Vacation Wines: Why Do They Taste So Good?

A friend once told us that wines taste better when he’s on vacation in France because they have no sulfites. This isn’t true – all wines have sulfites, though some these days have no added sulfites – but what we told him is that wines tasted better to him because he was on vacation. In France.

Wine isn’t just a liquid. It’s also a mindset. And, while we enjoy all kinds of wine both at home and at restaurants, there is something about vacation wines that makes them better to us. We can still taste wines from 30 years ago that we had on vacation: a Haight Vineyard Chardonnay from Connecticut while waiting for a ferry in Connecticut; Bucks County Vineyard Chelois on a trip to Pennsylvania; Mondavi Fumé Blanc at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. We’ve had that Fumé Blanc many times since, but, for some reason, that was the very best one. 

And we’ll never forget our visit to the Tate Gallery in London in 1984 and not because of the art. In fact, we never saw any art because we spent hours marveling over a bottle of 1964 Pichon Lalande and a bottle of 1980 Haut Brion we had for lunch there and then were too blissed out to wander around the Gallery. And, no, we had never had two bottles of old Bordeaux at lunch before and we haven’t since that experience.

Just recently, we spent a night in Tarrytown, N.Y., which is just north of New York City, to attend a reunion. We hadn’t done any Yelpish homework on restaurants because we didn’t know if we’d have the time to go out, but it turns out we were free for dinner. There were a number of restaurants that looked interesting, but we happened to park in front of a tapas bar called Basque, near the historic Tarrytown Music Hall, where the late Tony Bennett performed years ago. The wine list at Basque was short, appropriately heavy on Spanish wine and well-chosen. Dottie pointed to a white we’d never had before: Viña Costeira from the Ribeiro region, which the wine list said was made from the Treixadura grape. It was the 2021 vintage and cost $34.

We didn’t know this at the time, but the wine, produced by a cooperative, also includes at least four other local grape varieties and is the top white wine in Galicia. It’s also just 12% alcohol, so nice to see these days. It also appears to be fairly widely available for about $20, which means the markup was reasonable.

When the wine arrived (the server, to his credit, poured the taste for Dottie), we both sniffed and kind of squinted. Hmmm. We were not sure about it. Dottie thought it smelled a bit funky; John just thought it was nicely earthy but was also a tad concerned. Then the wine warmed and opened up and got better, though still with that earthiness. It was now more rounded, with inviting layers of herbs and lime and earth. One of the dishes we ordered was anchovies on endive leaves. That catapulted the wine over the top. Perfection: The earthiness of the wine combined with the salty, earthy, oily melt-in-your-mouth anchovy and the fresh, crunchy, bitter endive was outstanding. No wonder Basque was filled with regulars.

This made us wonder why wines are especially delicious when we travel and gave us some thoughts.

For one thing, we sometimes eat at the kind of restaurants we don’t often frequent. Sure, if you go to Greece you will eat Greek food, but we didn’t expect to eat tapas in Tarrytown (although that has a nice ring to it). When we eat a different kind of food at a thoughtful restaurant, it might then offer wines from the same region, and certainly wines that especially complement the food. Our long-time advice: When looking at a wine list, if it’s heavy in one region, or type, that’s where the restaurant’s passion lies. Go with it.

We also think we are more likely to let our guard down and take some risks when we are on vacation. Zip line? Bring it on. Swim with dolphins? Sure. Pigeon in pastry in Tuscany? Yummy. Tripe in Venice? Why not?

There might also be less pressure on a bottle of wine that you have on vacation. These days, when shopping– in person or online – there is just so much information to wade through. This got a 92! It’s redolent of the world’s best raspberries! By the time you get that bottle home, it better be good, dammit. To be sure, there are apps now that can give you that type of information about a wine on a restaurant’s list. But we’d guess that many people, on vacation, are too chill to bother, which means they don’t bring over-expectations to that poor bottle.

We also wonder whether, while everyone is eager to say they drank, say, Spanish wines in Spain, do most people do that while traveling in the U.S.? So many U.S. wineries now make a small amount of fine wine that is sold only at the winery or at restaurants nearby. Visiting Michigan or Washington? Try some Riesling. Norton is the state grape of Missouri. Have you tried a Petit Verdot from Virginia yet? North Carolina is producing some beautiful, structured wines that we rarely see in New York. And New York is known for more than its Riesling and Merlot. Cabernet Franc is growing in popularity, as is its Chenin Blanc.

And, sulfites aside, it really is true that wines taste better closer to their source. It’s not just that they might be fresher or didn’t have to be shipped, or might have been aged gently at the winery. It’s also simply that having wine where it was born, where you can really feel the place around you and in the glass, is a special experience. Consider the burgeoning Texas wine scene, where wineries are absolutely packed on the weekends, with both locals and tourists. Our guess is that many of them don’t drink much Texas wine otherwise, but they love it at the winery. We understand that it’s part of the entertainment, but, still, we’ll bet people at those wineries – and wineries in Georgia and elsewhere – hear all the time: “I had no idea the wines were this good!”

We believe that part of this is because good wine is often about good stories. Consider how many times on a trip the waiter or sommelier has said something like, “This is made by Joe Nelson at his winery a few miles from here. He comes in here with his family sometimes.” Will that wine taste better to you? You bet it will. Hopefully, this means that travelers will look for good local wines when they get home, wherever home is. 

The sad truth is that in our years of writing about wine, we have received this letter dozens of times: “I recently visited Napa (or Sonoma or Spain) and had the most delicious wine of my life! I loved it so much I ordered a case. I have opened two and they are just OK. Do you think they were damaged in transit? Did they serve me a different, better wine at the winery and switch it out? Should I complain?”

Here’s the nub, and we know this from experience: The wine will never be quite it same. It can’t be for a number of reasons, right? Most important: You’re drinking it here, not there.  So the moral is: Enjoy the wine while you are there.

Have a wonderful vacation this summer. We hope you have new adventures – in wine.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.

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