Let’s just get this out of the way: until recently, I had never been on a wine tour in my life. I didn’t even realize this was something you could do. I know, I’m a little out of the loop here. In my defense, I’m one of those millennial types who largely prefers staying in and watching Netflix to “going out” and “doing things.”
But then I heard talk of Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours. And since drinking wine with my friends (while kicking back in a tie-dye party bus, no less) sounded like something I could really get on board with I said, “Sign us up.” Here’s what we learned:
1. It’s easy to set up.
I cannot stress enough how easy it was to book a tour, and that’s coming from someone who would, on most days, rather starve to death than order a pizza if it involves making even the slightest bit of human contact. (Ideal situation: I order online. You leave the pizza on the porch and back away slowly, our business thus concluded.)
Private tours can be arranged for larger groups (bachelorette parties, for instance). But since there were only three of us, my friends and I chose to do a join-in tour. This meant we’d be getting our wine on with a bunch of total strangers, most of whom were in groups of two or three just like us. I booked the reservation online, and Tim at Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours called to arrange a pick-up location. I later received a text from Jody to confirm the pick-up time. And just like that, it was happening. I asked my friend if she was ready.
“I was born ready,” she said.
2. A tie-dye party bus is the only way to travel.
If you, like me, have spent most of your life traveling in vehicles that were not tie-dye party buses, then you’ve been missing out.
The bus was brand-new. It was comfortable, spacious, and loaded with snacks and bottled water. Above all, however, it was stylish. We took a billion pictures with it, because how often do you get the chance to take a selfie with a bus that looks like something straight out of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s? The answer is not enough.
Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours also owns an impressive fleet of black Mercedes Benz vans. We saw a few of them during the tour. In fact, as we shuttled off to our first stop, we pulled out in front of one, and our entire bus cheered, excited as we were by the prospect of getting first dibs at the tasting room.
3. There are many different kinds of wine.
Did you know there are more than three kinds of wine? How is that possible? Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Our first stop was Chateau Grand Traverse, a beautiful, high-ceilinged venue. Menus and pens were distributed while we waited in line, so all we had to do was circle our selections and hand them over. Tasting fees were between $3 and $5.
I’ll be the first to admit that my palate is not exactly sophisticated. My approach when it comes to wine is to just buy the second-cheapest one on the menu and hope for the best. I have surrounded myself in life with similar people, which is perhaps why my friend received her first glass, glanced left and right, and whispered to me, “Are you supposed to swirl it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I feel like that’s something people do,” our third friend said. “I think you’re only supposed to do it with red, though.”
Our first friend looked at her Pinot Grigio. She weighed her options. “I’m gonna swirl it,” she said.
I can’t speak to whether or not this helped. I will say we tried everything from the Picnic Semidry White to the Spiced Cherry, and my friend enjoyed the Late Harvest Riesling so much that she bought a bottle on-site.
4. Every single person who helped us was the nicest person I’d ever met in my life.
If we hadn’t been so reluctant to admit that we weren’t familiar with proper swirling protocol, we could easily have asked somebody about it. Everyone we encountered was enthusiastic, nice, and 10/10 helpful. Especially our driver, Tim. I cannot say enough good things about Tim. He was super friendly and knew everything there was to know about the region and its wineries. Possibly he just knew everything there was to know about everything.
Our second stop was Bowers Harbor Vineyard. At each tasting room, Tim would go on ahead and return to give us a quick rundown of what we could expect. Here we were ushered into a room with a more outdoorsy feel. Once again, we sampled five wines. The guys behind the counter were courteous, professional, and didn’t mind snapping a quick picture for us and then three more because someone kept closing their eyes. (I’m not saying it was me, but I’m also not saying it wasn’t.)
5. You will make twenty best friends very quickly.
There were about twenty people in our group. Most of us were strangers, but all it took was a bit of wine before we were trading life stories. Half the bus was Facebook friends by our third stop. Most of them were tourists from out of town. A surprising number were nurses with tales from the ER that were as hilarious as they were harrowing. “You won’t believe how often that happens,” one of them would say after telling a story that ended with someone pulling something out of someone else, to the general shock and horror of the rest of the bus.
At one point, we were just about to leave when one woman remembered she forgot to buy a souvenir. She hesitated, but we encouraged her to go back inside and buy that wine stopper. We said we’d all get out and stand in front of the bus rather than leave without her, which was a bit extreme, but that didn’t stop us from saying it a lot. Those are just the kinds of intense relationships you have with people when you’re three wineries deep in a wine tour. (Don’t worry—she got her souvenir, and everyone cheered.)
6. Traverse City is about twelve different kinds of gorgeous.
I’ve lived in Traverse City for most of my life. If I didn’t already know how beautiful it was, I certainly do now. Chateau Chantal in particular had a stunning view of the vineyards against a backdrop of the Grand Traverse Bay. It was chilly, but still we braved the cold to stand out on the patio and say things like “What a view!” over and over again. We were too amazed to say anything else. That’s just how gorgeous it was.
7. Time flies when you’re wine tasting.
Our final stop was Peninsula Cellars. Theirs was a quaint atmosphere with a schoolroom theme, the highlight of which was when we discovered a table of coloring books off to the side. Have you ever tasted wine while coloring? I’m guessing not. You should. It will change you.
And then something happened that we weren’t expecting: the tour ended. We had been having such a good time that I think we simply forgot that this wasn’t our new reality, that we couldn’t simply ride the tie-dye bus in perpetuity, that all good things must come to an end. It was four hours, plenty of wine, and several souvenirs later, but we were still somewhat surprised to find ourselves back at our original pick-up location, the Park Place Hotel. Plans were made within the larger group to get drinks later, and then we bid goodbye to Tim and went for lunch.
When I asked my friends what they thought, the response was immediate and unanimous: “When can we do it again?”
From three Netflix-addicted millennials who know nothing about wine, least of all how to swirl it, there can be no higher praise.
Written by Courtney Gorter // Courtney grew up in Traverse City and currently works as a staff writer for SparkNotes.com. In her spare time, she can be found watching Game of Thrones and ignoring the ever-growing pile of laundry she needs to do.