The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How to Visit a Winemaker (And Make Everyone Happy)

Posted on | March 31, 2014 | Written by Janice Cable | 2 Comments

Ornella Tondini at Cupano

Ornella Tondini at Cupano

Ornella Tondini of Cupano shared this post on the estate’s Twitter page today, so I thought it might be a good time to bring it back as a reminder to everyone who is planning a trip to wineries around the world this year. Visiting a winemaker is not like anything else, and this guide will help you do it politely, happily and enjoyably for everyone.

Wine writers give a lot of guidance about how to buy, store, order, consume, analyze, critique and generally enjoy wine. One of the lingering results of the Robert Parker revolution—and one that seems to have resonated on both English-speaking sides of the Atlantic—is a thirst for propriety in the consumption of wine. But in all this listicle-friendly how-to happiness that sets us on the path to full wine enjoyment, one point seems to have gone unnoticed: how to visit wine producers.

And thus I endeavor to fill in the blank and give you a few tips on how to do your cantina visit with the least stress for the producer and thus the greatest enjoyment to you. While this advice is based on my experience in Italy, I’m sure that the advice could be adapted for any winemaking region. Feel free to tinker as you see fit.

Producers are not service workers. Producers are not shopkeepers. Producers are not members of the food-and-service industry. Producers are not tour guides. And while your trip to an estate may place a producer in these various roles—they do greet, guide, pour, sell and chat in a friendly service-worker way—don’t confuse producers with any of these occupations. Producers, and the people who work on their estates, make wine. And your being able to visit them at their winemaking estate is a perk, not a right.

In the cellar with Gianfranco Soldera--no spitting!

In the cellar with Gianfranco Soldera–no spitting!

Timing is everything. Wine estates are busy places. The only time they aren’t busy is in the dead of winter, and then they’re more busy-reduced, rather than flat-out crazy. Therefore, you need to schedule your trip, plan travel ahead of time, and call if you’re going to be late. One of the very best things you can invest in when visiting a foreign country is a foreign cell phone. You can get them pretty cheaply, about $50, and owning one will allow you to call if you’re running late, which you absolutely want to do.

After timing, planning is everything. Chianti and Montalcino may both be in Toscana, but they are not anywhere near each other. Ask your concierge, get on the Internet and use Google maps, open an actual atlas and look at the route, but plan ahead. And then add in extra time for your trip. Italian trains are often late, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn on the Autostrada. It’s better to arrive early and use your extra minutes to soak in the view than it is to run late.

Martino Manetti and some antique farm tools at Montevertine

Martino Manetti and some antique farm tools at Montevertine

Use your noodle and Google it. Do your research. You’ll get a lot more out of the visit if you spend about fifteen minutes reading up on the estate before you get there. You’ll have a better sense of what questions to ask and you’ll have context for what your guide may be telling you. You’ll also know that Montepulciano is a grape, a wine and a town; that they’re all unrelated; and that none of them are Montalcino.

Clothes make the traveler. Vineyards tend to be hilly, stony, muddy, sandy, dirty, mucky, rocky, slushy places. Visits to an estate will entail walking through dirt, and thus you want to wear shoes that you’re cool with getting dirty and that’ll work on seriously uneven terrain. Leave your Laboutins at the hotel and pack the Hunters. One other thing, Italy is rife with yummy wine-producing microclimates. This means that temperature vary wildly. Bring a wrap or a jacket just in case.

Know your culture. Italians, for example, are very serious about eating lunch at lunchtime, and with all due respect, they most likely do not want to eat with you. Respect their custom and don’t hang around expecting to be invited to lunch because you won’t be. Likewise, Sunday is sacrosanct and set apart for time with family. Don’t expect to visit on a Sunday. While there are some larger Italian estates that do employ people as guides (both Tua Rita and Ornellaia do, for example, so does Biondi-Santi), most don’t. Therefore, you need to understand that these are private people who are donning a public role for your benefit. Respect them.

Silvano, from Fontodi

Silvano, from Fontodi

Make your mama proud. Courtesy is everything. Don’t bring little kids along with you—they won’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy it, and your guide might be seething on the inside. If you bring a baby whose diaper needs tending, don’t just summarily hand the used diaper to the guide (this actually happened to a producer I know). If you are traveling with a dog, call ahead, make sure that it’s ok (it usually is), and pick up after your dog. If you’re not sure your American bulk will work on tiny, fragile, antique chairs, don’t sit on them. In general, act like your mom is there watching you.

Wine, wine, wine. Yes, you can swallow. You can also spit. What you can’t do is pour yourself a second glass. Your hand shouldn’t touch anything but your wineglass, the spittoon, your napkin and the breadsticks, should the producer choose to give you some, and he or she may or may not. Remember Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a cautionary tale.

Smell you later. Don’t wear perfume or cologne. It interferes with your enjoyment of the wine, and it interferes with the winemakers’ making of the wine. Put it on after your trip to the vineyard, not before.

Sassicaia's Sebastiano Rosa leans on a barriqueMoney makes the wine world go around. Do try to buy a bottle of wine. Chances are if you take the time to make an appointment, follow your Garmin’s directions (navigation systems in Italy are hysterically perverse; one sent Sergio and me down a pedestrian mall in the center of Verona; another sent me down a tiny cow-path that was flooded, although a perfectly lovely paved road ran parallel to it), and do your research, you want the wine. Even if you worry about packing it in your luggage, see if the estate ships or ask where you can buy their wine in local restaurants. Any support is good support.

Give a little gratitude. If you had a good time, enjoyed yourself, and learned something, email the producer and say thank you. Everyone likes a good dose of gratitude—it’s nice for employed staff when the estate owners see that they’re doing a good job, and it’s nice for producers who take time away from the making of their wines to see that you appreciated their choice. Plus, you never know when you might pass that way again, and it’s good to have a positive history.

Finally, enjoy yourself. Vineyards are glorious, amazing places, and seeing where the wine comes from, smelling the air that the grapes grew in, feeling the sunshine, and seeing the plants, animals, minerals and love that surrounds those grapes will forever change your understanding of that wine. As will interaction with the humans who make that wine. Visiting a vineyard is a primal, atavistic, gorgeous experience—revel in it. But do it politely, if you please.


2 Responses to “How to Visit a Winemaker (And Make Everyone Happy)”

  1. Oonagh STRANSKY
    April 24th, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    Thank you for a delightful article. As someone who has worked as tour guide, estate manager, and now as consultant, I have seen both very large wineries and small, family owned ones. Whatever the size of the winery, your points are all valid. Bravo.
    However, you have fallen into the banal trap of expressing a bias for Montalcino and Chianti over Nobile di Montepulciano. I can understand thinking a little less of some other wines, but Nobile di Montepulciano is the oldest DOCG in Tuscany, and maybe Italy! Thomas Jefferson loved Nobile di Montepulciano!

  2. Janice Cable
    April 24th, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    Not at all a bias–merely acknowledging that some wine tourists end up in destinations other than the ones they intended.

    Thanks for the praise!

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