Winery Visit - Why Do You Do It? (long, but wth)

In the last month I’ve visited some wineries in the Mosel region of Germany, and then yesterday, Napa (I live in San Francisco). Plenty of wonderful wine, but in terms of interaction and design, the visits could not have been more different. This really got me thinking about why I like to visit wineries. And curious about when and why you all do! So, some thoughts on the subject.

The Wine – well yes, this is obvious enough. While certainly one can buy some bottles from a producer and try them at home, it’s hard to buy a lot and sample all at once to get a good understanding of a winemaker’s style, a vintage, a varietal, or even a region. And many wines in a producer’s stable are not available at retail. So for me, this is one of my main goals - education.

The Land – admittedly this is odd, but it’s important to me. I like seeing where the wines come from. What does that terrain look like, are the vines on hillsides, in valleys, overlooking rivers? Maybe I’m just a visual thinker. And I very much enjoy driving, walking, cycling – exploring beautiful places, whether in a wine region or not. But this gives me a connection between a place and a wine that deepens my understanding and puts a smile on my place. Who cannot be pleased by standing in a beautiful place enjoying rugged hillsides slashed by impertinent, orderly rows of vines?

The Room – this one shouldn’t matter, but I’m always intrigued by how the wine maker presents his (non-bottled) outward face to the world. Is it a dull retail shop? Connected to an actual wine making facility? An office, a living room, a spare converted room, a hideously garish faux-medieval castle? I’m always intrigued by this element of the tasting interaction, as I think it reveals wonderful tidbits about the winemaker, his/her community, and world view.

The Winery – I always find this to be the least interesting part of the tour. Oh look – barrels. Vats. Yawn. Though there have been some fascinating divergences from the typical, whether it’s the casual floor drain we are offered to spit in when visiting the cellar, or the ancient Roman wall still holding up part of the facility.

The Host – Well I’ve saved the best for last. The hosts for winery visits tell you a lot about a region, the local wine culture and economy. In California (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino are where I’ve visited the most) the most common host is a retail salesperson. Usually more of an enthusiast than an expert, the best I hope for from these folks is politeness and efficiency, and they almost always do a good job on this score. They are in the business of hospitality, and in California the goal is to sell wine. These folks know a lot of details about the wine, where it comes from, how it was made, but in a “reading from the script” way, not in any deep sense. At best, for me, they neither add nor subtract from the experience. I imagine that Europeans that visit California are deeply disappointed by these interactions though. They are impersonal.

Meeting actual winemakers at tastings (even private ones, scheduled far in advance) is extremely unusual in California, though more likely the further you get from Napa. Even in the Anderson Valley, a relatively remote region, with a lot of small local wineries and very low traffic on a weekday, out of 20 or so tastings over several visits I can only remember two tastings with a winemaker.

In Burgundy, I think I always tasted with the winemaker on my one tour (though indeed visits were challenging to get). In the Mosel last month, 6 out of 9 visits involved an owner/winemaker, and the other three were with very knowledgeable hosts, quite unlike the typical retail salesperson in California.

Meeting with the winemaker absolutely deepened the experience of learning about the wines in a way that would otherwise be impossible. And some interactions I’ve had – a personal tour of the ancient cellar by Veronique Drouhin, or discussing politics with Dirk Richter – were unique and unforgettable. Hosts like Clemens and Rita Busch, or Christophe Schaefer, were so earnest and committed to their land, family, history, winery and wine one couldn’t help but be infected by their love for what they do.

In terms of education, I’m not sure that I learn more details or facts when I get to taste with the winemaker. But I do make a much stronger emotional, personal and deep connection that I find harder to forget. It’s fundamentally a different kind of experience.

Maybe we need a CT for winery visits – it’s so very hard to know what to expect!

Why do others do winery visits? Best and worst experiences?

