Invariably, when my wine-loving friends visit a vineyard, they come back with the same story: They meet a guy who turns out to be the owner-vintner, who is beguiled by their charm and wine knowledge. They are whisked to a private tasting room and treated to a special reserve.
In truth, I'm not sure my friends are that charming or knowledgeable -- which leads me to believe that anyone with an interest in wine, and a little guidance and guile, should be able to wangle special privileges at a winery. To test the theory, I would get advice from connoisseurs and wine merchants and then take their advice on the road, visiting wineries on a driving trip with my girlfriend from Seattle to Napa, Calif.
What I discovered surprised me. Advance research is important, but not always critical. Luck plays a role. But with perseverance, you can indeed come home with one of those, "So, I met this guy" stories of your own.
Connections . . .
The obvious place to start was with my favorite wine merchant and wine distributor. Each said the key was having a connected insider -- such as himself -- make calls to hook me up. Both volunteered. And I learned my first lesson. Wine people sometimes claim more clout than they have, or are less willing to wield their influence than they profess to be.
The wine merchant, instead of making calls, gave me a list of high-quality wineries to call myself. The distributor made calls but ran into problems. "They want to know, basically, what's in it for them," he said. Since the answer was "Not much," he told me to try some calls myself.
Actually, I had already tried. Some wine folks had instructed me to ingratiate myself by telling a winery which wines and vintages of theirs I have tried, to gush a bit, then express eagerness to buy more wine on a visit. No soap. All I got were schedules for prepared tours.
On the advice of Jerry Pellegrino, co-owner of the Baltimore restaurant Corks, which specializes in wine, I refined my search, excluding giant wineries. "Not that there is anything wrong with the wine, but you'll never see a vintner," he warned. The distributor told us to also stay clear of guided tours. "They give you a tour with 50 people, hand you a glass of zin, pat you on the back and say, 'See ya!' "
Seeking entree to the smaller wineries, I sought suggestions from wine trade groups. While generally cheerful, these bureaus steered me to the huge, impersonal wineries I sought to avoid or suggested what I already knew: to contact the wineries myself.
Everyone said to give a winery at least two days' notice. Unfortunately, that was impossible for us. We had no idea how long we'd spend at any winery or how far down the coast we'd get on a given day.
Oddly enough, the lack of advance notice turned out not to work against us as much as we were told it would.