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Berger: Tips for springtime wine touring

  • Leaves begin to grow on the vines at Hanzel Vineyards earlier this month in Sonoma. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Touring wine country in spring is an activity that conjures up visions of idyllically sipping great wines amid the vines, feasting on esoteric hors d'oeuvres and generally basking in pleasure.

But without some crucial advance planning, a visit to any wine country can be a challenge that results in poor lodging, horrid food, GPS nightmares and a bill high enough to scare a banker.

Since every wine region is unique, planning suggestions vary from place to place, but some basic rules do apply. Here are a few:

— Never go to an unknown wine region without doing a thorough reconnaissance. This means getting a good guidebook of the region and scouting out (online) which wineries sound interesting. Then calculate distances from your lodging to the wineries you'll be seeing.

I once was asked by a friend to help set up a day trip to Sonoma County. He said he wanted to visit five wineries, and two had to be Buena Vista and Ferrari Carano. I asked him if he owned a helicopter: those two wineries are nearly 50 miles apart. Unless his other stops were 15 minutes each, he would never make it to five wineries in a day.

— Be prepared to accept modest accommodations; not every wine region has a resort. Remember that many wine regions are remote and are in agricultural zones and thus not urban. As such, accommodations and restaurants are typically seasonal and operate more like rural inns and truck stops than multi-star destinations.

— Find out what the charge is for tasting. Long ago, no one charged for small sips to evaluate the wines. But over the past two decades, wineries have viewed tasting rooms as profit centers and use them as a way to minimize crowds of people out for a binge.

Often the charge may be applied to the purchase of a bottle of wine, but beware that tasting room charges are often higher than your local discounter. The best reason to buy at a winery is if the wine you like is sold only there and is not distributed outside the winery.

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