From our last several posts you can tell we love the Finger Lakes Region of New York. We’ve been drawn to the area from the first time we stopped in with the kids years ago. While we love the quaint towns, friendly people, scenery, museums, etc., a large part of what drove us to stop in the first place was the wineries.
Mike and I have been visiting wineries since a trip to Southern California early in our marriage. We were on our way from Palm Springs to San Diego, enjoying the desert and mountainous drive along I-15, when I needed a pit stop. We were both hungry, so figured we’d stop to eat as well. We ended up getting off the highway near Temecula, California and stumbled upon a winery. We had never been to a winery before, but we figured there was a good likelihood that it had bathrooms and food (plus we enjoy wine). It was a beautiful, old world looking building called Thornton Winery. While there we did our first wine tasting, enjoyed a snack and decided that since this was so much fun, we’d stop at one more down the road before getting back to the Interstate.
Our next stop, Wilson Creek Winery, was the one that permanently hooked us on wine and viticulture. We’d apparently just missed the vineyard tour and Gerry Wilson, the proprietor, felt bad. We had no idea that there even was such a thing as vineyard tours, but he showed us around a little bit anyway. We listened, at first to be polite, but before long, we were having a fascinating conversation about wineries and life. We spent quite a bit of time with Gerry that afternoon and from then on, stopping and visiting wineries on vacation has become what we do.
We don’t consider ourselves to be oenophiles. We’re still learning how to identify the nuances of wine and couldn’t tell an aroma of currants from an aroma of blackberries, but we’re getting there. Most importantly though, we know what we like and we’ve developed a palate for wines from a wide variety of regions – not just California. In fact, we’ve stopped at wineries in 20 different states as well as Canada. The wine industry has exploded and has made for some fun pit stops on our many road trips throughout the states.
And yes, this includes trips with and without the kids. You see, Mike and I both recall having to stop with our parents at “boring” historical sites along our vacation routes (like the Sod House), and can each recount our “dreadful” experiences at the Amana Colonies along I-80 in Iowa. (Ironically the Amana Colonies now offer wine making walks!) While these stops are likely not at all boring or dreadful, and our negative feelings surely had more to do with our ages, Mike and I still vowed not to put our kids through such “torture.” Instead we take them to wineries!
While our kids at times roll their eyes and say the proverbial, “Aw, do we have to?” Mike and I just remind them that it could be a lot worse. “Back in our day…” Truthfully, for as much as the kids might initially complain about stopping to do something we like to do (it is a right of passage after all), we generally all have a great time. Mike and I make sure to make it an enjoyable experience for the kids and we’ve actually had some of our most memorable and relaxed meal time conversations and family games while at wineries. And then afterwards the kids make us stop at roadside historical markers for their enjoyment – oh the irony!
Truthfully, that’s how we pull it off. We spend our vacations doing a mix of activities that everyone enjoys. If Mike and I pick a winery, then the kids are on deck to decide what’s next and somehow or another, we all manage to have fun no matter where we end up – winery or a kids’ museum.
So since we’re often asked how we end up at so many wineries on our vacations and since it is travel and winery season, we figured we’d share a few tips for visiting wineries with kids in tow. We should start by saying, we don’t recommend planning a weekend evening with friends at a winery with the kids (unless it’s a private event for families); we wouldn’t suggest spending hours drinking the day away (we don’t visit wineries to “drink”); and we certainly don’t condone drinking and driving while intoxicated under any circumstances. However, if you’re looking for a relaxing lunch stop, enjoyable evening sunset or are truly interested in learning a little bit about wine and viticulture, then visiting wineries with your kids is perfectly acceptable, and it can be fun.
Tips for visiting wineries with kids (Mr. N and Miss A both started around age 3):
1. Prep your kids for winery behavior.
Having done this more than once now, the kids know what we expect when we say it’s time for “winery behavior.” Basically it’s similar to restaurants, museums, stores, etc. We ask that they stay with us, or in an area we designate as kid-safe, don’t touch things that don’t belong to them, keep their voices lower, no running and be polite. You’re the best judge of your own kids and can determine what they can handle. For us this means we sometimes select the few wines that we want to try, make our purchase and leave. Other times, this means that we have a few minutes to enjoy our tasting, ask the host questions and savor our sips.
2. Avoid weekends if possible.
This isn’t always possible, but if it can be avoided, wineries are much less crowded on weekdays. Crowds can be difficult with kids, not impossible, but it’s certainly easier when the wineries aren’t overflowing with groups and crowds. Wine hosts are also less harried (justifiably) on weekdays and it can make the whole experience more enjoyable. You’re also more likely to meet an owner on a weekday. If you’re into wine making and the business of wine, wine owners are fabulous conversationalists. These are some of our favorite visits!
3. If avoiding weekends is not possible, choose places with large outdoor areas, kids’ activities, or restaurants.
Sometimes you only have time for weekend travel and if you’re wanting to stop at a winery, consider places that you know have restaurants or large outdoor areas. Restaurants are great places to enjoy your tasting while feeding the kids, and large outdoor areas can give the kids room to run. Some wineries even have kid’s activity areas that include games, toys, coloring, etc. One of our favorite stops in Estes Park, Colorado, Snowy Peaks Winery, even has a playroom visible from the tasting area where kids can play while you taste. Genius if you ask us!
