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Is It OK to Be a Wine Tourist?

A visit to California "destination" wineries proves it's possible show both good wines and good times
Photo by: Ben O'Donnell
Travel tip: The original Tucker '48 from the 1988 Coppola movie "Tucker: A Man and His Dream," on display at the winery ... cannot be rented for joyrides.

Posted: Jul 15, 2014 12:00pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

"We don't allow the buses here" is a proud refrain at Long Island wineries these days. Not so long ago, Long Island wine travel was considered rowdy and unserious, just as Napa is tarred in some circles as overpriced and impersonal—both regions magnets for the much-scorned wine tourist. And yet: What fun those folks always seem to be having.

So when I visited California wine country in June, I decided to stop at a few places that unabashedly cater to "tourists." One was Sonoma's Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which boasts a swimming pool, bocce lanes, a restaurant and a movie memorabilia collection. It's not just about the wine, but is that the same as not caring about the wine?

"Grandpa, come on, stop giving them a hard time. Sorry about Grandpa, he's a little touched in the head sometimes, but we love him. My cousin Vito, he's always running late, but he'll be here soon with his accordion."

Such was the welcome of "Nico," our server at Rustic, the restaurant at Coppola's winery in Geyserville (not to be confused with the director's Napa property, Inglenook). It happened to be "A Tavola" night, when the famiglia of Rustic waitstaff dress in '30s-era Italian digs, serenade you with an old accordion and season your food with (fake) cigarette ash (Grandpa!).

Not quite the undiscovered back-alley bistro with the cellar full of untouched old Barolos. Yet then came a rotation of 15 delicious courses—chef's selection—starting out with pettole (fried and salted dough balls) and moving through Fiorentina steak and lamb cooked in a giant parilla, a super-hot grill used in Argentina that Coppola picked up while filming Tetro there in 2008. (Disclosure: I worked briefly for the company, the winery still unfinished enough that we dined in the parking lot when I visited then.)

At $35 prix fixe (on A Tavola night, Tuesday), with the Coppola wines priced with no restaurant markup, this is not a "theme" restaurant swindle. And though Coppola juggles dozens of bottlings, the winemaking is, from berries to bottles, an intricate, conscientious operation, as I've written before. Tastings and tours range from free to $25.

Obviously, there are also some "touristy" spots where you can drop major coin. At Darioush, in Napa, which I stopped at both for the wines, which I like, and to see the big ol' Persian palace replica, tastings for the casual sightseers start at $18 for two wines or $40 for five at the bar and run up to $300. For that, you get to drink from the owner's private stock of Champagne and classified-growth Bordeaux.

Here's all it takes to be a good wine tourist: Knowing the place is fun, the wine is tasty, the setting is intimate, or ideally some combination of these—and, most important, the total package is worth your dollar. In fact, being a good wine tourist sounds a lot like being a good very-serious-wine-sojourner. Certainly there are wineries, in California as elsewhere, that fail the good tourist on these counts. But plenty strive to deliver a creative beyond-the-glass experience, and it's never been easier to find them, on Yelp and TripAdvisor, on the advice of your friends or even in your favorite wine-and-food lifestyle magazine.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Philip A Chauche
Germantown, MD —  July 16, 2014 2:33pm ET
The Hess Collection has quite an impressive art museum attached to it. That, along with the wines, turned us into subscribers despite living on the East coast.

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