Added Values – Visitors Missing Link

Making the most of your visit to wine country

I’m celebrating 10-years living in Napa Valley this month. What a journey it has been. I arrived here as a newly certified Sommelier in 2008 green with ideas of what ‘real’ Napa Valley was all about. Actually, I really had no clue. I had visited here many times over the years, but now with a new arsenal of knowledge I was certain to take this valley by storm and drink the finest of wines to my heart’s content. Little did I know that my path would take a few (Ok, several…) twists and turns and land me in my current situation starting my 9th season as a tour operator/owner of my company, Flex Wine Tours. I hate to go ‘cliche’ and say I’ve “seen it all“, but…I’ve kind of seen (most) of it all.

Let’s take some inventory…
Visiting nearly 900 of the 1000+ wineries between Napa and Sonoma, there are not too many experiences or places that I have not either done or know about. I’ve tasted over 50,000 wines alongside hundreds of winemakers, owners, vintners and other Somms. I’ve toured over 10,000 persons, spent 20,000+ hours touring, and logged over 150,000 miles across every AVA covering over 100,000 total acres in both Napa and Sonoma. I’ve dined at all of the one, two, and three Michelin starred restaurants and met numerous 5-star chefs along with too many other dining establishments to mention. I’ve gone to almost every major wine-related event and harvest party ‘theme’ you can imagine tasting some of the best food and wines you will never even hear about. I’ve been through 5 house moves, a couple of seasonal floods, a major earthquake (6.1 in 2014), and most recently the devastating fires in October 2017. Tired yet…?

I don’t bring all this up to brag…not in very the least. I bring it up to highlight one simple fact – I’m very attune to what people want when they visit wine country. Or better phrased, I learn quickly what people want when I talk to them. And, the tricky part is that is it can be vastly different, or the same, from group to group. The main point is what we offer is not for everyone…I get that. However, most do not even know all the options offered to them. I regularly witness how poorly people spend or waste their time and dollars here unnecessarily, and it kills me. What I want to discuss in more detail is the added value of what I (we) offer for visitors that may be looking at a myriad of ways that barely scratch the surface of all there is to discover here in wine country. Here goes…

Private Touring Added Values

By far the most critical element of enjoying your trip here that really can make or break your overall visit. Most people are vastly overwhelmed with trying to figure out who, what, where is best for their group. With all due respect to travel agents and concierges, no one has their ear to the ground more than local tour guides. We have the inside scoop on all things food, wine, accommodations and events. Not to mention the logistics involved in getting around both valleys. We help you plan for your entire trip.

Quality time.
The average stay here is 2-3 days. It is impossible to really see much in that time with over 1,000 wineries and over 200 restaurants. From airport to hotel and back, there are several things that can eat in to the small time-space of a weekend. As obvious as this is, I am amazed at some of the decisions people make fully knowing their time is so limited. We help parse through all the different choices so you can make the best decision for your particular visit, whatever the occasion, so you have that quality time so desperately coveted.

Saving money.
If you consider all of the touchpoints from beginning to end, there are so many spots that can become critical spending decisions. Wine country has gotten quite expensive and when you take in to account all that goes in to a visit here it can far exceed budget expectations. Just tasting fees alone can run the tab up quickly. Let our local knowledge and connections work for you to get the best deals on everything wine, food and hospitality.

Wine & food expertise.
Let’s not kid ourselves…it’s all about the quality wine and food 99% of the time here. You can go to ‘anywhere USA’ and get a decent glass of wine and good food these days. What separates Napa and Sonoma is learning about what is new and different, how it is made, and the people or places that created the rich history since the mid-1800’s. We take a vine-to-bottle and farm-to-table approach to share our expertise on what makes this region truly that special.

Meeting the people.
Anyone can rent a car or take an Uber up and down Hwy 29 and get reasonable wine or food for an ‘ABC’ type of day. There is no substitute for meeting the people behind that scenes and hearing their stories about what brought them or keeps them here. All of the characters that are involved with the process of making a wine label or creating fine cuisine always seems to lend to a great story that captivates their audience. We like to say we get greeted with hugs not handshakes.

Most visitors to wine country are confined by what they find online or referrals from friends that have been here in the past. Rarely does this uncover some of the amazing options available to the ‘roads less traveled‘ places and unique experiences that are offered through the valley. Whether you want a specialized food & wine pairing, cave tours, barrel tastings, making your own wine, educational tours, vineyard ATV tours, private estate tastings, meet the winemaker, or just a remote place to call your own, we have all the key relationships to curate the day just for you.

I’ll leave you with this…you spend all this time, effort and money just to get to wine country, why skimp on arguably THE most important part of your trip tasting some of the best wines and food in the world…? In the long run, it will even out and you will be glad you did your due diligence to let us earn our keep by planning just the right days for you. More importantly, that special person (or persons) you’re here with will thank you for your efforts and insights for splurging a little more.

We hope to see you out with us soon…cheers!

James – Chief Wino & Guide

Navigating Wine Country

So many choices…what does it really entail?

When visiting Napa or Sonoma travelers are faced with a major issue:
How do we get ourselves around safely and make proper choices of where to go amongst nearly 1,000 options for wineries?

I’d like to entertain various options for travelers while candidly pointing out the pros and cons of each, keeping in mind that there are several factors that go in to making this challenging decision. We’ll make no apologies for the fact that private touring services (such as Flex Wine Tours – FWT) and other private guides are by far the customer preferred form of touring, for the right group.

