Drinking and driving go as well together as cabernet franc and gum. You just don’t mix the two. But how can vineyard-hoppers cover the distance between Virginia wineries without getting behind the wheel?
Summon the driver!
Several dozen transportation companies and tour operators in the state’s wine regions offer safe alternatives for imbibing visitors. For example, if you search for “wine tours” on Virginia Tourism’s Web site (www.virginia.org), you’ll find pages of options. Regionally, the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau features more than 15 businesses offering chauffeur services in a variety of vehicles. The outfitters all share a similar trait: They perform the role of designated driver. But they differentiate themselves through the finer details, such as trip length, selection of wineries, amenities (lunch, a DVD loaded with photos, etc.) and type of transportation.
“It’s a great way to experience what’s out there,” Neal Wavra, a restaurant and winery consultant and sommelier, said of organized wine expeditions.
Wavra breaks the tours into two categories: large and small. On the bigger bus trips, participants visit higher-volume wineries — Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane and Prince Michel in Leon, for instance — that can handle an onslaught of thirsty folks. The atmosphere is more cocktail party than a hushed seminar on decanting.
“The larger buses are a fun way to visit the wineries, but you’re not getting an interactive experience with the wine,” he said. “You’re getting a taste and a little information.”
For a more intimate and educational outing, Wavra suggests a customized tour with only a handful of people. The guide can stop at low-key operations, such as Linden Vineyards in Linden and Glen Manor Vineyards in Front Royal, that discourage buses and swarms of groups. In this refined setting, the visitor may receive special attention, such as a personalized tour of the cellar, in-depth discussions about the winemaking process and a rare tasting of reserve wines.
“You’ll have more wine-geek conversations and more interplay with the staff,” he said.
The itinerary also shapes the experience. Many companies preset the stops or plot a loose route that the passenger can alter with personal requests. Others allow the vacationer to take full control. For this arrangement, Wavra suggests asking your favorite expert at a wine shop for winery suggestions and to call the venues ahead of time to confirm hours and alert them to your impending arrival. He also recommends limiting your stops to two or three a day. Squeeze in too many, he said, and you’ll find yourself rushing through the vines and chugging the samples. The end result: a blur and a buzz.
With a belly full of fine wine, you’ll want to travel in comfort and style. Options abound. Norm’s Taxi Service in Charlottesville, for one, fits up to six passengers into a sleek full-size SUV — not a canary-yellow cab. Chariots for Hire, based in Sterling, pumps up the glitz in a Lincoln Federal limo with a leather interior, a TV and a stereo, fiber-optic lighting and tinted windows. Rambo drinkers, meanwhile, can hire the company’s Hummer limo. Washington-based Boomerang Tours tools around wine country in a Crayola-colored school bus. And Virginia Wine Country Tours covers all tastes and group sizes with nine possibilities. A driver can captain your car, for instance, or you can kick back in a luxury sedan, a white stretch limo, a 15-person van with bench seating or a clown-car coach that can accommodate 50 passengers.
Visitors can also insert themselves into the picturesque scenery on a horse or a bike or in a kayak. Indian Summer Guide Service, in the Charlottesville area, saddles up sippers. Tour d’Epicure arranges two- and three-day biking excursions starting from Washington, Va.; Trail’s End Cycling leads one-day tours around Loudoun County. And with SouthEast Expeditions, kayakers paddle to a winery on the Eastern Shore. On the return trip, the boats sit a bit lower on the water, due to the bottles of wine stashed in the storage hold.
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