s Going On?

As you’re enjoying the rustic air of Wine Country, you might want to know how well the grapes were raised and harvested and then what was done to the juice in the industrial processes of crushing, fermenting, aging and bottling.  Vignerons and wine makers are as concerned about sanitary and healthful practices as anyone – in fact, more so than many of us – and they have responded in a number of ways.  But many of the terms in use in the world of wine today can be very confusing.

Making wine used to be rather simple, at least in concept:  Plant vines; Nurture grapes; Harvest and process grapes; Repeat.  Now there are considerations that are intended to make the wine better that are either advanced or trendy, depending on your perspective.

  • Organic wines – We are all used to seeing organic fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. Grapes are fruit so there’s no reason why some of them might be raised organically.  In practice, what does that mean?  In a sense, it’s a return to the simple principles of olden times.  Specifically, organic grapes are raised without a lot of chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.  Now, we’re not fond of drinking a glass of bug-killer, but then we’re not too happy about knowing that little critters have been gnawing on the same grapes that went into out glasses.  At least in theory, crops should be certified as being organic but we’re not sure that all organic winemakers go through this step.

Some biodynamic wine practices. Photo courtesy of Bibendum Wine.

  • Biodynamic wines – Makers of these wines follow the same organic practices but then go quite a bit further. Evidently an Austrian fellow in the beginning of the previous century espoused some theories about agriculture that proponents call advanced and detractors think of as just plain whacky. Among these are following astrological observations and burying cow’s horns filled with manure in the vineyards.  We’d be thoroughly in the detractor category except that some of the biodynamic wines we’ve tried have been pretty good, so maybe there’s something there.  (Just to confuse matters, French winemakers who raise grapes organically, but not biodynamically refer to their wines as “bio”.)

The logo for French “natural” wines.  Courtesy of decanter.com.

  • Natural wines – These wines place less emphasis on how the grapes are raised but rather focus on what happens to the juice once it is crushed out of those grapes. The winemakers don’t add yeast to force fermentation but rely on the natural yeasts that settle on the grapes in the vineyards.  Some makers of natural wines add a little bit of sulfites to preserve the wines, but much less than the producers of most commercial wines.  Others add no sulfites at all.  In the United States, there are no formal rules for natural wines but the French government has recently set a designation for vin méthode nature the prescribes methods and practices.

We at Power Tasting applaud any methods being applied to make better wine.  We have found that these practices have vastly improved winemaking in areas that used to be known for “rustic” (i.e., low quality) products.  But we are not fans of cultish ideas that are more about lifestyle philosophy than winemaking.

Using Winery Maps

Napa Valley is big, 29 miles from Napa to Calistoga.  Sonoma County is even bigger, 1,768 square miles.  (You can look it up; we couldn’t believe it either.)  In both cases, there are wineries almost everywhere.  There are 375 in Napa Valley and 425 in Sonoma County.  Words of advice: You can’t try them all, at least not in a single trip.  Maybe not in a lifetime.

So if you’re going to go wine tasting in these two renowned corners of Wine Country, you’re going to have to know how to get around.

An issue of a free magazine with winery maps.  Photo courtesy of Wine Country This Week.

  • Plan A: Check a winery map before you go. There are a lot of them available, but if you look closely they pretty much all come from the same source, Wine Country.com.  The maps are fairly detailed and show the location of most of the wineries you’d like to visit.

Pros: It’s always a good idea to think ahead about where you want to go on a vacation or a day out.  So, for example, let’s say you’re really intent on visiting Beaulieu Vineyard.  With a map, you will learn that Grgich Hills, Franciscan and Inglenook are quite nearby.  With a little time for lunch, that should make your day.

Cons: Keep in mind that distances on a map look a lot shorter than what you actually experience when you’re there.  The important lesson is to spend your time tasting, not driving from one end of the region to another.  An inch on your screen may be ten miles of weekend traffic.  So read the map with care.

  • Plan B: Pick up a map when you get there. Almost every winery has a stack of free magazines by the door and many of them contain maps.  The most commonly found magazine is Wine Country This Week, which is mostly advertising for wines and wineries.  And the map is from Wine Country.com.

Pros: Even if you study in advance, it’s good to have a map.  With rare exception, every winery has a supply and it does help to know where you are and where you’re going next. And magazine maps make nice souvenirs, especially if you circle the wineries you have visited.

