Last year, when Chief Stew Catherine Towner was deciding where to take her annual holiday, she knew she wanted a break from the endless sun and humidity of The Bahamas, where she had been based for 18 months. She also wanted to do something educational that could help her advance in her career during her time off the boat. Rather than go home or wander around for a month, Towner decided to use her holiday to study wine. After a bit of research, she signed up for a wine course in the Burgundy region of France.
“I was craving a fall vibe and I’ve been really interested in wines from Burgundy for a while,” she says. “So I figured, why not make a trip of it?”
In yachting, there are a few kinds of vacation: trips home, travel for fun, or specialized training for licenses.
Chefs and stews, however, have the benefit of being able to combine these. Not only can research-based travel be written-off taxes, it’s also a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom in a place you’ve already been. From up-and-coming New World regions to Old World classics, consider incorporating some wine education — and tastings — on your next holiday. Here are a handful of ideas to spur some inspiration.
Towner signed up to take her WSET Level 2 course during her three-week stay in France. The beginner- to intermediate-level course that builds off the basic tasting skills covered in Level 1 explores the grape varieties of wine regions across the globe. Taking it in one of France’s premier regions meant that Towner was able to immerse herself in the country’s deeply rooted wine culture. “I learned so much about the wines I wouldn’t have been able to learn anywhere else,” she says.
Understanding wine labels and what they mean was one of the biggest takeaways from her time abroad. “I don’t speak another language, so when I was first learning about wine, I struggled with French wine labels,” says Towner. “After being immersed in the culture, it clicked in my head and now it all makes sense.”
Her continuing education went far beyond the classroom, too. A highlight was a day-long bike tour with Bourgogne Evasion that started at the top of a hill in Côte de Beaune, one of the key wine-producing appellations in the region. The 32-kilometer trip passed beautiful vineyards and estates with stops and tastings (after the more strenuous sections of the ride) at several smaller producers. For lunch, the group shared a family-style meal at a local café. The excursion, which started at 9 a.m. and ended around 3 or 4 p.m., culminated with visits to a few wine caves (cellars) in Pommard. Towner highly recommends it; however, there’s one thing she would’ve done differently. “They had e-bikes and there were some hills where I wish I would’ve taken one,” she says.
For anyone interested in traveling to the region, Towner suggests staying in Dijon, the region’s capital city, which is about a six-hour TGV trip from Antibes. A must-visit is its indoor central market for a wide selection of fresh breads, pastries, and oysters that you can get straight from the fishmonger and pair with a bottle of champagne at one of the small tables in the center. She says everyone should try the region’s famous escargots de Bourgogne (snails with butter, garlic, and parsley) that can be found at nearly any area bistro. The tasting menu at Dr. Wine restaurant was one of her favorite meals during her stay. And, for vineyard and winery tours, her most memorable experiences were at Château de Famille Picard in Chassagne-Montrachet and highly esteemed Château de Pommard. “Château de Pommard was definitely the nicest with the giant chateau and vineyard,” she says. “It was absolutely breathtaking.”
Although Towner’s experience and new credentials haven’t necessarily helped her obtain a job, it’s become a good talking point in interviews, and she’s been given far more leeway to buy and pick wines for the owners and guests.
Colchagua Valley, Chile
Towner’s visit to Burgundy was right around harvest time when there’s a lot of activity happening in wineries. Harvest, however, is a very short window in many wine regions around the world. Those who can’t find time during fall to visit one of the many regions in the northern hemisphere can head south.
Starting in March and sometimes stretching into May, the wineries of Chile’s Colchagua Valley are picking and fermenting grapes from their Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, rare Carménère, and other varietals from its 35,000 hectares or so of grapevines. The stunning valley, which reaches 120 kilometers from the base of the Andes to the Pacific coast, is by far the most famous in the country and produces some of its best-known wines. Often referred to as the Napa Valley of Chile, it boasts high-end wineries and restaurants that are worth the trek 160 kilometers south of Santiago.
Francis Mallmann, the world-renowned Argentine chef featured on Chef’s Table, offers his famous open-fired cooking at Fuegos de Apalta overlooking the vineyards at Viña Montes, which makes some of the country’s priciest bottles. Combining a visit to the destination restaurant with a tour and tasting at the high-end winery, which ages its wines to the sounds of Gregorian chants in the cellar, makes for an unforgettable afternoon that’s worth a trip on its own.
