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What to Expect on a California Winery Tour

9 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Shopping for Wine

When you visit any winery in California, you can be sure of one thing: The scenery will be beautiful. Beyond that, the experience of touring a California winery can differ depending on which region (and even which winery) you select.

Some regions, such as Napa Valley, have wineries with very sophisticated facilities and programs for visitors. Other regions have wineries that greet visitors with a more down-home approach. Both experiences can be wonderful.

Hours and procedures vary, so check out the winery’s visitor information before you go. Some wineries welcome visitors by appointment only. Other wineries have regularly scheduled tours that you can participate in, but it’s a good idea to know when the tours start. Some wineries charge for tours, and others do not.

Gathering info on winery visits

Here are places where you might want to begin your search for specific info today:

  • Wine Spectator is a valuable source of information on California’s wine regions, the wines they make, the top local restaurants, and so forth.

  • Wine Enthusiast Magazine publishes regular wine travel features.

  • The Appellation America site is an extremely valuable source of information on wine regions not only in California but also elsewhere in North America, including Canada. You find listings of wineries in specific regions, descriptions of the regions and the types of wines made there, and useful tourist information.

  • Wine travel Web sites such as WineCountry.com can not only spark your enthusiasm for your trip but also provide useful contact information for visits to specific wineries.

  • The site Land of Wine and Food aides visitors in their travel to wine and culinary destinations in California. The site is sponsored jointly by the California Travel and Tourism Commission and Wine Institute, California’s wine trade association.

  • Wine or travel Web sites that have forums or message boards are also good places for your planning; for example, Frommer’s has viewer-initiated discussion threads about wineries in Santa Ynez Valley, Temecula, and other California wine regions.

The winery tour

A winery tour is a behind-the-scenes look at the processes that turn the grapes into wine. Some wineries start their tours in the vineyards just outside the winery. If they do, you might also see the outdoor receiving area, where grape growers deposit the harvested grapes.

Most tours focus on the internal part of the winery. You might see some or all of the following:

  • The crushes or presses (machines that convert the whole grapes into a semi-liquid or liquid form suitable for fermentation)

  • The fermentation vessels (huge stainless steel tanks, generally) where the grape juice becomes wine. You follow the progress of a white wine and/or a red wine from the fermentation tanks to the aging vessels, which can be either tanks or oak barrels; some wineries have special rooms full of barrels for aging their red wines.

  • And you might see the bottling room, where the wine enters the bottles and where the corks, labels, and other packaging are affixed to the bottle.

Someone from the winery guides you through this tour and explains what happens at every stage, giving you a history of the winery and its wines along the way. Often, you’re part of a small group with other visitors. Depending on the size of the winery and the number of questions that you or other people in your group ask, the tour can last about 20 minutes to more than half an hour.

To some extent, you see pretty much the same thing at every winery. But if you’re the curious type and are eager to learn, you’ll pick up new information at each winery and gain new insights into the winemaking process. In any case, winemaking is complex, and you most likely won’t understand everything from just one winery tour.

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