Wine Travel In an Age of Overtourism
It's honestly not as difficult to get off the beaten path as you've been led to believe.
The best travel essay I read this year was by Rebecca Jennings in Vox, a genuinely angry rant about her trip to Positano called “The Instagram capital of the world is a terrible place to be.” Jennings writes that Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is “the most unpleasant place I have ever been.” Her malaise is not exactly because of the resort town itself (though as her tour guide explains, “there is no history here, it is just for relaxing and for pictures.”) And it’s not exactly because of the crowds (though tourists outnumber locals by a three-to-one margin).
“Rather, what’s most disturbing about being in Positano is the knowledge that you have been suckered,” she writes. “To be in Positano as a middle-class person—someone who can afford to travel and take time off work but not, say, afford to buy real estate in the city where they live—is to feel like an idiot for believing it could have been any better, or that being there is actually a benefit to the lives of the people who live there.”
Then Jennings shoots a flaming arrow at the existential dilemma of travel in 2022:
The problem of travel at this particular moment is not too many people traveling in general, it is too many people wanting to experience the exact same thing because they all went to the same websites and read the same reviews. It’s created the idea that if you do not go to this specific bar or stay in this exact neighborhood, all the money and time you spent on being here has been wasted, and you have settled for something that is not as perfect as it could have been.
Not only did I feel somewhat ridiculous for being in Italy at all considering the number of other people on my Instagram feed who had the exact same thought this summer, I felt ridiculous that I had not known how competitive the whole thing had become, that no matter how many recommendations you receive from friends or strangers on the internet, the same ones will have been given to thousands of other people who are just as unhappy to see you there as you are them.
I don’t know if there is a solution to the particular modern dilemma that Jennings nails. But over the past few years, I’ve also been thinking a lot about travel (and travel writing) in an age dominated by social media. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, when no one was allowed to travel, I tried to gather my thoughts by writing a long essay for the Washington Post Magazine.
At that time, just two years ago, there seemed to be a palpable sense that travel was going to irrevocably change. You started to see the snarky-but-true insult on Twitter that “travel is not a personality.” There was a serious conversation about the human and environmental costs of overtourism and an understanding that travel itself might be too unsustainable and damaging. Or even worse, as suggested by a commenter on my essay:
But two years later, it seems that more people travel, more frequently, than ever. In Italy alone, travel was up 172 percent this year, to levels even higher than before the pandemic. With the huge popularity of shows like The White Lotus and Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, those numbers are unlikely to dip in 2023.
When I read Jenning’s essay in Vox, it actually made me feel bad for millennials and Gen Z—and also feel lucky to have been young and traveling in an era long before Instagram. In the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, you could still actually get away. Young people with backpacks lit out for places like Central America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe—regions that had been mostly off limits during the Cold War. Not to sound like “old man yells at cloud” but there were still places you could go and be completely unplugged in the late 1990s. For instance, I can remember being on Corn Island, off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where the taxis were former Soviet military jeeps, and there was literally one public telephone on the whole island (I wrote about this experience more than 20 years ago in Salon).
I have no idea what’s happening on Corn Island in 2022. Oh, wait, let me just check Instagram. Yes I do:
Despite all of this, I still firmly believe in the transformative power of travel. Yes, Instagram funnels everyone to the same exact places. Yes, everyone gets the same recommendations and travel advice. Yes, it is unnerving how “competitive” the tallying of travel “adventures” is for so many people. Yes, the sameness of places is numbing.
Still, as a traveler, you are 100 percent capable of experiencing something unique, something genuine, something emotional, something memorable, something life-changing. You don’t have to travel to remote Nicaraguan islands or pay thousands of dollars for “exclusive” resorts to get beyond the crowds. It’s really just a change of mindset, a reframing of expectations, a desire to see and learn something new, and a confidence to be led by your personal passions—however quirky they may be—and not by status, pretty photos, or social media clout.
As I wrote in that Washington Post essay in 2020:
What travel has taught me is that the things of the world are only ever temporary—though, once in a while, the temporary can become eternal. I hope that we will be able to travel, to interact with and witness the world again in the near future. When we do, it will certainly seem strange. But when has travel not been strange? We don’t need a pandemic to show us this, but the pause we’re experiencing can highlight a basic truth: We may or may not walk this way again, and even if we do, we will never be precisely the same people who experienced that journey in the first place. Travel is only ever about a moment in time and space, but it’s also about how we choose to hold that moment in our memories. It is always both present and past.
