As spring finally arrives, vineyards across the world are bursting into green glory. This is the perfect time of year to go on a wine trip and experience all of spring’s exuberance in the vineyard. One doesn’t have to go far to do that. In Illinois and Michigan alone, there are multiple tasting rooms and vineyards within 90 minutes of Chicago not to mention several wine trails in the southern half of Illinois.
If you want to travel further, the U.S. has wineries in every state so there are plenty of options everywhere. But how do you decide where to go and what do to when you get there? First of all, decide how much time you have. If you’re heading to Napa or Sonoma, you need at least 3 days to accommodate the flight to SFO, the 90 minute drive to wine country, and the time change.
Decide what kind of wines you want to taste. Do you want more familiar European varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir? If so, you’ll likely need to head to either the East or West coast where growing conditions are more moderate. If you’re more adventurous, American grapes such as Concord, Norton, and Catawba are grown throughout the U.S. affording more centrally-located tasting opportunities.
Decide what kind of experience you want. Do you want glamorous or rustic tasting rooms, well-known, large, or more boutique wineries, and do you want to join a larger group or have a custom experience?
Decide what kind of tasting you want. Do you want to do a tour of the cellar and/or vineyard along with a tasting, a guided tasting only where someone explains the wines to you, or to just drop in informally at your leisure and taste wines alone?
Now that you’re ready to plan your trip, here are some tips and ideas on where to go to aid in your adventure.
Wine Trip/Tasting Tips
Plan ahead. Many wineries start getting crowded this time of year and if there are specific wineries you want to see or tours you want to experience, make an appointment before you go. Most wineries are open between 10am-5pm.
Don’t schedule more than two wineries a day if you’re doing a tour and tasting. Most of these last 90 minutes and combined with driving between wineries, two is usually a good amount to enjoy them without feeling stressed. If you have more time, you can drop in and just do another tasting along the way.
Invest in a driver. Yes, it’s more expensive but its far better than hanging out in the local jail for a night or having an accident.
Eat breakfast. I was behind two ladies heading to their first wine tasting one morning and overheard them saying they were on diets so they skipped breakfast in order to eat more later. I told them if you’re only eating once on a wine tasting, it needs to be breakfast. Wine on an empty stomach not only makes for a short day but guarantees a headache.
Spit early and often. Yes, it’s kind of gross and awkward but it will make the difference between your day ending at 11am or 5pm. Try it at home and note how much wine is in your spit bucket at the end of a tasting – that’s how much wine you didn’t drink.
Feel free to try only the wines you think you like. If you dislike white wine, it’s ok to just go straight to reds. But the point of wine tasting is to learn and make new discoveries so stay open-minded and try it all (just spit).
Don’t take the tasting glasses unless the winery says its ok (or you can purchase them).
Bring water. Many wineries will have it but when things get crowded, water usually becomes the second priority behind wine. Bring your own and you’ll stay hydrated.
Take breaks and eat between wineries.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Winery staffers enjoy talking about their wines when people are genuinely interested. No question is too basic and, in an ideal world, the best outcome of a wine trip is to enjoy it so much that you want to keep learning about wines long after the trip ends.
Where to go
Napa has a glitzier feel with dramatic tasting rooms and big crowds. Known for its big red Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines due to its slightly warmer climate, you’ll find many different varieties including Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Del Dotto does one of the most interesting tours through its barrel room tasting. It’s a great way to learn about different varieties and how different types of oak influence the wine.
Sonoma’s cooler climate produces exceptional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines. Cabernet Sauvignon also excels in Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill (smaller AVAs in Sonoma). Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley is also a specialty of the region. Iron Horse, located in the very cool Green Valley AVA, is an iconic stop if you have time to get there. Sebastiani has a chic and spacious tasting room with a diverse tasting menu and laid-back vibe. Note that Sonoma is three times the size of Napa so driving distances can be further (but well worth it).
If you want to feel like a cowboy for a few days, Paso Robles is a good option. This area offers a more rustic experience, casual feel, and very big red wines. Paso is notoriously warm with steep temperature drops at night which helps to preserve the wine’s acidity. Try Daou Winery for elegant and powerful reds.
Santa Barbara is another incredible option offering one of the most diverse grape variety line-ups of anywhere I’ve been. Start in the cool Sta. Rita Hills for stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay then move east to Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon for elegant Bordeaux reds. Melville Winery (known for its Pinot Noir), Jonata (huge reds by the same owner as cult favorite Screaming Eagle), Stolpman (Rhone variety specialist) and StarLane’s elegant and pristine reds and white wines are all must-sees for this area.
Oregon is another terrific wine-tasting region. With the Portland airport only 45 minutes from wine country, a quick weekend here is very accessible. Oregon is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also produces fantastic Riesling and Syrah. You won’t find Cabernet in Willamette Valley (the wine area closest to Portland), so if that’s a requirement for you, head to California.
There are many winery options here too with some of my favorites being Archery Summit (breath-taking site and highly elegant wines), Sokol Blosser (interesting wine blends), Ponzi, and Four Graces (haunting Pinot Noirs). If you’re in the Eugene area, don’t miss Iris Vineyards with their idyllic site and incredibly well-made Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris (among others).
Within the Chicago area
If you want the feel of a real farm and vineyard, head west to Waterman Winery & Vineyards. This is a quaint and rustically beautiful site that produces wines from American and hybrid grape varieties. Fox River Valley has a bustling tasting room in Naperville and Broken Earth (who owns a vineyard in Paso Robles) offers their wine in a hip tasting room located in Buffalo Grove.
Happy Spring and enjoy your trip!