Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> Winery Visits in the Post COVID-19 World

Winery Visits in the Post COVID-19 World
What to expect on your wine trip
By Mark Gapinski

As life slowly begins to return to something that resembles normal, wineries once again are open for tasting visits. Since April of 2021, I’ve been on three winery tasting trips, all within the United States. A conversation with a customer a few weeks ago encouraged me to prepare this article to share my experiences and hopefully help readers better anticipate and plan their wine country visits. Probably the biggest change in visiting wineries is the need for reservations. This trend was getting legs before the pandemic, but now, virtually all of the top-tier wineries require reservations. This necessitates a good deal more planning than was needed in the past. Reservations are convenient to make on the winery’s website. Punctuality is now important, with more than one winery offering only a 15-minute grace period. I asked a host at one winery I visited if he thought reservations were here to stay. He thought it likely they would be. Two factors are driving the need for reservations. The first is staffing. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers left the industry. They have been slow to return, and hiring qualified staff at the wineries is difficult. Reservations help match the number of visitors to the number of staff. Second, the customer feedback indicates that the visitor experience is much improved. I can’t argue with this. In the past, I enjoyed the thrill of spotting a roadside sign for a winery I had just recently heard of and stopping in for a visit on the spot. Now, I probably will need a reservation, but ultimately my tasting will be even more enjoyable. Bellying up to the tasting bar for your glass of Chardonnay has generally disappeared. Every tasting I’ve attended recently has been table-seated either indoors or outside. This is a huge improvement. Conversations about the wine within your visitor group and with the host/hostess are greatly facilitated. The tasting experience feels elevated and less chaotic.

Free tastings have been gone for so long that an entire generation (or two) of wine lovers don’t even know they ever existed! These days I’d estimate the average basic tasting cost has swollen to around $45 with a range of $25-$75. You can spend a lot more for tastings focusing on high-end or library wines. Many wineries will waive some or all of the tasting fee with wine purchases at a certain dollar amount.

I typically visit three wineries a day with reservations at 11:00 am, 1:00, and 3:00 pm. A two-visit day is more relaxing and allows for a more leisurely lunch, but hey, I can have a leisurely lunch anywhere! Sixty to ninety minutes is the typical visit duration. Be sure to understand how long it takes to get from one winery to another. Two locations can look very close on the map, but the mountain in the middle may make the actual path much longer. Use Google Maps to chart the route to know how long it will take.

More wineries now offer light snacks for purchase with the tastings. This could be an assortment of cheeses, charcuterie, or fruit and nuts. Some even offer a small bite paired with each wine. In the past, I might have brought something I picked up at a wine country deli or market to nosh on at the tasting. This is now considered poor form if the winery offers food (or perhaps even if they don’t!). Check the winery's website to be sure.

If you find yourself in the wine country and you haven’t had time to plan and make reservations, all is not lost. There still are smaller wineries that do not require reservations. There are also a few tasting rooms where wines from multiple producers are poured. These often do not require a reservation. The Carlton Winemaker’s Guild in the Willamette Valley is a good example. Once you wrangle your way into at least one tasting, don’t hesitate to ask your host or hostess for advice on where your next tasting or two could be. Often, these folks are aware of small, high-quality producers that might be able to accommodate a visit on short notice. I’ve discovered two or three gems using just this approach. If you’re especially charming, sometimes they will even call ahead for you and arrange your visit!

Visiting a wine-producing area remains one of life’s little pleasures. You may have to be a bit more organized these days than you did before the pandemic, but your experience will be even better. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Spontaneity finds a way,”. Even a day in the wine country that you have organized with the precision of a  military invasion will inevitably produce some experience you hadn’t imagined. And what a delight it will be.