Wine country family travel might seem inappropriate. But it’s necessarily not a bad idea, at all. Given that grape growing areas tend to feature gently rolling hills, stunning vistas, quaint towns, oodles of charm, and sometimes even adorable domesticated farm animals, they actually make for awesome all-ages vacations. Or so we’ve discovered while bringing our children along for several wine-centric trips in Santa Ynez/Santa Barbara County and Finger Lakes regions. While it’s dishonest to say there aren’t those moments when we’d prefer to be on our own, having kids in the mix isn’t a total buzzkill.
Following are six tips for how to plan a satisfying and, most importantly, safe trip. If you have your own pointers and experiences to share, of if you want to tell me I’m a terrible irresponsible mother or something, please do so in the comments.
1. Plot a route in advance.
Glancing at a tourist map can be deceptive. It’s absolutely essential to check distances between wineries, because depending on the area you’re touring, they can be vast. While winding country roads are lovely, no one wants to spend too much time in the car: not the primary drinker, not the driver, and especially not the kids.
2. Trade off childcare duties.
Unless you’re on a bus or an escorted tour that provides transportation, all of the over-21 members of your party shouldn’t be fully participating in the wine consumption anyway. One perk of having kids along who require supervision is that you’ve got built-in protection against drinking and driving. Perhaps someone is conveniently off the sauce or was never a wine enthusiast to begin with, but otherwise be sure to take turns. It’s not fun to be stuck with childcare duties while your partner gets to chat away with fellow wine enthusiasts and the chummy folks pouring the latest vintages. It doesn’t even have to be for an entire tasting flight. Offering just a couple samples (don’t forget about the spittoons) goes a long way in breeding family goodwill.
3. Go with friends or other family members.
We’ve recently had the amazingly good fortune of having (mostly) teetotaler grandparents come along. They were thrilled with the scenery, outstanding food, and quality time with the grandkids, and willing to keep a watchful eye on the little ones at wineries. Or even happy to hang back at the hotel or take a stroll through town while Mom and Dad got some adult time. Alternately, traveling with another family can provide this same perk of spreading out the supervision duties and providing built-in playdates.
4. Do your research and choose locations carefully.
Look for places that cultivate family-friendly garden settings with almost as much care as their signature products. Wineries in the Santa Barbara County area, for example, such as Alma Rosa and Buttonwood, are ideal. There’s plenty of room to play and explore, and minors are effectively separated from areas where alcohol is consumed. Then learn a thing or two about sustainable farming; Alma Rosa even keeps goats and roosters on the property, and a picnic area is located next to a gently burbling creek. Coquelicot’s tasting room in Los Olivos is next to a big beautiful garden, complete with a lawn, mature trees, and a bocce ball court. In the Finger Lakes region of New York near Ithaca, Standing Stone Vineyards‘ spot on Seneca Lake is perfect for the kids to explore while someone gets to sample ice wines.
As is the case with all travel, you never know what good surprises might be in store. We were concerned about a quick visit to Lompoc’s so-called “Wine Ghetto,” which is essentially a collection of industrial warehouses. But we lucked out when a mobile wine bottling and packing truck happened to be on-site. SCORE. Our kids were enthralled. So were we. Still, err on the side of caution if you’re worried, and call the winery ahead of time to ask more detailed questions and ensure everything is copasetic — on ALL sides — for your visit.
5. Don’t get too ambitious.
Our first wine country trip with an eight-week-old involved cramming five wineries into one day. Rookie mistake! By now we fully understand why committing to an overly constrictive itinerary is never ideal with kids. We felt rushed and didn’t properly enjoy the journey. The designated driver (ahem) was cranky from all the miles clocked, coordinating baby feedings alongside an overly packed tasting agenda got stressful, and the primary drinker concluded the day completely burned out. Wineries have somewhat limited hours, so make sure to factor this into your plan for the day.
6. Make sure there’s something in it for everyone.
Find things to do that are indeed overtly for the kids. This trip isn’t just about you, after all. Always keep an eye out for parks, such as Sunny Fields Playground located between Los Olivos and Solvang, and signs advertising small petting zoos, pick-your-own-fruits-and-vegggies farms, and other family activities. Biking is usually a good bet (kids’ ages and abilities permitting). And scheduling a spa visit for whichever parent takes on the lion’s share of the childcare doesn’t hurt, either.