Additional articles BY COURTNEY COCHRAN

Backstage Pass:

Going behind the scenes in wine country

I’m proud to say I attended my first rock concert at the tender age of 12.

My parents – die-hard Rolling Stones fans – figured the aging British rockers would turn out sufficiently pre-teen-appropriate material for my sister and me to tag along. What they didn’t count on, however, were the raunchy antics of opening act Guns & Roses, whose just-short-of-baring-it-all front man Axl Rose ensured I had the true “hard core” first rock concert experience of my parents’ worst nightmares.

In short, it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

The only thing that would’ve made the outing still more perfect would’ve been the opportunity to steal behind the scenes and meet the shock-rockers in person.

Now that I’m a little older, I can see that backstage at a Guns & Roses concert probably wouldn’t have been an ideal environment for a 12-year-old. My tastes have also evolved, so to speak, such that stealing “backstage” at a really top winery holds a lot more appeal for me than does going behind the scenes at any rock concert. Maybe I’m nuts, but to me, the winemakers right here in our own backyard are at least as talented and, in most cases, much less volatile than your average rocker.

Scoring your pass: how it’s done
So, how do you score a backstage pass at a really fabulous winery? Read on for a few helpful tips that should have you behind the scenes in wine country in no time.

Go on a weekday
The majority of winery visits are made on weekends, when most winemakers are enjoying some much-deserved down time from the weekly work grind. This is why your likelihood of scoring some face time with these folks is significantly better if you can swing a visit on a weekday. Specifically, late mornings and midday during weekdays are your best bets for finding winemakers on-site.

Call ahead, and be persistent
Just about all wineries employ a marketing and/or PR person to handle special requests pertaining to visitors. If you can get one of these people on the phone your chances of actually meeting a winemaker and touring the facility improve exponentially. Remember: as hospitality businesses, wineries recognize it’s good business to try accommodate special requests whenever possible!

Visit during winemaker “down times”
Besides visiting on a weekday, try to head to wine country during the off-peak times of the wine producing year – namely, NOT during harvest. Harvest takes place roughly between late summer and early fall, and during these months winemakers are working around the clock and their hard-at-work facilities are rarely available for touring. Translation: your chances of going behind the scenes during harvest are next to nil. Try instead for mid-winter or spring, before the summer crowds hit the area in full force.

Seek out off-the-beaten-path wineries
Sure, we’d all like to rub shoulders with winemakers at the really big-name producers in wine country. But, I’ve found that producers at smaller, boutique-style wineries tend to spend more time with guests and share more information about their operations than do their better-known peers. Plus, it helps that the smaller guys and gals are looking to build their brands and grow their sales; for this reason, every visitor is a valuable marketing contact for them! If these folks DO spend time with you, share the news about their wines with your friends in return.

Buy wine
This may go without saying, but part of the reason wineries are accommodating to guests is that many of them make a significant amount of their income from direct sales to customers who come to visit. If staff members have gone out of their way to accommodate you, it’s polite to purchase some of their wine before leaving. And quantity is not the point here – it’s the gesture that matters.

Send a thank you note and stay in touch
Sending a thank you note does more than just convey your appreciation for special treatment: it helps establish an on-going relationship with the winery that paves the way for future visits. Because the only thing better than a really great visit with a winemaker, after all, is a subsequent visit on which he or she remembers your name.

It’s on these occasions when you’ll start to feel like a part of the fabric of wine country – not just a “visitor,” but a “regular.” Which is way more fulfilling, in my opinion, than hobnobbing with a raunchy rocker any day.