Cons: Remember that the free magazines make their money through advertising.  Some of the wineries shown in bold letters or with a big star denoting their locations are in no way the best nor the ones you should necessarily be aiming for.  Maps can lead you to your destination, but they can also mislead.

  • Plan C: Wing it. Especially if you’ve been to either Napa Valley or Sonoma County before, you may know your way around.  Google Maps makes this a much more acceptable plan than in years before.

Pros: For some people, a little serendipity makes a wine tasting trip into an adventure.  If you keep your eyes – and your mind – open you may just discover a little gem you drove past on familiar roads in the past.

Cons: We have no argument if taking your chances is your style, but for many others with a limited amount of time to spend wine tasting, it’s a better idea to know where you’re going.  And just because you think you know the roads like the back of your hand, experience has shown us that things can look a little strange on the back roads of Napa Valley and Sonoma county.  And we have found that for wineries off the main roads, Google Maps can be just flat out wrong.

Advising Friends

Sometime in the near future, we certainly hope, people will start traveling again.  Some of your friends may plan on a vacation in which wine tasting will be a part.  Because they know that you’ve been to the part of the world that they’ll be visiting, they may turn to you for advice.  This can put you into a very tricky position.  You don’t want to be planning their vacation for them and they might not have the same level of knowledge about wine.  You don’t want to be evasive but you don’t want to be too prescriptive, either.

Let’s assume that they’ve been wine tasting before, so you don’t need to tell them about the basics.  At the same time, you don’t want them to be annoyed with you if they follow your advice and don’t have a good time.  Here are some tips to help you be to be helpful, without putting a strain on your friendship.

Tell them about the views.

  • Avoid the “favorite” question. There’s no way you can deal with “What’s your favorite winery?”.  For one thing, you may not have a favorite (and ought to say so).  But then there’s the matter of favorite for what?  The best wine?  The best tour?  The most fun?  The most knowledgeable servers?  You’re better off listing these types of categories and suggesting several places that fit in each one.
  • Steer them away from places you didn’t like. It’s better to tell people what to avoid than what they “absolutely must taste”.  If they go to your big time recommendations and aren’t as happy as you were, they’ll be disappointed.  But if you tell them that a certain winery has awful plonk or that the décor is lugubrious, they’ll thank you.  It’s a good idea to say why you did and didn’t like a particular winery.  For example, we remember one where the wine was just dreadful but they had an interesting collection of antique instruments.  If your friends are musicians or music lovers, they might put up with the wine just to see the cellos.
  • Consider the seasons. If you visited the area they’re going to in autumn, and their trip is in the early spring, they’ll have a different experience than you did.  You saw the radiant colors; they’re going to get bare vines.  They may have a wonderful trip but it won’t be the same as yours.  So qualify the advice you give them with the time of year in mind.
  • Think about their vacation, not just their wine tasting. No matter how great the wine wherever it is they’re going, it won’t be the totality of their trip.  The guidebooks will tell them about the great, new, chic restaurant.  You can tell them about the spot two blocks away with killer Mexican food.  Or the bar with jazz on the weekend.  Or the greatest chocolate ice cream you’ve ever tasted.  Let them discover the wines on their own.  They’ll never find that ice cream cone without you.

Shopping

The idea of a winery as a shopping mart is almost exclusively a California thing.  We have never encountered non-wine related merchandise in a winery anywhere outside the United States.  We have encountered an establishment in the Central Coast that bills itself as a gift shop and winery, in that order.  (In keeping with Power Tasting’s speak-no-evil policy, they will go unnamed, but let us assure you that the wine in a self-described gift shop is likely to be awful.)  Many wineries sell a few items – shirts, baseball caps, coasters and wine glasses – emblazoned with their name or logo.  We aren’t talking about those; we mean wineries with sizable retail establishments.

The shop at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Most of these are in Napa Valley, with a few in Sonoma County.  There are some where we make a point, whenever we visit, to see what they’re selling because we have occasionally found things we like and bought some gifts.  Among these is Robert Mondavi Winery, where our primary interest is the wine, of course.  They have an extensive gift shop that is particularly attractive at Christmastime.  The shop has an interesting selection of books, mostly of the coffee-table variety, on wine and wineries.  Besides books, we have bought Christmas-tree ornaments and decorative ceramics there.

Beringer Vineyards also features beautiful wares for Christmas.  Their shop is not very large, but they do have quite a few beautiful things.  Once again, the reason to visit is not for the shopping, but for the wine and the architecture.  Still, there are lovely items available for sale.