Entering in to our 9th full season taking care of thousands of would-be wine-goers, the one major underlying current of what we’ve discovered is that we know and do things that visitors would rarely discover on their own. There are so many nuances of navigating wine country, the casual visitor might not be fully aware of all the options. However, regardless of how you choose to get around, local knowledge here is more important than any destination location due to the nature of the wine, food and hospitality industry.

Let’s explore some options for getting around Napa and Sonoma:

Private Touring Services (SUV)
As with FWT, private guided tours offer the most flexibility, education, personalization and professionalism than any other type of service. It does come at slightly higher initial cost, but that cost is often offset with several key factors that travelers fail to recognize – waived (or reduced) tasting fees, extra wines, discounts, shipping services, concierge-type services, dining recommends, specialty services, touring efficiency & safety – just to name a few. Additionally, we offer numerous insights (i.e. insider locals’ knowledge) to all your other activities so you can make the most of your short time here. In working directly with customers in partnership with their specific needs, we can work within whatever parameters given us to meet most any budget…we can truly deliver more for less as needed in dedicated comfort. And, in a manner that parallels customer expectations of all that your special trip to wine country offers.

Limos or Town Car Services
These were great 15-20 years ago when there was somewhat a ‘cache’ to being in a Limo or some other ‘black’ vehicle and other options were limited. Limos are quite antiquated now (and frankly a bit dark and dreary) for seeing wine country in its best light. ¬†Additionally, Limos are often restricted as to where they can go now and you will see many signs that indicate ‘No Limos/Buses’ allowed. Plus, who wants to sit backwards or sideways after drinking all day…? Town Cars offer little (if any) personal space or conveniences that can make your trek around wine country most comfortable. Opt for the SUV or Limo Bus/Sprinter services either way.
*Note: Read the fine print with these services. They often charge exorbitant ‘service charges’ and/or other fees up to 35%. ¬†

We-drive-your-car Services
The first glaring issue with ALL of these services is that they are not formally licensed or governed by the same arm that private services have to abide by, the PUC (Public Utilities Commission). The PUC provides a TCP license to ‘For Hire’ transport services that then require proper insurance and reporting to the State of California along with DMV screened driver reports to make sure drivers have sound driving records. There is currently a big push for these services to fall in to some category as to assure customers that drivers are properly registered and insured to handle ‘For Hire’ transport services. The vast majority of these services are not properly insured or screened, and unfortunately it will require a major accident for the PUC to fully take some serious action. Hotels and concierges have already been put ‘on notice’ that they can be made responsible/liable if they recommend a service that is not properly insured. From a touring perspective, given there is no screening process and they just try to fill seats, you get random persons with random levels of experience and hence a very random level of overall service. You have to ask yourself – Do you want to risk the most important part of your trip to cram in to our own (rental) car with no regard to safety or personal comforts? Hmm….

Group Join-In Tours
These are great options for first-timers who do not care to make any personal choices of where to go or have any regard what kind of wines they prefer. It is also great way to meet people and make their time in wine country more of a party atmosphere. Count on it though that within a group of 10-15 people there will be someone (or several) who will not be able to handle their alcohol very well and it impacts the entire group for the rest of the day. In our experience, once people have done this type of tour day and gotten it out of their system they almost always opt for the more personalized or private experience next time out.

Uber is OK for A-to-B service for dinners and as an alternative to Taxis and getting around town after-hours, not so for wine tours…at all. We have encountered various people trying to navigate wine country using this method very unsuccessfully with very unqualified drivers. Depending on Uber to get you to/from wineries on time is impossible and the wineries frown upon it greatly. It is a bit of a running joke amongst guides as we watch people waste their day waiting around or being delivered to place that they did not realize was ‘appointment only’ then having to get another ride somehow to the next place. Plus, Uber drivers do not like to go far up valley where most wineries are located and they have a poor attitude about it. Not mention that the majority of Uber drivers servicing this area are not from Napa/Sonoma and have no idea where they are going or anything about wines whatsoever. Uber’s push in this area falls far short of the expertise you need to navigate wineries and most people underestimate the timing getting around. Not to mention having to lug any wine you purchase from place to place in the heat. Save your Uber trips for the short treks around town.

Driving Yourself
There is a reason this is last on the list and frankly the least viable option. Aside from the obvious ‘drinking and driving’ issue, wine country has been deemed the ‘most dangerous’ place to drive in CA. So even if not your fault, you will be breathalyzed and at risk. The average DUI charge here in Napa/Sonoma exceeds $10k. Even if someone in the ‘group’ is the ‘DD’, the amount of time wasted in trying to navigate and figure our who, what, where, how, etc…you could have done and seen things you would never know about that can impact your entire trip. And, have gotten insights for the rest of your trip that make it that much more enjoyable and resourceful for the next time out.

Worth the Effort…
The bottom line is that you’ve spent all this time, effort and money to make your trip to wine country special. Why skimp on the most important part that will have the biggest impact on your overall trip? And, we could argue a myriad of other ways we’ll help you save money somewhere along the way during your trip with just our insights and guidance for the entirety of your stay here.

Napa and Sonoma are some of the most traveled and revered destination locations in the world. Go back home knowing you saw the best wine country has to offer. Who knows, you may or may not get this chance again…make the most of if while here.

James, Chief Wino & Guide