Visiting a region’s most iconic wineries can feel a bit like hitting a far-off city’s top tourist sites. Sure, you should see the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre the first time you head to Paris, but you may want to round out your itinerary with some low-key markets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or neighborhood haunts. Similarly, while hitting the top estates are a must when visiting your wine destination, you shouldn’t miss out on the smaller, locally loved operations that can end up being even more magical than their more famous counterparts.
Lesser-known wineries can often provide more personalized experiences and can help you get to know the region on a more intimate level. And while large or well-known wineries usually have wide distribution, wines from boutique producers can be harder to find, which makes it all the more important to visit their tasting rooms and stock up while you’re in town. Many small producers are also passionate about innovation, so if you are headed to a region that tends to be heavily focused on one variety (like Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa or Pinot Noir in Oregon), trying out a new spot experimenting with different grapes can provide a welcome reprieve.
But even if you’re already planning to check out these under-the-radar wineries on vacation, they can be a little tough to track down. Read our tips below on how to discover hidden gems for your next trip.
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Study the wine list wherever you’re eating.
While stalking the menu ahead of time to plan your order at any restaurant is good practice, the beverage lists can also be a helpful tool for discovering local wineries. Restaurants and bars in wine regions tend to carry a treasure trove of wines from the area to explore, often showcasing small producers that you might not see in other markets.
Let’s say you’re headed to the Finger Lakes and aren’t sure where to stop beyond the iconic Hermann J. Wiemer and Ravines wineries. Look to a restaurant in town like Kindred Fare or speakeasy-style Vinifera bar to see what they might be carrying. From those wine lists you can discover a plethora of boutique wineries like Red Newt Cellars, Hector Wine Company, and Heart & Hands Winery. Upon further investigation, you will find many small estates offer special experiences: Think a tasting in a 170-year-old barn at Barnstormer Winery, a personalized tour and wine pairing lunch at Fox Run Vineyards, or an overnight stay on Osmote Winery’s farm.
This same strategy can apply to bars and tasting rooms, too. Checking out their offerings ahead of time can help you add some low-key spots to your hit list.
Stalk those wine pros on Instagram.
Social media can influence many of our decisions, from what Starbucks drink we order to impulse-purchasing that hat embroidered with a frog drinking a Martini you saw in a highly targeted ad. So why not check in on Instagram to find your next winery destination, too? Beyond looking at the profiles of wineries and wine regions themselves, there are a lot of wine influencers and enthusiasts who provide incredible travel tips.
Lexi Stephens of @lexiswinelist curates thoughtful posts and guides with recommendations for each region she visits, including stellar recaps of trips to Germany, Portugal, Sonoma, Bordeaux, and more. For example, if you head to Lexi’s guide to Paso Robles, you might be persuaded to take a tour of AmByth Estate where you can taste biodynamic wines and feed their resident alpacas. Lexi also frequently posts about small producers and even hosts a tasting series that features a different boutique winemaker each month, which are helpful for discovering new producers to visit like Piazza Family Wines, a small producer in Santa Barbara, Calif., that makes gorgeous expressions of the rare Graciano grape.
Other well-traveled winos like @grapechic, @strongnosefullbody, and @vitamin.vino also post in-depth content from their recent adventures, all while uncovering under-the-radar spots so you don’t have to. Following sommeliers and wine journalists who share similar tastes with you can also lead to finding your new favorite far-away producer.
Ask the locals.
No one knows a region better than the local industry pros, so if you hit it off with a bartender or server while you’re on vacation, feel free to politely ask for their suggestions. If you’re mingling at a local dive, you’ll likely find friendly faces who are open to giving recommendations as well.
Kendal Montgomery, founder of wine consulting agency Purple Mouthed, says that some of her favorite wine travel experiences were influenced by word-of-mouth suggestions at local wine bars. She recalls one visit to a wine bar in Athens, where a conversation with regulars led her to book a spontaneous train to Thessaloniki to visit wineries in Naoussa, a region renowned for its incredible Xinomavro. “If you’re lucky enough to find a wine lover that speaks the language and has the time, that’s your ticket to a great experience,” Montgomery says.
Check out our wine guides.
Here at VinePair, we taste wines from producers large and small, representing a great range of wineries from around the world. If you’re not sure how to discover new producers, our Buy This Booze guides are a great place to start.
If you check out our Best Pinot Noirs of 2023 list you’ll find a dazzling Pinot Noir from Johan Vineyards, an off-the-beaten-path biodynamic winery in the new Van Duzer Corridor AVA of the Willamette Valley. This small estate offers some incredible experiences to go along with its stellar wines, like a walking tour of the vineyards, a pairing menu curated from its summer Farm Share program sourcing local produce, or even events like their recent Lamb-a-palooza where guests got to interact with the vineyard sheep.
You can also check out some of VinePair’s in-depth travel guides, like our exploration of Setúbal, Portugal, for more suggestions on spots to visit.