I have been several times to Napa/Sonoma and have a great time there. But, as you say, the visits there from even the best people there are more sterile and impersonal compared with ones in some European regions where you get to meet owners or winemakers. We have done this most often in Burgundy. Usually, at the bigger houses there like Jadot, Drouhin or Bouchard, you don’t get the winemaker. It must have been special to have a tour from Veronique Drouhin (we had a similar experience at Bouchard when we were given a tour by Philippe Prost). But, I really enjoy going to small wineries in Burgundy (or Alsace where we have had similar experiences) and getting to know at least somewhat the people who make the wine, etc.

Bordeaux generally is more like California at least at the bigger estates. It is quite special to see the grand estates there, but except for a couple of places where we were taken around by cellarmasters (at Ducru and Domaine de Chevalier) the people were more like the ones you would find in a Napa winery.

One exception in California for us was Stony Hill where we were taken around by a cousin of the person running the winery who was working there a year ago when we were there. It was a lot of fun going around with him.

Great analysis Rich. I found myself nodding my head yes even to the parts you thought odd. Enjoying the land and the room and getting a seen one, seen 'em all feel to the winery tour even though there are some interesting and significant differences at some places. An enjoyable read.

Can I confess something? I don’t think I like going wine tasting. :astonished:

I like going on vacation. I enjoy the land and walking the vineyards. And, of course, any time I can talk to someone active in the winery about geeky stuff, it heightens the experience significantly. But I don’t think “wine-tasting” at winery visits is an effective way to evaluate wines. And after a couple wineries, they do all feel somewhat the same.

If I want a wine-centered vacation I think I’d prefer to spend the tasting room fees (x4 or x6 as we travel with friends) on the bottles I know we’ll enjoy and choose the locations and settings to accompany the wine and company.

Great post, OP.

Do European vineyards normally receive a lot of visitors? and a lot of general visitors who are simply sightseeing? Just curious since for areas like Napa, I can’t see how most wineries could manage the quantity of visitors in a more personal way. Certainly, caring about the quality of tasting room staff makes sense - but I imagine it’s pretty costly to hire or invest in the time needed to seriously train staff who would be knowledgeable at a deeper level.

Just wondering about the business realities.

I can agree with a lot of what the OP says. I am not really sure what I like most, but I do enjoy the experience of visiting. Actually I DO enjoy the winery tour, even. Often it is the incidental things that are most interesting and enjoyable, rather than the message that is being given explicitly by your host.

I would also comment that there can be huge difference between what owner/manager might tell you, and what the winemaker actually does and thinks. To find out the truth about what happens in the winery you need to get as close as possible to someone who is hands-on.

Do European vineyard normally receive a lot of visitors? Well, it depends. Some do, some don’t. But generally I think it must be a lot less than in Napa.

They charge $100+ per person for a visit. Makes the business reality part real simple to manage :wink:

Probably (wild guess) European wineries do receive fewer visitors. When I think back to times when I wasn’t alone visiting a producer in Europe, nearly always the other folks were ITB. Maybe it’s just something casual wine lovers do less.

I do find winery visits incredibly educational though. When else can you try more than two or three bottles from a single producer? Some of my recent tastings in Germany at 15 - 20 wines sampled!

I don’t need a visit to see the vineyards. There are detailed maps that show terrain and geography and I can see what the vineyard land looks like without actually walking on it.
I can drink wines that sound interesting at home, so tasting together doesn’t necessarily make for a better experience.
Meeting winemakers/owners is the most fun, because you get a sense of the craft and their relationship to it. I’ve been lucky to have good memories of these before things became too commercial.
Sometimes best of all is visiting wine stores near wine areas where the staff have stories they can share about winemakers/owners that you simply won’t find anywhere else.

Great post.

I think the times I’d disagree with you about the Winery tour is when you get to learn particular things about how they do things. But just generically seeing barrels and vats and bottling lines is fairly dull.

I also disagree a bit with the generalization that America = soulless corporate tasting rooms and Europe = profound time with winemakers. In both cases, I think’s it’s a matter of where you go, what ins you have, and what you set up.

Great post.