4. Make sure to have something for the kids to do.
Obviously not all wineries will have playrooms. In this case, come prepared. We bring small games, books and of course electronics – iPods, iPads, etc. to keep the kids occupied. If you plan to have a glass of wine after the tasting on a veranda in the sun, or to watch the sunset, never underestimate the power of a deck of cards and a good game of “Go Fish.”
5. Don’t plan more than 2 to 3 wineries in one day and make sure to stop for kids’ activities in between.
Some trips we’ll plan one winery visit over lunch or for dinner. It allows Mike and I to squeeze in our interests while feeding the kids. On other trips, we travel through wine regions with the intention of stopping at more than one winery a day. In this case, we usually stop for a tasting mid-morning, lunch and sometimes late afternoon. On days like this we’ll make sure to spend the rest of the time doing activities the kids choose – museums, historical stops, hiking, parks, fairs, mini-golf, the beach, etc. No one complains on these days!
6. Limit your time at the tasting bar.
This is one of those where you need to follow your kids’ lead. If the kids are entertained, occupied and content, you can enjoy your tasting a little longer. Perhaps ask the host about the grape varietals, where they’re grown, how they got into the business, etc. Wine hosts and owners are generally very passionate about their wine and wineries and appreciate when people want to learn about what they do. Alternatively, if you want to stop and enjoy a tasting, but also spend some time with the kids, sample a few of your favorites and purchase a glass to sit outside and enjoy some snacks together. However, if you know you’re on borrowed time with the kids, sample a few of your favorite wines and make a purchase to enjoy at a later date.
7. At the winery do your tasting at the end of the bar or near a seating area for your kids.
When wineries aren’t crowded, it’s often easy to find a table or picnic bench that’s within close proximity to the tasting area. These tables are a great place to set the kids up with their activities. If it’s a bit more crowded and seating is limited, the kids will stay by us at the end of the tasting bar. They usually end up finding a spot along the wall to sit and read or play their game. The key is to keep them out of the way, but close enough so that the winery staff knows you’re on the ball. This leads well into our next point…
8. Do not leave your children unattended.
Wineries are not meant for children. That’s not to say that children aren’t welcome, as we mentioned, some wineries plan for them. However, wineries are intended to be adult establishments. Wine hosts and other patrons will not appreciate your child running a muck through the gift shop or in the vineyard, no matter how cute you think they are. This is not a time to let them test their independence. Keep them close, entertained and behaving.
9. Ask if the winery has sparkling grape juice available for tasting or purchase.
Some wineries will have both red and white sparkling grape juice which is always a thrill for the kids. They love to do a tasting and pick which one they want to purchase. It’s a great way to make the kids feel involved and an easy way to keep them entertained.
10. Reward good behavior.
As we mentioned we often let the kids pick activities in between wineries and let them share in the vacation planning process. It generally keeps things running smoothly and often times makes it more enjoyable for us all. I’m sure the kids have led us to adventures we never would have otherwise experienced! But that said, we’re also not above bribery every now and then, and have been known to let the kids pick a souvenir from the gift shop. You may recall Miss A’s winery mascot collection!
11. Don’t push the kids beyond their limits.
Don’t plan to visit a winery when the kids are over tired, and if they are hungry choose a winery with food options.
12. Research wineries ahead of time.
Some wineries will mention kid friendly areas, games or even outdoor walking paths on their websites. Hikes are a great way to get the kids outdoors, exploring and off the beaten path (just make sure to stay out of restricted areas and do not touch grapes or vines!). Our travels and tastings have led us to discover frog ponds, donkeys, Bocce ball and even petting zoos!
13. Thank your host.
If you enjoyed your experience and your wine, we believe it’s important to purchase a bottle (or two or three). Wineries don’t make a fortune at the tasting bar (in fact many offer free tastings), but rather their income is generated from selling their wine. Purchasing a bottle is a great way to bring a part of your trip home, and most importantly, it’s a way to thank your host. They also make great gifts for family and friends.
14. Leave it as you found it.
If your kids have a snack or are playing with their toys, make sure to clean up the space before you leave. Wipe away the crumbs, put away any toys or games provided by the winery, make sure your kids’ personal belongings are accounted for and throw away any trash.
15. Finally, when you leave the winery, if outdoor space is available, let the kids run.
Before we load back into the car, whether we’ve stopped for lunch on a long drive, or are heading back to our lodging nearby, we make sure to “shake the sillies out.” While the kids are good about “winery behavior,” we realize it’s not their preferred state of being. So we always get a bit of movement back in our bodies. When a winery has a large open area, we run races, play tag or have tickle fights (making sure to avoid crowded areas and be respectful of other patrons of course!). If there’s no outdoor space, we’ll play follow the leader back to the car where Miss A determines when we walk, skip, gallop, jump, or run. In fact, when we pull into a winery now, the kids immediately evaluate the landscape and make our post-visit game plan.
What do you think? Is a winery now a part of your family vacation game plan? I know it’s a part of ours! In fact, we’ve got an opportunity to head back out to the Finger Lakes for a bit of family fun this month and I would say the kids are just as excited as we are – and we’re excited! Amazing how a few stuffed animals, games of tag and grape juice can change their perspective. Truthfully though, it really is all about quality family time. Whether we’re doing something Mike and I enjoy, something the kids love, or something we will all have fun at, it’s about being together, making memories and seeing the world; it just so happens we learn a little bit about wine making in the process.
We’ll be back next week with a special birthday boy’s recipe request and then we’re off on our travels where we hope to share a few more recipes with local New York fare. Happy June everyone!