The best way to get the inside scoop on local wines at your next destination is to, well, ask an insider.
I am longingly staring into an almost-empty glass of one of the rarest varieties of champagne—a bottle of 1990 Selosse Blanc de Blanc—and wondering if I will ever get the opportunity to taste it again. I wonder if perhaps I might even be able to visit this legendary producer. It would be awesome if we could visit him. At that very moment, the sommelier at Chateau Les Crayeres in Reims, France, Philippe Jamesse appears at our table and says, “If you would like, I can call him tomorrow to see if you can visit him.”
Being able to visit a producer that has a cult following akin to Jimi Hendrix at the spur of the moment while visiting that specific region does not happen often. But if you start ahead of time and do just a little bit of snooping, you can get to know the local wine in the area you are traveling on a very personal level. It can open up a whole new world to you and, even better yet, spawn new friendships and relations.
To get the most of wine travel, you should start ahead of time. Guide books are a plenty, but if you are not a bookworm or are not looking to become a sommelier, your diligence in reading an entire book dedicated to a wine region will probably be as deep as a pancake. There are so many other resources, whether you are a wine geek or a casual wine lover and just want to experience wine in the area of your travel. Chances are you have a friend who has been there before. Nothing can beat prior experience, and if you travel a lot, I bet that you have friends who travel a lot, too. Personal recommendations are always a great start. Try to get it from someone whose taste you share. It doesn’t make sense to ask a Zinfandel drinker what wineries to visit in Napa Valley if you don’t drink Zinfandel. Magazines are easy shortcuts to find out what wineries to visit as well. You will probably find an expert for a wine region in your local wine shop as well. Wherever you purchase your favorite wines, there is someone there that chooses them and chances are, they have some insider information that people would pay to have. And lastly, ask the sommelier in your local restaurant. Somms are avid travelers, myself included, and any somm worth their corkscrew should be able to give you at least a couple of top names in classic wine-growing regions of the world. Personally, I can’t help but share my travel experiences with people. I am more than happy to make recommendations for places to stay, restaurants to dine and people to visit for wine—because that is what I live for. The personal relationships with vignerons and winemakers I built over the years have been rewarding to say the least, and sending people to taste their wines is like returning the favor. And even if the sommelier does not have a personal relationship at the winery, at least you know that the quality of the wine has been validated.
Speaking of sommeliers, there is no better way to connect to the producers other than already having a connection with an importer, or if the producer is the sommelier when you are actually traveling. Just as Philippe offered to contact Anselme Selosse to arrange a visit for a few friends and me, sommeliers in restaurants are usually more than happy to make introductions to their favorite producers. In Spain, I literally sat at a wine bar with the sommelier until the restaurant closed. I was tasting, learning and being introduced to new producers that I had never been exposed to before. And after everyone else had left, and it was just him and me, he gave me the number of two producers so I could give them a call to pay them a visit. And if the restaurant does not have a sommelier, the next best person to ask is the owner and/or chef, which in many cases are one in the same. These people, especially in Europe, purchase their wines directly from the producers, so their relationships will certainly open up entree into cellars and caves that would be closed to the general public. You would be surprised at how far sharing a good bottle of wine with the chef and sommelier will take you. And that is the inside track that will give you the experience of a lifetime.
This is a case where it is not what you know but who you know. No wine expertise needed, just some friendliness, genuine curiosity to meet new people, desire to learn more and have fun doing it. And don’t wait until the glass is almost empty.