People who love wine and spirits, of course, love to travel. I know, from a recent poll, that Everyday Drinking readers particularly enjoy travel. Many of you desire to visit the wineries, distilleries, vineyards, and farms that produce the things you like to drink and to meet the people that make them. While some wine and spirits regions have become somewhat overtouristed (Napa Valley or the Kentucky bourbon trail, for instance) the vast majority lie well off the touristed path. You don’t have to visit the big-name producers or restaurants! Instagram won’t shut down your account!
I rarely encounter many Americans in the Loire Valley or German regions such as Pfalz or Rheinhessen. Even in popular places like Rioja or Cognac, you can travel outside the shadow of the large players and seek out smaller producers to visit. I also tend not to travel in Europe in July and August unless I have a real reason to. I’m generally not visiting Europe to hang out on a beach.
Anyway, I always hesitate to give people travel advice. What works for me doesn’t work for everyone. Also, “tips” and “If You Go” listicles have never really part of my travel writing. But given all the talk about overtourism and how bad travel has become, I figured I would share a few of the general travel principles I follow. None of these involve spending a lot of money or scrolling Instagram.
Travail is part of the etymology of travel. It’s also the part of travel that’s most memorable. The beautiful Instagram vacation is a myth, and it’s boring anyway. I have been stuck in Italy after both 9/11 and when an Icelandic volcano shut down European airspace in 2010. I have been robbed while traveling. I have been in two near plane crashes. I have been swept up in political demonstrations after contested elections. I’ve had plenty of encounters with unscrupulous law enforcement and public officials. This year, I wrote about how I ended up being “stuck” in Spain after testing positive for Covid. Roll with it. It’s just one of those rules of life: Bad trips make the best stories.
Create a Quirky Quest
Lack of creativity in itinerary planning, or just following whatever path everyone else is doing, leads to boredom. I’m a strange person who becomes obsessed with strange things and so my itineraries are rarely like anyone else’s. Last year, I decided I wanted to eat cheese in all the goat cheese appellations of the Loire Valley and so I cobbled together several regional maps into a sort of Loire Goat Cheese Trail. I have a story coming out in Travel + Leisure this spring about Germany’s white asparagus festivals. I have another T+L piece coming out next month about visiting vermouth bars in Barcelona. I have designed entire itineraries around visiting the Playmobil factory in Zirndorf, Germany, geothermal swimming pools in Iceland, and smoking cigars in Tampa.
Act on Hunches and Follow Strange Paths
Often, there is no logic to why a certain place grabs your attention. Maybe it was a place you wrote a report about in elementary school. Or maybe you saw it in a movie long ago. Or maybe you ended up there as an exchange student, or served there in the military, or your ancestors hail from there. Don’t ignore that place that keeps popping up and calling you to go there.
My favorite (and possibly my best) wine travel story started with a 1956 book about the wines of Germany that I bought at my local library’s used book sale—and what I found stuffed between the book’s pages.
Throughout, there were handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, and even a notice from the 1980s of a lecture by a local lawyer on German wines. From these I pieced together that the book had been owned by a man who’d lived in my town, and it had become the de facto journal of his own wine journey. There was a printed menu from a special wine dinner, with wines from the Rhine and the Mosel, held at a house not far from mine in 1952. The one thing I couldn’t find was the man’s first name; I could find only the family name: Schmidt.
One of the most fascinating artifacts I found in the pages were a few dozen yellowing labels taken from wine bottles, many of them Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from the 1970s, and most from a winemaker named Edgar Welter in Piesport. I had never heard of this winery, and after emailing several of my wine contacts, I determined that the winery no longer existed. However, if Edgar Welter had owned vineyards in Goldtröpfchen, surely the vineyards themselves still existed. I wanted to find them.
I didn’t exactly know why this all mattered to me or had evoked such emotional connection. It seemed likely that the man was now deceased. I guess I felt a kindred spirit to this old wine hobbyist from another generation. Like me, he clearly had a passion for unpopular wines—so unpopular that all his German wine memories had been tossed onto the $2 table at a used-book sale. Since I was the one who had come into ownership of this book, I felt more than just gee-whiz curiosity. I felt responsible.
Support Small Artisan Producers
Most of my travel involves visiting the family producers who make the food or drinks I enjoy. Even in a region like Cognac, I spend my time with the smaller producers who work in the shadow of multinational companies like Hennessey and Rémy Martin.
This is just who I am, and it informs this entire newsletter. I can’t promise that a small family winemaker or distiller will always have time to meet with you personally, though more often than not, if you email politely, with genuine interest and passion—and are willing to buy something—they will usually find the time. It certainly helps if there’s a common language, but that’s not even always necessary. Passion transcends language.