Inglenook Vineyard, once known as Niebaum Coppola, is a testimonial to the life, career (and ego) of Francis Ford Coppola, the film director.  Despite that, Inglenook makes some top-end wine, especially their Rubicon blend.  The architecture and grounds are attractive and the selection in their shop is, for a winery, extensive and idiosyncratic.  On several occasions, we have bought tablecloths there; like many of their items these evoked Mr. Coppola’s Italian-American heritage.  The products on sale differ every time we have been to Inglenook, so other than corkscrews and coasters, don’t expect to find the same things twice.

Photo courtesy of Darioush.

The most opulent winery shopping experience is to be found at Darioush (which to our opinion is way too much.)  In keeping with their Persian temple architecture, the items they sell are luxurious, perhaps extravagant. Many of them are Iranian-themed, such as a pomegranate plate or Persian cookbooks.  The handbags and clothing, housewares and backgammon sets are all beautiful and well-made. Management at Darioush has made it clear to us that their intended market for their wines is interested in luxury items, which they also extend in their non-wine wares.

You may notice that we haven’t mentioned prices.  None of the winery shops are inexpensive. Likewise, all the shopping locations we mention are also producers of top-quality wine.  That’s probably not a coincidence.  People who like great wine are also likely to be customers for beautiful goods.  At the same time, there are many other wineries with excellent wine who only focus on the wine-tasting experience, not merchandise.  Our advice is to visit wineries for the wine.  If there are pretty things to buy, why not look them over?

Dealing with Wine Country Crowds

One of the famous sayings that Yogi Berra was supposed to have uttered was “Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded”.  You may want to remember that if you should find yourself, say, on Route 29 in Napa Valley on a sunny July 4 weekend.  Everybody knows (whoever everybody is) that it will be mobbed with wine lovers, tourists, partiers, kids, bachelorettes and assorted hangers-on.  The roads are clogged; you can’t get near a server in wineries and as for getting an answer to a question, well, as we say in Brooklyn, fuhgeddaboudit.

So why go?  That may be your only day in the area or you promised some people you’d take them when they were in town.  Here are a few tips for making the best of it.

  • Avoid the big names. Sure, it’s fun to visit the wineries you’re familiar with but those are the ones that will likely attract the biggest crowds.  Even in regular times, we’ve felt overwhelmed at places like Domaine Chandon and Silver Oak.  So consider some of the lesser known, more out of the way wineries.  For instance, if you really want to try some sparkling, you might want to go to Iron Horse in Sebastopol.

The Iron Horse tasting “room”.  Wine tasting as in the old days.  Photo courtesy of shop.ironhorsevineyards.com

  • Take your glasses outside. An advantage of Iron Horse is that their tasting “room” is and was outdoors, even before Covid forced that on every winery.  Many wineries have terraces or picnic areas where you can sip under the blue skies.  We enjoy the combination of wine and good weather under any circumstances.  We remember well a visit to Etude one Martin Luther King Birthday weekend when we sat outside in a pair of Adirondack chairs, while a nice server came by periodically and made sure we hadn’t run out of Pinot Noir.
  • Use the auxiliary tasting rooms. Some top wineries, such as Chateau Montelena or Beaulieu Vineyard, maintain secondary tasting rooms specifically to deal with crowded days.  If you make it clear that you’d prefer some relative peace and quiet instead of being in the middle of the action, they will be glad to accommodate you.
  • Make appointments. This is a good idea on weekends, much less holidays.  During the pandemic, most wineries are by appointment only, anyway.  But when it’s over, the masses will return, perhaps in greater numbers after being away for so long.  With an appointment, you usually will get a seated tasting, which by itself limits the size of the crowds.
  • Don’t try to visit too many wineries. The less time you spend on the road, the better off you are.  So limit you tastings to a few places, preferably fairly close to one another.  Think about the places you’d like to stay for a while, for both wine tasting and other reasons.  Some wineries have beautiful gardens.  Others have outstanding art collections.  And some are just lovely places to be.  Take advantage of them.

“Downtown” Calistoga.  Photo courtesy of TripSavvy.

  • Consider in-town tastings. As a general rule, we prefer to be in towns, such as Calistoga or Healdsburg, on weekends rather than out in the vineyards.  There are an increasing number of top wineries opening tasting rooms on the streets.  Even if they’re crowded, and they are sometimes, you can stroll around a bit until you can find a spot at a bar.

These are all Napa/Noma tips, but the same ideas apply in European wineries, if you happen to be there for their holidays.