To learn about the wines that would be most likely to be appreciated on board yachts, consider visiting the spaceship-like tasting room at Clos Apalta to tastes its Bordeaux-style blends, Casa Silva for its iconic Carménère (which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chile in the 1990s), and early Chilean sustainability pioneer Viña Maquis, which has been producing wines along the banks of the Tinguiririca River since the early 20th century.
Barossa Valley, Australia
For a further exploration of old vines, consider a trip to South Australia’s Barossa Valley. As of 2021, the region boasted more than 230 hectares of vines more than a century old. “From our investigations, that’s the biggest repository of old vines in the world,” says Annabel Mugford, special projects consultant for Barossa Australia.
Aside from the historical significance, there’s been a surge of interest in old vines — and the high-quality wines they produce — among wine enthusiasts in recent years. Many experts claim that these wines offer soft, concentrated fruit, great tannin structure, and a good balance of acid. Wine educator and lead sommelier of Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards near Charlottesville, Virginia, Carolyn Pifer raved to VinePair about The Steeple Shiraz 2016 from Barossa a few years back. “I’m not the biggest Shiraz fan but the old vines tasted significantly different,” she told the website. “You can really tell the difference between a quality wine made from more concentrated, complex grapes. It’s medium purple with notes of blueberries, plums, cranberries, and spice. It has a full body with velvety tannins and texture, and a lingering finish.” These are the kinds of bottles that wine connoisseurs get very excited about.
Visitors to Barossa Valley can try that acclaimed old vine wine and many others on individual winery visits. To see and sip some of the oldest vine in the southern hemisphere — and world — consider visiting Langmeil Winery in Tanunda, Henschke in Keyneton, and Penfolds Magill Estate. There’s a website that highlights specific wineries and explains the region’s Old Vine Charter that is intended to promote these ancient vineyards and local tour operators, like Haute Domaine, and will drive visitors around to the top producers. Plus, the region offers its own Barossa Wine School for people who really want to focus on education before, during, or after their trip.
Finger Lakes, New York
About a five-hour drive from New York City or six from Newport, New York’s Finger Lakes region is the most esteemed on the U.S. East Coast, hailed for its impressive Rieslings and other cool climate varietals. Its deep lakes and rolling hills form numerous microclimates that showcase how slight variations in terroir can deeply affect the resulting bottles produced by its 120-plus wineries. In 2018, the USA Today 10Best Reader’s Choice national poll named it as the top wine region in the country, beating out heavy-hitters like Napa and Sonoma.
When former stew Joanna Jessica Zuczkiewicz was living in New York City, she chose to travel to the region to take her Court of Master Sommeliers’ Introductory Sommelier Course and Examination. Through the connections she made during the course, she found the opportunity to go back the following year to help master sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates with his harvest. She had a great time with the people with whom she was working and learned more about the winemaking process. “A big part of studying wine is learning geography and topography,” says Zuczkiewicz. “It can be hard to really understand it until you see it in person.”
Whenever someone asks her what to do in the region she suggests scheduling tastings at Nathan K., which focuses on low-intervention winemaking techniques and organic farming; Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard & Winery, which offers bottles made from biodynamic grapes; Ravines Wine Cellars, another proponent of sustainable practices; and Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, which pioneered winemaking in the region. Zuczkiewicz’s top recommendation, however, is to score a reservation at Bates’ F.L.X. Table, a tasting menu restaurant that offers different wine pairings customized to each guest. “If you have limited time, you’d really get a good sampling of the local wines,” she says.
Zuczkiewicz was so intrigued and driven by her harvest experience, Bates offered her a job. She ended up moving to the Finger Lakes to further her career in the wine industry at F.L.X. Table, before relocating to California’s Central Coast, where she now works for wineries and is working toward opening her own wine bar.
Whether you travel for courses, like Towner and Zuczkiewicz, for a week or just a day trip, there’s no better way to increase your wine knowledge than visiting the places where wine is made. Not only can you spend downtime eating and drinking in a beautiful place, but you might also end up traveling down a whole new career path.
This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Dockwalk.