When my husband and I bought our house in Loudoun County, Virginia last year, one of the perks was the proximity to numerous Virginia wineries. In fact, Loudoun County advertises itself as “DC’s Wine Country” since there are 40 wineries in the county, many are only an hour or so drive from Washington, DC. While I love visiting wineries anyway, the wineries near our home have become a great way to lure our city-dwelling friends “out to the country” for visits – who doesn’t love visiting a winery or two? (Or all 40, which is a personal goal of mine!)
If you happen to live near wineries or vineyards, or if you are planning a vacation where you may visit some, hosting a picnic at a winery can be a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. Here is everything you need to know to make sure you and your guests have a great time!
Choosing a winery to visit
The first thing you need to do is figure out which winery to visit. First decide which is most important to you – the wine itself or the winery? I’ve been to some fantastic wineries with amazing views and a wonderful atmosphere, but the wine has been so-so. Conversely, I’ve been to wineries that barely have a tasting room and the “view” was of a parking lot, but the wine was phenomenal. That’s not to say you can’t have both, but depending where you live and your taste in wine, you may need to compromise.
Personally, if I have to choose, I prefer a great atmosphere. I don’t want to drink bad wine, but I’m willing to go to a winery that has decent wines that don’t blow me away, if the view and atmosphere is stunning. Plus, I live in Northern Virginia, not Napa. Plus, I figure I can always buy my favorite wines at the store and enjoy them at home.
I like to do some research before deciding on a winery to visit. Yelp is a great resource, but take the reviews with a grain of salt (especially on the quality of the wine). I try to find out if other people have enjoyed the environment. Personal recommendations are great if you can get them.
How many wineries?
Are you going for a wine tour or just a visit? Wine tours are incredibly popular where there’s a concentration of wineries. I have mixed feelings though – the more wineries you visit in a single day, the less time you have to spend at each. When I’ve done winery tours and visited more than two or three wineries in a single day, by the last winery… well let’s just say it’s hard to remember much.
Since we live near so many wineries and it doesn’t take much effort to visit them, we tend to go to one a day. But if you are making a trip of it, two or three, max, could work. Just make sure you allot plenty of time and try to choose wineries that are relatively close to each other.
Tasting or No?
Next you’ll need to decide if you want to do a tasting or not. I used to always do a tasting when I went to a new winery, but lately we’ve tried just buying a bottle and skipping the tasting. It’s really up to you. Most wineries have a set tasting of all or some of their wines (usually 4 to 6 pours, but I’ve done tasting with more than that), for a small tasting fee.
Tastings can be hit or miss – I’ve had great tastings where I learned a lot about the wines and I’ve had mediocre ones where I received almost no information about the wines besides the tasting notes they gave out. Sometimes it depends how busy the winery is – you can get more attention if it’s slower. If quality tastings are really important to you, you might want to schedule your tasting on a less busy day or time. Most wineries (understandably) are busiest on weekend afternoons.
Pro tip: you can split a tasting with someone. Some pours are more generous than others, but if the tasting offers many wines or if you’re going to multiple wineries, it can really add up. I often split a tasting with my husband. You can also ask to swap out a wine or ask to taste something again – just don’t abuse it! It’s supposed to be a taste, after all!
If you have a large group you will definitely want to call ahead. Some wineries require reservations for tastings for large groups or only allow them at certain times. Even if you will have a small group, it’s best to at least check the winery’s website to make sure they will be open and not closed for a private event.
Of course you will need to arrange for a designated driver. If you don’t have someone in the group who can serve that purpose, you should look into a car service or taxis. In many areas where there are multiple wineries, tour companies have sprung up offering bus or limo “tours” of wineries. This is a great option and worth the cost to know you won’t be putting yourself or anyone else at risk.
First, check that the winery you are visiting allows you to bring your own food. Many do, but you want to check their policies before you show up. Choose a menu that’s appropriate for how long you are planning to stay. Many people just pack some cheese and crackers and end up spending hours at the winery and running out of food.
Cheese, crackers, baguettes or bread are all good choices. Meats like pepperoni or salami pair nicely with some wines and are easy to pack with. I love a mild hummus and veggies or pita chips. You can pack more exotic items or a whole meal, just make sure you properly pack the food to keep it at the appropriate temperature – read my suggestions on picnic food safety.
Also, don’t forget to pack water! It’s important to keep hydrated, especially when enjoying wine!
Some wineries allow you to have a snack during your tasting, others prefer you wait until after. Also it’s considered proper winery etiquette to purchase at least 1 bottle of wine if you’re going to stay and have a picnic.
Keep an eye on the weather – many wineries have fabulous outdoor spaces, but it’s less than ideal to enjoy when the weather is bad. Alternatively when the weather is warm and sunny, you might not be able to grab a shaded spot, so don’t forget sunscreen and a hat.
If your group is full of oenophiles, consider providing tasting cards for people to take notes. Don’t worry about glassware – the winery will provide it, but you will need to bring your own plates and utensils for food.
Visiting wineries is one of my favorite activities – hopefully these suggestions make your visit even more enjoyable! Have a great time!