World's Top Wine Tours
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.
French Wine Explorers: Best for Access to Top Producers
French Wine Explorers (one-day itineraries for up to four people from $1,100) will take you to many of the wineries responsible for the bottles in collectors’ cellars. The company operates throughout France and Italy, but the shining jewel is the Bordeaux Prestige Tour. This year it included stops at the five first growths of the Médoc and the difficult-to-access Château d’Yquem, which makes some of the world’s most important sweet wine, coupled with accommodations at Pauillac’s Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron, a popular Bordeaux second growth. (Wineries of similar caliber are included in trips to Burgundy, Champagne, and Tuscany.) The Bordeaux Prestige Tour is offered three times annually, usually in May and June.
The Caveat: The cultural components of these trips are limited. “Our days are centered around the most exclusive wine estates in each region,” says owner Pascale Bernasse. That doesn’t leave time for cooking classes or art museums.
BKWine: Best for Meeting Winemakers
Swedish wine writer and author Britt Karlsson, a Paris resident since 1990, organizes 20 tours annually to wine regions in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Austria through her BKWine (four-day itineraries for two from $2,020). She concentrates on small producers—not always the most famous, but typically high-quality and representative of the region—and her groups are met by the proprietors, not paid guides. Visits often include informal lunches at the estate.
The Caveat: Karlsson only offers English-language tours to France and Portugal; the rest are conducted in Swedish (custom trips are also available in English). Accommodations are comfortable, but don’t expect Michelin-starred meals. “They take too long,” Karlsson says.
Vintage Spain: Best for Cultural Immersion
Many group tours feel overly insular, like you’re hopscotching from place to place without connecting with anyone along the way. Vintage Spain (four-day itineraries for two from $2,000), based in the northern Spanish town of Burgos, conducts excursions that immerse guests in the authentic life and culture of the country’s great wine regions (Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and beyond). Meals are eaten at restaurants with regional specialties, and itineraries combine winery visits with museums, historic sites, even cooking classes. Whenever possible, groups stay at inns in converted buildings such as the 100-year-old Castillo El Collado, in Laguardia, and occasionally even in rooms at winemakers’ houses.
The Caveat: Schedules are not set in stone and can be modified or even occasionally canceled. And while bunking in winemakers’ houses sounds charming, it can feel more like visiting distant cousins than luxury lodging.
Zephyr Adventures: Best for Getting Exercise
Montana-based Zephyr Adventures (five-day itineraries for two from $3,600) has been running active trips for more than a decade, and recently the company added wine itineraries that bring travelers to such destinations as Oregon, Sonoma, Argentina, and South Africa. The trips incorporate biking, hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing, mixed with winery visits at established names like Napa’s Clos du Val. “We won’t focus on one vintage versus another, but more basic things such as, ‘Do you like this wine?’” says owner Allan Wright.
The Caveat: Don’t expect the highest-scoring wineries in each region, but a range of producers from industrial to boutique. The trips will also challenge the unfit: most itineraries require a short, medium, and long bike ride or hike every day.
X.O. Travel Consultants: Best for Following a True Insider
New York–based X.O. Travel Consultants (weeklong itineraries for two from $11,000) caters to industry types such as sommeliers and restaurateurs, but occasionally trips are open to wine-loving amateurs and often feature renowned experts serving as tour guides. Two annual Burgundy itineraries stand out: author and wine personality Clive Coates leads a trip in June, and wine-ratings maven Allen “Burghound” Meadows, the Robert Parker of the Côte d’Or, does the same in July. The latter is particularly intriguing to Burgundy fanatics because Meadows’s programs focus on the wines of one particular village (in 2011 it will be Gevrey Chambertin), zeroing in on vineyards and providing an almost row-by-row examination. Both trips schedule tastings and vineyard visits all day, punctuated by meals at noteworthy restaurants.
The Caveat: These intense tours are not for wine dilettantes. Expect to taste as many as 30 wines a day and spend hours discussing vineyards’ terroirs.
Arblaster & Clarke: Best for Visiting Undiscovered Regions
If Napa, Bordeaux, and Tuscany feel overdone, scan the list of available destinations from Arblaster & Clarke (two-day itineraries for two from $1,054) for somewhere off the beaten path. The British company offers an extensive menu of tours—from weeklong extravaganzas to power tastings—and specializes in nontraditional locales from Croatia to Uruguay. A recent six-day trip to Austria included a tasting with a master of wine at the Austrian Wine Academy as well as visits with renowned winemakers such as Heidi Schrock, who oversees her family’s operation.
The Caveat: The Arblaster office can be hard to reach, and it isn’t just because of the time difference. E-mails may go unanswered as the overextended staff tries to plan and run more than 70 wine trips a year. Patience and advance notice are sometimes required to make the relationship work.
LongIslandWineCountry.com: Best for Picking Grapes
Today’s experiential traveler wants to participate rather than merely observe. But while working a harvest usually means backbreaking, dawn-to-dusk labor, an increasing number of companies have constructed tours that get you in the vineyard during the prettiest—and most productive—weeks of the growing cycle, and get some juice stains on your hands along the way. In addition to other tours during the summer and fall, LongIslandWineCountry.com (one-day itineraries for two from $259) requisitions the Chilean-owned North Fork winery Laurel Lake for one afternoon every September and leads 150 visitors through the harvest, with optional blending seminars (using juice from a previous vintage).
The Caveat: You’ll literally be picking grapes for only about 20 minutes, not actually working the harvest in the romantic, we’re-all-in-this-together sense. Don’t expect foxhole camaraderie with the winemakers, who are likely to be sleepless and stressed during the most intense time of the year. But if you decide to blend the wine ($45), you will get to take home a bottle.
Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L’s wine and spirits editor.