  • Visited Mosel last month, wonderful visits at Zilliken and Reinhold Haart, learnt plenty about Rieslings from the wine makers at these two estates.

  • I am staying in a concrete jungle, countryside always makes me smile.


  • (Occasionally) to visit a favourite producer and see where it all happens. A sort of pilgrimage.
  • To learn
  • To investigate new vintages, buying what I like (and can carry back), or influencing what I buy back home
  • To investigate producers that are new to me, but sound interesting
  • To experience Italian hospitality (these days winery visits are almost always in Italy)
  • When in the wine region, it feels an important element to understand the region beyond some pleasant scenery.

For drop-in cellar door visits, the reasons narrow to just investigating new wines and new vintages. Whilst happy enough to do this in Australia and New Zealand, in Italy the few places that offer this always feel very aloof compared to a pre-arranged visit.

One specific joy in the Langhe, probably replicated in Burgundy as the inheritance laws lead to similar shared ownership of vineyards, is walking the vineyards, either with a picnic or to walk off a meal / build an appetite for a meal. Freedom to walk through the vineyards gives a lovely sense of place (and on very rare occasions first hand experience of spraying techniques!). After one visit, and some lovely walks around Barbaresco-3 Stelle and Barolo-La Morra, I got some glasses engraved with the vineyards we walked through, so strong was enjoyment of the walks, and wanting a long-term reminder of them.

I fully agree the difference between a trained employee vs. someone sharing insight into the most important thing in their life. There are rare exceptions on both sides, from enthusiastic employees who would love nothing more than to be adopted into the family, to owners/family members who are not happy in what they are doing. Even the grumpy ones can be interesting if you persevere, indeed there can be an intensely serious aspect to some very good winemakers, that can initially appear to be a severe personality.

Most of the wineries in Europe being discussed here are small family-owned businesses. They generally limit the number of visitors they receive pretty severely.

I guess it depends on what you’re visiting for. If you’re visiting to see the place, or because you want to see where the wine you like comes from, what difference does it make if you get taken around by the owner?

If you’re visiting as a tourist and the place gets hundreds of people every day, how “personal” can the experience be made? There is only so much an individual wine maker can do. And it’s not necessarily a great investment of his or her time to spend every free minute talking to guests. There’s still a business to run.

When I was in the business I would visit wineries that we worked with or thought about working with to get to know them better. That had a direct impact on sales. And if I have friends or acquaintances, I’m happy to visit them and learn about what they’re doing. But if I don’t know anyone there, I don’t expect to be treated as a long lost loved one.

Part of it is also the level of interest. If someone’s question is whether there’s 20 or 25% Merlot in the blend, why does it even matter? If you go to a place that is heavily involved in wine tourism, the experience will by definition be somewhat impersonal. Napa pretty much invented it, so I wouldn’t expect things to be up close and personal there unless you know someone. If you go somewhere else, in the US or elsewhere, and they’re not involved in tourism so much, you may get to meet the people involved but remember that it’s also an imposition in many cases, even if you’re a good customer.

That said, most people in any profession are happy to talk about their work and their ideas if there’s a genuine interest and a bit of knowledge on the part of the other participants. Be polite, ask questions, don’t expect more than reasonable attention, and sometimes someone will say, “Hey let me get so and so to talk to you.”

And I want to put in a good word for Martinelli here. I didn’t know a soul, planned to go simply as a tourist with no connections. Somehow Doug Wilder found out and put in a good word and they treated me like some kind of royalty. So sometimes things happen that you don’t expect. Thanks again Doug!

Large corporate places in Europe are similar to those in the States. Small family run places are likewise similar. It is harder to get into the small places. These people are generally pretty busy.


This is an important one for me. I only buy from a handful of California producers, but in every case I have a connection and relationship with the winemaker. Ridge might be the only exception, but even there I’ve been able to accumulate many hours over the years chatting with winemakers Paul and Eric.

Just so many arguments here why we all enjoy small producers such as Arcadian and Tercero. You want to believe its so much more than just drinking, that its a lifestyle and hobby worth pursuing.