As a professional wine writer, I’ve always found the idea of my taking a wine tour to be the equivalent of a rock star playing air guitar or a PGA golfer competing at mini golf. After two decades of chronicling the most interesting places and personalities in the wine world, I figured I knew as much as any operator. And my credentials could get me to places that the big tour buses couldn’t.
But then I visited Paso Robles, between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. On a lark, I signed up for a half-day bus tour with Wine Wrangler (half-day itineraries for two from $104). Paso has more than 200 producers; had I shown up on my own, as usual, I would have stuck to those I already knew. I’d have missed out on J. Lohr (too big, I thought) and Silver Horse and Summerwood (perhaps too small). I’d never have discovered that Lone Madrone is part-owned by the winemaker at the respected Tablas Creek, nor experienced the black fruits and bass notes of Silver Horse’s Malbec.
As it was, I learned something at every stop while enjoying the company of an eclectic collection of enthusiasts. It was refreshing to not be responsible for finding my way between appointments, and I loved being able to actually drink wine at lunch without having to worry about a designated driver. Best of all, I came away with new wines to recommend from worthy producers, most of which I hadn’t known existed earlier that morning.
With a wine tour it’s possible to gain entrée to the world’s most renowned producers, eat memorable meals, travel in sumptuous luxury, immerse yourself in local culture, even to break a sweat on a bike or a hike—but not all on the same trip. That makes matching your level of interest with the proper itinerary a vital part of the planning process, lest you find yourself shuffling through museums when you want to be tramping through vineyards, or vice versa. Keeping that in mind, I’ve come up with my picks of wine-tour companies to match most every motivation.