Winery Tours, Part 1: For Beginners

If you enjoy wine tasting and you’ve never taken a tour of a winery, you really ought to do it.  Wine making is one part farming, one part artistry and one part industry.  When we open bottles at home, we can see the artistry, how winemakers have induced humble grapes to tempt the eye, nose and tongue.  There’s a little bit of the industrial side as well, if you count the marketing that goes into the labels.

When you are actually there at a winery all three parts are right in front of you: the vineyards, the gleaming bottles and glasses at the bar and that factory right behind the tasting room.  Skipping that last part is to willfully ignore some of the mystery that ends when you swallow but begins in the field.  You really ought to gain an understanding of how the wine got from that vineyard to your mouth.

What follows is a word picture of a winery tour.  Keep in mind that this is a generalization, as each winery does more than a few things its own way.

Destemming at Saintsbury in Carneros

The grapes arrive at the winery in huge bins, packed to overflowing.  The stems and everything that isn’t grapes are removed and then the grapes are pressed.  (No, they don’t use feet anymore.)  The juice is transferred to vats and yeast is added to turn the sugar into alcohol.  Once that occurs and all the scummy stuff is removed, the juice is transferred to even larger vats where they are blended to get the mix that will eventually be wine.  From there the soon-to-be-wine is stored in barrels for months.  Finally it is pumped into bottles and the bottles are put in boxes to be sent to wine stores near you.

The barrel room at Donnafugata in Sicily

So now that we’ve told you how it’s done, why bother going?

  • There’s nothing like seeing it yourself.  It’s the same reason you go to a museum rather than looking at pictures on your cell phone.  There is the pleasure of knowing what the process actually looks like.  It’s not just bragging rights with your friends; it’s the internal satisfaction of having been there.
  • It may be a part of the tasting.  Quite a few wineries, particularly some of the best ones, are proud of the way they make wine and include a tour in the tasting and in fact you can’t taste without touring.  A few wineries that come to mind are Chappelet, Jordan and Cain in the US, almost all of the major châteaux in Bordeaux, and Biondi-Santi in Tuscany.
  • You get a sense of how difficult winemaking is.  Particularly if you have a chance to visit during the press, you’ll see how labor intensive the process of making wine can be, how much an investment needs to be made in equipment and personnel and how long the time is before the winery can make any money from the work that is done. So the next time you shell out some serious bucks at the wine store, you can say to yourself, “Yeah, I get it.  I know why it costs so much.”  Okay, maybe it still costs too much, but you’ll understand where the costs come from.

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