Key to Good-Time Tasting

By John Darling

Wine country tours have the advantage in that your guide can tell you all about the country, the terroir and take you to the best wineries - and, after the tasting, you'll have a designated driver to get you back home or to your hotel.

 The typical tour doesn't try to "overshare" the region or its bounty, but takes a modest number of people - four to six works well - on a four-hour trip to three wineries, says M. Kim Lewis of Southern Oregon Wine Tours, a venture he operates year-round with his wife, Ginny Billings Lewis.

The jaunt is $79.50 a person and they travel in a Lincoln Town Car or, if they have more than four people, a van. A limo service is also available for hire.

"People will usually find a memorable bottle of wine that really hits their palate and they will purchase maybe three bottles as a memory of the trip," Lewis said. "People buy a lot of wine on tours."

Many tourists are from California and they appreciate Oregon's lack of a sales tax, he notes - and they find Oregon wines about 40 percent cheaper than back home.

"Here, the wines they buy average from the high teens to high 20s, while in California it's high 20s to high 30s and into the 40s per bottle," he said.

"We like to keep the tour on a cottage industry level, instead of the big, commercial, corporate thing you see in the Napa Valley. The wineries we go to are also like that, simpler.

"The beauty of it - they're really blown away. They see the people making the wine and come to understand what's happening behind the scenes. A lot of them get on the wine clubs and get wines shipped to them four times a year."

 At the end of the day, tourists head back to Ashland, where the plays of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are presented February through October. On the way, they may stop for a private tasting and dinner at the historic Nunan Estate in Jacksonville.

The touring company takes responsibility for "responsible tasting."

"If they want to party hearty, we suggest they go somewhere else," Lewis said. "The tour is about fulfilling a lifetime desire to learn about wine and food - and to create some wonderful memories."

 Tour guides educate people not just about the region's wines but also its artisan foods, including Dagoba Chocolates and the cheeses of Rogue Creamery, all of which complement the area's wines, he says.

"Californians have heard great things about Oregon wines, and they're not familiar with the area. In our talks, we compare the wines of both states," Lewis said. "We even had a group from Sonoma's French sister city (Chambolle-Musigny) and they absolutely loved it. They were fascinated and remarked on the more full-bodied reds produced by our long, hot summers."

Oftentimes, locals will take the wine country tour, something - like New Yorkers visiting the Statue of Liberty - they forget to do (and think they will get around to it someday).

"Birthdays and anniversaries are a wonderful time for this - and it's fun to be driven around and brought back safely," said Lewis, adding that local law enforcement appreciates the service, as it means less traffic and safer driving for them. 

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