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California and Oregon take wine tasting beyond the bar and cellar.
Story by Michael Cervin
Wine tasting is never really billed as “adventurous.” After all, you’re typically sipping Chardonnay in a cellar. But for these West Coast wine experiences, wine goes hand in hand with wonder. So lose the limo, forgo the party vans, and buckle up for a truly unique wine country tasting experience, one that will satisfy both your need for wine and your need for the unconventional.
Wine Tasting by ATV Hahn Estate: Monterey, California
The most exhilarating way to experience a vineyard is by driving through it, fast. Hahn Estate’s ATV experience gets you wine and weather. Strap into an open-air, all-terrain vehicle and feel the wind against your face while cruising through the vineyards for a hands-on educational tour. The “Highlands ATV Experience” is offered daily at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., with a maximum of just five people. Reservations are required, as spots fill up quickly. The tour lasts two hours and starts off with visiting the wine cellar and learning about the wine making process, along with tastes of Hahn’s luxury wines. Try seven wines while learning about the Hahn family, the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, grape growing, and the Salinas Valley in general. The tour makes several stops in the vineyards including “Inspiration Point” which overlooks the fertile Salinas Valley, and is where founder Nicky Hahn decided in the late 1970s that he would choose this location as his winemaking destination. During the ATV portion of the tour, you will taste three wines at various stops.
Cost: $49 per person.
At Hahn Estate in Monterey, California, cruise through the vineyards on an all-terrain vehicle.
Wine Tasting by Horseback Equestrian Wine Tours: Dundee Hills, Oregon
If you love the unhurried cadence of riding horseback, head to the Dundee Hills, located 28 miles southwest of Portland, which is mainly about Pinot Noir and ponies. Equestrian Wine Tours offers a two-and-a-half hour tour visiting three wineries at a leisurely trot with the Dundee Hills as a spectacular backdrop. The tour uses Tennessee Walking Horses, “a comfortable, gated horse, so a person is not jostled around,” says owner Jake Price who was born and raised on a cattle ranch in Northern California. He’s been on and around horses all his life. “Their temperament is also very kind,” he adds, noting that as big as these horses can be, there’s no reason to be intimidated. Once in the saddle you’ll crisscross through fields, vineyards, meadows and forests to the tasting rooms, while your guide chats about the local wines and why the Dundee Hills geology is so important to these wines. If merely being on horseback isn’t romantic enough, they also offer a horse-drawn carriage (one carriage seats four; a large surrey seats twelve).
Cost: $190 + tasting fees.
Visit three wineries on horseback with Equestrian Wine Tours in Dundee Hills, Oregon.
Wine Tasting by Zip-Line Margarita Adventures at Ancient Peaks Winery: Santa Margarita, California
Take flight with a zip-line over the vineyards for an invigorating, freeing experience. Soar over Pinot Noir vineyards and reward yourself with a sip at the end. Margarita Adventures offers a unique perspective on a California landmark: the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, located between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Six zip-lines span more than 7,500 combined feet, starting with a 2,800-foot tandem-line thrill ride and finishing with an 1,800-foot journey over the vineyards. Along the way guides share details of the ranch’s natural features, sustainable winegrowing practices, and California’s historic Mission Trail. “Wine travelers are increasingly looking for authentic experiences, and this is one they will never forget,” says Amanda Wittstrom-Higgens, vice president of winery operations. “It’s all about connecting with the land in a unique and personal way, and then enjoying the fruits that come from it,” she says. After the tour, head for the Legacy Tasting at the Ancient Peaks Tasting Room & Café across the street where a wine educator will guide you through a tasting of the winery’s limited-edition bottlings and library selections, all paired with cheese and charcuterie.
Cost: $135-145 per person.
Fly over Pinot Noir vineyards on a zip-line course with Margarita Adventures at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita, California.
Wine Tasting by Helicopter Tour DeVine by Heli: McMinnville, Oregon
Explore Oregon wine country by helicopter. The McMinnville wine region is just west of the town of McMinnville and its vineyards and wineries are hidden in the rolling coast range foothills. Tour DeVine By Heli gets you to this unique wine area where the white wines are distinguished for their bright, fruit-forward profiles, while the Pinot Noir wines are known to be rich with strong black and blue fruit flavors. The day starts at the hangar where breakfast snacks and a glass of local sparkling wine is at the ready, then it’s off to either two or three wineries, depending on the package you choose. With flight times of at least 30 minutes, you’ll have time to soak in the breathtaking patchwork of scenery below. Add to your wine country experience with the Red Hills Market picnic in the vineyard sensory tasting box. Local treats are nestled in a burlap six-bottle wine tote and include a selection of artisan cheeses and cured meats, accompanied by flatbread crackers, mustard and jellies, local hazelnuts, fresh berries and local chocolates. The picnic box conveniently folds into a shipping crate to send home your Oregon wine purchases.
Cost: Starting at $359.
Enjoy a birds-eye view of Oregon’s McMinnville wine region with Tour DeVine by Heli.
Wine Tasting in a Castle Castello di Amorosa: Napa, California
Napa Valley’s Castello di Amorosa combines great wines with Medieval flair while your feet remain planted firmly on the ground. The U.S. may lack the historic grand Châteaux of France, but this fanciful spot, patterned after 13th century villas in Tuscany, was envisioned by Dario Sattui (who also owns V. Sattui Winery in Napa Valley’s St. Helena region) and constructed like European castles he visited as a boy. Stepping inside feels like time travel. You can wander the immense castle on your own or hop on a tour, which I recommend because this significant architectural accomplishment is nothing short of amazing. The castle is roughly 121,000 square feet with 107 rooms; it’s fun to walk on the parapets looking out across the vineyards of Calistoga fantasizing about, well, whatever you want to fantasize about. There’s enough to see to fill a day. Drawbridge? Check, Moat? Check. Five stone towers? Yep. Authenticity? Absolutely. Tours end with wine tasting inside a traditional Roman brick arch setting. Various wine and food packages are available, including wine and chocolate pairing, wine and antipasti pairing, and more. The castle is about a five-minute drive from quaint downtown Calistoga where you’ll find wine country restaurants, boutique shops, and much more.
Cost: $30 and up.
Stepping inside Castello di Amorosa in Napa, California feels like time travel. Explore 107 rooms in the architectural wonder.
Plan A Trip
Pro Tip: For any wine trip there are two essentials: water and food. Make sure you have plenty with you and never start wine tasting on an empty stomach. And remember, it’s a wine tasting, not a bar, you’re not doing shooters.
An abundance of hot air balloon rides are available over most wine country regions. A hot air balloon ride is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of wine country at sunrise or sunset. My morning float above Sonoma County was absolutely stunning. Because hot air balloon ride vendors are so ubiquitous in virtually every wine region, I didn’t feature one on my list, but it’s a great adventure to consider, too.
Michael Cervin is the author of five travel books and is currently working on a new cookbook, Santa Barbara Eats. He has served as restaurant reviewer and travel editor for Santa Barbara News-Press and has written food and travel articles for Robb Report, Forbes Travel Guides, The Hollywood Reporter, Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), and Old Liquors Magazine (Netherlands), among others. He is the Wine Reviews Editor for both Bonfort’s Wine & Spirits Journal and Drink Me Magazine, writes the “Cocktail of the Month” column for Arroyo Monthly Magazine, and contributes to The Whiskey Reviewer. He has also helped judge various competitions and is the wine buyer for the Santa Barbara Airport.