Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Rick Steves speak at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Rick is one of the foremost authoritarians on European travel. He has written many travel guidebooks, penning more than 50 to date, and has a syndicated television travel program that he hosts routinely on public television and radio. For over 20 years, Rick has been accompanying group travelers all over European countries such as France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland. Steves offered me some very interesting and unexpected advice during his hour-long talk that is worth sharing here.
Most of us who are fortunate enough to travel abroad will almost always plan to see the many highly recognized sites in the world. You know the ones: The Sistine Chapel in Italy, Blarney Stone in Ireland, the Hofbrauhaus in Germany, and Costa del Sol in Spain. What’s not to love about these, and others such as the gondola rides in Venice and Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Italy? Well, the crowds, mostly. European travel is widely accessible for most in the developed world now, given our incredible advances in technology. Frankly, the world has gotten much smaller in the last 2 decades. There’s a real hunger and appetite to see these well-preserved landmarks, some of which date back more 2,000 years. Tossing three coins in the Trevi Fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome? Absolutely! It’s all there to absorb like a dry sponge. Except, of course, for those very large crowds.
So, Steves offered this take: First, go when the temperatures and weather are conducive to travel. And, very importantly, get embedded in the culture of the country—not just visitations to those touristy locations above, but really embed by venturing outside the cities of Paris, Dublin, Munich and Rome, and into the foothills just beyond. Go where the crowds are not! Traveling just five miles outside city walls allows each of us to experience what it really means to be “temporary locals” as Steves likes to call it. Uncover the real world by venturing beyond your comfort zone, and into the militarized “D” zones of each of these countries. That was Rick’s underlying message that evening which resonated with me…
What does this have to do with wine, you say? Well, we all know those outstanding world renowned wineries that exist in the world, and particularly, those in the California wine country. You know, the ones we dearly love. Between Napa and Sonoma there are over 1,000 wineries with tasting rooms, and many more if you include producers and wineries without. Yes, these are the ones we gravitate towards when visiting the Napa and Sonoma appellations. (I’ve been terribly guilty about visitations to the highest profile wineries in Napa.) They are delicious, but expensive and mobbed. What’s the alternative? Finding and exploring those very small and inconspicuous family owned hidden gems; the ones that few of us either ever know about or experience, because we simply don’t know they exist. These are the ones that allow us to immerse in the real culture of the “sport of wine-ing”. These are the ones behind the scenes, not advertised online, not found in wine stores, and hardly ever captured on a wine menu in the finest of restaurants. The truth is, these wines are reasonably priced, and sometimes unlike the high profile, expensive ones we know, love and invest in regularly, these guys are excellent in value, and come with some wonderful human interest stories. These are the ones that produce few cases comparatively, and don’t make a splash like the “Big Boys,” but will allow us to truly experience what it means to be “temporary locals.”
For those who have read my column in the past, you’ll know I’m uncomfortable making wine recommendations, although I have discussed previously about family-owned Aonair, Switchback Ridge, and Fontanella Family boutique wineries, among others. That said, there are many other small family-owned vineyards producing some wonderful grapes, too many to enumerate upon. The recommendation I would make is the one I completely concur with Steves on: Do your homework and delve into the details in advance of your visit. Research the many “off the beaten path” smaller boutique wineries that few know about. For example, after taste-testing a $50 glass of Opus One in Napa, go embed yourself along with your travel buddies in a few obscure family wineries that are the best kept secrets in the valley. Learn about the families that founded their farms; ask about the not so famous winemakers; learn more about how and what grapes are grown on the estate, and ask for a personal tour of the vineyard (which is typically never given without an appointment.)
It will be a surprisingly wonderful experience that will not be forgotten. You’ll come back with a newly found appreciation for some of the best unusual explorations in the most unobtrusive areas of the Napa Valley, without the crowds and high costs. Moreover, the people who are homegrown and entrenched; the ones that have woven their fabric into their labor of love, will create for you a ride of memories that will last a lifetime. It’s an awe-struck lift like no other, and a first-time experience you’ll want to repeat over again, wherever travel may take you in the future.