BERGER: Best times to visit wineries

A magazine article I read recently suggested visiting wine country during the harvest. Bad advice.

At most wineries everyone is busy with the crushing of grapes, which takes up every employee's time, day and night. Sleeplessness is common; males grow "crush beards" since there's little time to even shave. Winemakers haven't got time to spend with visitors; even bathroom breaks are considered a luxury.

The best bet is to wait until all the misguided tourists have left; when the air finally turns crisp and the vines go dormant, their no-longer-laden arms reaching to a leaden sky; when birds head south, hotels are no longer jammed with people who brought too much luggage, and restaurants actually have tables available at dinnertime.

Whether your choice of wine country is upstate New York, Virginia, Ohio, or South Dakota, we are now entering the idyllic stage when what's happening at wineries is far more subtle than the hubbub of crushers and presses impacting conversations with 100-plus-decibel noise.

Tourists in the late fall have a rare treat -- the smell of fermentation of various grapes. I was in Napa Valley recently, driving north from Yountville on Highway 29 and smelled that delicate aroma of grapes in mid-fermentation wafting through the moonroof.

Inside wineries, that heady aroma of wine being racked (transferred from vessel to vessel) often leads to a member of the staff "thiefing" out a half ounce to offer to visitors. At this stage, most reds are still little more than alcoholic grape juice, but

seeing the process this close up can be instructive.

An even better bet is to schedule a wine country tour to coincide with a major wine festival. They happen all over the country, and a website that consolidates most of these is www.localwinevents.com/festivals.

Included in the dozens of major festivals listed on the site are a few in other countries (such as the white truffle food and wine event later this month in Piemonte!).

One event not listed on Local Wine Events' website is one of my favorites, the International Alsace Varietals Festival in the small Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, which takes place each February.

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