Updated: Feb 27
Once a year, our group of friends escape the city and head to the wine country for a long weekend. We hire a big house for three nights, have delicious feasts that we cook together, have a lot of laughs, some games, and many bottles of wine.
The weekend away always revolves around a big wine tour on the Saturday, in the region of choice for that year’s getaway. For most people in our group (which usually sits around fourteen people) the weekend is planned out for them, and they just have to go with the flow to have a great time. These lucky friends are aware and appreciate however that behind that great flow, there has been a lot of planning. Planning by a select few of us that include ‘organization’ and ‘spreadsheets’ as some of our passions. (On re-reading this sentence, it sounds terribly tragic, but we do all have other passions that cancel these nerdy ones!)
This piece is not about how to plan a weekend away, so it’s not going to include tips detailing the hours spent on Air BnB sourcing the right place for such a large amount of people, or the room designations, detailed food purchasing plans, meal cooking rosters, restaurant bookings, or any of the other small nitty-gritty details that ultimately make the weekend run like clockwork. Instead, this is all about the organization of a good wine tour as a couple or with friends. Yes, there are services that you can pay to organize all of this for you (and I recommend some of these in some instances below), however, if you want to create a custom experience, that’ll be a hit with your friends, read on.
Outsource the Designated Driver
This goes without saying in a group of twelve (unless you have a friend that owns a bus!), but if you want everyone in your group to have a great time, hire someone to drive you all around. Even your most easy-going teetotaling/pregnant friend is going to get tired by your group's shenanigans as the day progresses, and it’s always a better day when everyone is on the same level.
All wine regions have driver services available (that I’ve been to in any case be it South Africa, Australia, Italy, New Zealand or the USA). If you’re a couple or group of four, hire a driver that will also tell you a bit about the region, and give good recommendations. If you already know what wineries you want to go to, use Airtasker, Uber or a Taxi service — it’ll usually be cheaper than a wine driving service. For larger groups, you’ll need to hire a small bus service.
Try avoiding joining a larger bus tour, that has upwards of thirty other strangers onboard. You’ll be restricted to the larger more corporate wineries (which don’t have that great boutique vibe) and you’ll usually be waiting longer between tastings. Plus if you and your friends are really having fun, you’ll become ‘that group’ that everyone gives sideways glances at…you probably won’t care at the time, but the shoe will be on the other foot one day, and you’ll wish some other rowdy so and so’s had organized a different trip.
Research the Wineries You Want to Go To
There are a few reasons to do this. Firstly, you will avoid going to wineries that may not offer the varietals you enjoy. Even at a high level, if you only enjoy drinking red wine, and a winery specializes in white, you’re probably only going to have one or two reds to try at that visit. If you know your wines, you may want to choose wineries that specialize in your favorite varietals, for example, Shiraz, Chardonnay or Merlot. Ultimately though, as a group, you do want to choose an even spread to satisfy everyone on your tour. So either discuss with everyone on what wineries you want to go to, or choose a widespread that everyone will enjoy.
Another reason to research is for geography purposes. Wine regions can, and often are sprawled across a large area. The last thing you want to do is choose four or five wineries to visit that are on opposite ends of the region (half an hour between drinks is never fun!).
The final reason is more personal taste on my behalf. I prefer smaller, boutique wineries. Ones that the big buses don’t visit. You’ll get a more personalised experience (sometimes even talking to the owner) and avoid large crowds and waits. These wineries are usually a more personal and ultimately enjoyable experience.
If you have no idea where to start on this one, the recommendations of a driver are usually fine. A good driver will always ring the wineries in advance on your behalf as well, to book your group in, and make sure your group isn’t clashing with other group visits. If you choose to use a taxi service or Airtasker, do the ringing around yourself. The cellar doors appreciate it (some regions even require that you book a visit) and it ensures you’re not walking into an overcrowded experience.
Book Lunch – You Need to Eat
That reminds me, make sure everyone has a big breakfast before venturing to the wineries. Unless you’re one of those rare tasters that actually uses the spittoons laid out on the tables to spit every mouthful, you’re probably going to be consuming quite a bit of wine on the day. Some regions offer food at each tasting as part of the experience (although these tasting usually incur a fee), but most I’ve been to don’t, so be prepared.
There are usually a few wineries in a region that have a great restaurant. Mix it up and go to a brewery for lunch, or bring your own meat, cheeses, and bread. However you do it, make sure that you keep your tribe fed.
Finish at a Winery with a View
If you’re staying in the region, choose a winery at the end of your trip with a nice view. At that point, you’ll all be ready to slow the pace down and relax. There’s nothing better than finishing the day by buying a few bottles of wine, with a platter of meats and cheese and sitting in front of an awesome sunset.
A wine tour is a lot more fun when you do a bit of preparation beforehand. If you’re hiring a service to drive you and your group around, ask for advice. If you tell them the type of experience you’ll looking for, they’ll usually give their recommendations. Let them help you plan the day and you’re partner/friends will appreciate the extra effort to make it an awesome day for everyone.