Why Travel To Wine Country?

"What's the fastest way to learn about wine?" a friend asked a dozen or so years ago. "Travel," was my reply. "Being where grapes are grown and talking to the people who turn them into wine allows us to connect the dots of agriculture and craft, and better understand why wines taste the way they do." 

Well, it probably wasn't that clear of an answer, but you get the drift.

This thread of land, weather, hard work, and craft is fertile terrain for the romance many associate with wine country travel. It also doesn't hurt that vineyards themselves are pleasing to be around with their orderliness and vibrant abundance. Moreover, they are almost always in bucolic locales where the weather is great, and bordered by scenic topography like farmland, coastlines, forests, or other magical landscapes. 

Sometime in the mid-90's my brother, living in Santa Barbara at the time, took me over the pass into the Santa Ynez Valley for my first foray into wine country. Stephan Bedford, winemaker/owner of the then Bedford-Thompson winery, poured his early releases in a Quonset hut within view of the vineyard he  had planted with his own two hands. Stephan is a gentle bear of a man, and was as real as they come. Missing a thumb from a winery accident, he snuck sips from his Busch Light hidden behind the bar when has wasn't telling us about the land and the grapes, and why he planted that vineyard there. 

In that moment it all clicked; standing on the same land where the wine was grown, experiencing the strong sunshine after a cool night, talking to the guy who had literally put blood, sweat, and tears into a dream of making his very particular type of wines. That morning was the beginning of a journey, and tasting Stephan's wines always brings back that place and time, memories resonating with something much deeper than the liquid in a glass. 

The romance of wine country, as described above at least, comes from witnessing the people and place of wine, offering greater meaning to what's in a bottle. For many, however, the wine country  experience means more about living, if only for a long weekend, a lifestyle emblazoned by luxury hotels, spa experiences, fine dining, and high priced tastings (now also called experiences.) While this has breathed more money and affluence into previously sleepy farming towns, it has also highjacked the charm and authenticity of a quaint, bygone era; art galleries and ateliers have replaced diners and saloons.

Thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule, but a recent trip to Northern California proved that if you're looking the people-place-product version of wine country romance, you need to make an effort to go beyond the Beverly Hills vibe to get to where people's fingernails are dirty from working the land. That effort, too, will help you learn more about wine.