Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
November 5, 2009
One of the great joys for wine lovers is a trip to the vineyards.Not only is wine country inevitably beautiful – after all, grapes tend to grow best in the best places – but wine seems to taste better at its place of origin. Few things are more pleasurable than sitting on a winery patio in the warm sun, gazing out over rows of vines that hang heavy with clusters of grapes, and sipping from a glass bearing the fruits of that very patch of land. Once you get a whiff of the experience you may be hooked for life.Wine trips come in many forms and if you haven’t spent a lot of time traveling to wine country, then the how-to of planning a journey may be as intimidating as, say, navigating a Wine Spectator Grand Award list. Where to go? Where to stay? How many wineries to visit? Should I go solo or with a group? So many options.If you are flush with cash and that most precious of all commodities, time, then have at it. Pick one of the world’s iconic wine regions like France’s Burgundy or Piemont in Northern Italy and catch a plane, then a train, get a driver and a translator, book a room in a Relais & Chteaux property and spoil yourself. There you will meet families with generations-long heritages working the vineyards, eat in restaurants that are meticulous about preparing foods to pair with the wines of the region rather that the other way around, and stroll through wine caves that reek of vintages past and the winemakers who have come before.It is possible to arrange such a trip on one’s own – after all, money can open many doors – but for a novice with wealth it may be best to find an organized group. Say Butterfield and Robinson (founder George Butterfield began his eponymous luxury travel company in Burgundy) or seek out someone like Steve Humble of the Roaring Fork Club who recently took a group on a pilgrimage to Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Aspen local Joyce Falcone has trekked more than 1,800 miles of Italian soil, much of it covered in vines, while leading tours. Her company The Italian Concierge (italianconcierge.us) can arrange a journey that will inspire any wine lover.Blessed with time but far fewer shekels? Look for a wine region where the dollar can go further. Off the beaten path is a clich but there are places like Mendoza on the eastern slope of the Argentine Andes, Canada’s Okanagan Valley or the Barossa Valley of South Australia that certainly fit that description and, as of this writing, all have currencies that can help your Benjamins buy more wine. If you can swing a trip to any of those places it will be an adventure for both the psyche and the palate and inevitably will make you an ambassador for the wines you taste along the way.But for most of us here, the words “honey, let’s take a trip to wine country” usually means “let’s go to Napa.”Thanks largely to the passion of the late Robert Mondavi, who spent a half-century promoting his vision of the good life, the Napa Valley has come to define wine country travel. From the great hotels like Meadowood, Auberge Du Soleil and the more recent Calistoga Ranch, to iconic eateries such as The French Laundry, to the visitor-friendly tasting rooms found at most of the Valley’s wineries, Napa offers what may be the best wine travel in the world.It is beautiful and it is accessible – less than 90 minutes from the San Francisco airport. It is also compact enough, at 30 miles from toe to tip, that you can get a feel for it in a few days, though you may end up wishing you had a lifetime to spend in the Valley. A Napa trip is as great for novices who are just wetting their wine country whistle as it is for aficionados who have traveled far and wide in search of new grapes, new wineries and new vistas.All one needs to make a wine trip happen is the aforementioned shekels and precious time. Here’s hoping you have a bit of both.Bon Voyage.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.