I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of wine regions in the U.S. and Europe. Those experiences were incredibly instructive and memorable, but there have been instances where I have left a winery or a region and felt disappointed. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is far more the exception than a rule that I feel anything less than completely happy and appreciative when I leave a winery visit. With that said, I find that it is important to be fully honest about visits because people often only see the beauty of wine reviews and Instagram-worthy photos of visits by wine critics and those “In the business.”
Access is one of the most significant problems in the world of wine, in my opinion. There are very clearly the “haves” and “have nots,” or at least those who can command opportunities that everyday wine enthusiasts cannot. That goes for access to the world’s most prestigious wines to taste, buy and drink, as well as access to the cellar door at those wineries. For example, some of my all-time favorite wines are the Sangiovese wines made by Biondi-Santi. In 2018, I tried to secure an appointment to visit Biondi-Santi while on a trip through Montalcino. When I contacted the winery, I was told that I could not visit because I was not part of the wine trade. To say that I was disappointed by that answer is an absolute understatement – a Biondi-Santi Rosso was the wine that opened my eyes to the world of fine wine. However, it has become clear to me that some wineries are not interested in welcoming average wine drinkers or wine enthusiasts, and only want to entertain those who will post an article or story about some outrageous back-vintage vertical that causes us average enthusiasts to salivate with envy.
There are also those wineries that will never respond to emails or calls to request tasting appointments. That certainly can be an exasperating exercise, but is something that most people can accept and work through. For every winery that hasn’t responded to my emails or tasting appointment requests, there have been 2 or 3 that have welcomed me happily.
Lastly, and sometimes most frustrating, is the cost and budget hit that comes with winery visits. In France, I visited and tasted at some of the best wineries in the Rhone Valley, and those appointments required no tasting fee at all. Often, I left a tad disappointed because there was no wine to buy at those visits either because it had all been allocated for export or sale. But those that did sold me wine at a price I could never imagine in the U.S. – less than half the retail price at my local wine shop. That is also assuming the wine shop has any of those wines to sell and hasn’t previously allocated the wines to their best customers. Again, access. In Italy and Spain, most of the wineries I have visited had moderate or modest tasting/tour fees, but they have sold wines at the cellar door at prices in line with those at French wineries and less than half of U.S. retail.
By contrast, winery visits in the U.S. have typically come with hefty tasting fee price tags – upwards of $50 per person for a private tasting and pours of the best wines they produce. Even more maddening, unlike in Europe, there is no cellar door price discount or difference from retail. In fact, the cellar door at nearly every winery I have visited in Napa and Sonoma has been MORE expensive than the price for the same exact wine at a wine shop in Napa/Sonoma. To say that is an annoying realization is an understatement. It tends to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, that in addition to a substantial tasting fee, the cost of the wine at the winery is above retail. After those trips, I have felt a bit cheated and disappointed.
All of this is not to say that trips to wine regions are not special or worth the effort, they absolutely are. I would encourage everyone to take the opportunity, if they have it, to visit wine regions and wineries as part of their travels. Those visits are great educational experiences for wine enthusiasts. However, there are some less than ideal truths that come with scheduling and visiting wineries. These aren’t things that you will read about when a wine critic or wine influencer writes a review, but for everyday wine enthusiasts, they are a reality.