Sommeliers’ Most Memorable Vineyard Visits

From Austria and Champagne to Portugal and the Finger Lakes, the amid-the-vines experiences that inspired 9 wine pros

Sommeliers’ Most Memorable Vineyard Visits
The steep slopes of Heiligenstein, a famed Riesling vineyard in Austria's Kamptal region, provide stunning views of the Kamp River and the valley. (Weingut Bründlmayer/Anna Stoecher)
Mar 31, 2022

Walking through any vineyard is an opportunity to discover something new and connect with the terroir. But there are certain sites that remain etched in memory for a lifetime. Wine Spectator spoke with nine sommeliers to hear about the vineyard visit that changed their life—or at least opened their mind to the world of wine in an entirely new way.

Wine Spectator: What’s the most memorable vineyard visit you’ve ever had?

Lindsey Fern, wine director at The Inn at Little Washington, Grand Award winner in Washington, Va.

Chartogne-Taillet in Champagne. I organized this trip with three other women sommeliers; we were all studying for exams and celebrating our friendship. Alexandre Chartogne took us down to his personal cellar and disgorged a bottle of single-vineyard Le Chemin de Reims. We then piled into his grandfather’s Citroën from the 1950s—its brakes were dodgy at best—and drove to the vineyard where the grapes came from. Alexandre showed us what their healthy soils looked like, as opposed to a neighbor’s vineyard that wasn’t employing the same farming techniques. I’ve been to countless vineyards over the years and have had many special experiences, but never have I been swept up in such a collective energy that created such a profound memory.

Chip Croteau, manager and wine director at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle

One sunny day in June, I was lucky enough to walk through Cadence’s Cara Mia Vineyard in Washington’s Red Mountain AVA with co-owner Ben Smith. The beauty of the sun shining down on Red Mountain was only eclipsed by the Cabernet Franc growing on the vines. Seeing a master at work, a scientist in the field, a wine nerd talking about grapes was an experience I’ll never forget. The expression of Bordeaux varieties from this land is as unique and balanced as anywhere in the world; it was one of the moments that led me to truly understand what this terroir can yield when in the hands of those that treat it with love and respect.

Cara de Lavallade, wine director and manager at Enchantment Resort, Best of Award of Excellence winner, in Sedona, Ariz.

The seaside vineyards of Colares in Portugal. It was the most unusual, wild vineyard I’ve ever visited and produces extremely unique wines that are relatively unknown outside of the region. Pre-phylloxera, ungrafted, untrained Ramisco vines twisting along the sandy ground like a squash or pumpkin, held up from the soil by short pieces of cut cane. The vineyard is farmed naturally, with no chemicals or machines. Growers scatter bits of shiny paper throughout the vineyards to keep the birds away and collect hair from the local barber to place between vines, which keeps rabbits away. As with many wine regions, I was struck by the amount of care, attention and energy that goes into creating these extremely small-production, rare wines that only a small handful of people get the opportunity to experience.

Mark Tarbell, chef/owner of Tarbell’s in Phoenix, Ariz.

I was stuck in Lodi looking for some wine. I drove down a long straight road and on the east side were the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then, I saw in the distance down a narrow tractor path some old, gnarly, knotted vines. I went in for a better look and discovered some Carignan vines that had been planted in the 1930s. These fantastic, old-school, head-trained vines have been protected and farmed by John Shin and his family for generations. Years later, in 2021, I tasted from barrel a wine made with these grapes for an upcoming project of mine called Cha Cha Mouche. It’s deep, complex, elegant and delicious!

Kristin Estadt, wine director, Bones Restaurant, Best of Award of Excellence winner in Atlanta

My most memorable vineyard visit was my first one. I was 20 years old and studying hospitality in college and spent a season in Italy taking a class called “The Wines of Tuscany.” My wine ‘lightbulb moment’ occurred during a tasting of Sangiovese in a bucolic Tuscan vineyard; my pursuit transformed into a love and appreciation of wine. I often think about that memory and how special it was for me to come to love the study of wine at such a young age. Wine always tastes best when it’s experienced in the place where it was made, and the feeling that accompanies those experiences can last a lifetime.

Luc Trottier, wine director at Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, B.C.

Beni di Batasiolo, near Barolo in Piedmont. It was early in my career and my first winery visit outside of Canada. At the end of our visit, the owner, Fiorenzo Dogliani, came to meet us. After learning that it was our first visit to the region, he offered to show us the beautiful sights of Barolo. We drove around for hours, and Mr. Dogliani spoke Italian the entire time and we had a translator. He hosted us for dinner at Belvedere in La Morra, and at the end of the meal, Mr. Dogliani overheard my partner and I speaking French to each other, to which he replied that he spoke perfect French. It changed everything! Mr. Dogliani became our new translator and spent the next three days with us—he even invited us to stay at his home. Twenty years later, we are still great friends.

Paula de Pano, sommelier and owner of Rocks + Acid in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Weingut Bründlmayer, in the Kamptal region in Austria. I was driving slowly in my Mini Cooper gaping as I reached Heiligenstein, the most legendary Riesling vineyard in the Kamptal, to approach the winery. It was such a beautiful view to be at the top of this massive hillside overlooking the Kamp River, the valley below and Brundlmayer’s pickers going through the vines. It is also memorable because I had to do a three-point turn on this incredibly narrow terrace where one side is a 300-meter drop straight down to the Kamp River. One wrong push of a pedal in the other direction would have sent me barreling down Heiligenstein’s vineyards … no one wants to be that person.

Chris Dunaway, wine director at ​​The Little Nell, Grand Award winner in Aspen, Colo.

I know it may sound cliché, but having the opportunity to see Romanée-Conti for me was truly one of the most satisfying experiences, even if I didn’t get a chance to visit the Domaine itself. There’s something about the reverence paid to such a mystical and iconic place that is so accessible to pedestrians. The site is so vividly ingrained in my memory.

Grayum Vickers, sommelier at Longoven in Richmond, Va.

Hermann J. Wiemer's HJW vineyard in the Finger Lakes, where I was lucky enough to help with harvest one September. Flowers and wild herbs covered the ground between rows of Riesling vines near the sparkling waters of Seneca Lake. It was purest autumn, with a cold wind shaking the colorful foliage of old maples. That team cared so deeply for the land and the wines, and they were so patient with me; I’ll never forget what I learned about ecology and responsible viticulture. As far as this sommelier is concerned, the Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Lemberger (a.k.a. Blaufränkisch) produced by Hermann J. Wiemer are top-tier, world-class wines.

finger-lakes California France Italy New York Washington Portugal Austria Burgundy Champagne Tuscany Piedmont Restaurant Awards

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