Four secrets to wine-tasting with kids

Lunch, after tasting.

Lunch, after tasting.

When you live in Wine Country (that’s where we live), you do what you have to do for a nice day on the town. Sometimes, that means taking the kids when we go wine-tasting. People think I’m crazy when I tell them Powerwoman and I do this on a regular basis. The comments I get are always the same. How do you keep them occupied? What do you do if they melt down? Wineries actually let kids in?

The truth is that wine-tasting is just like any other travel-related activity; you can bring the whole family, provided you plan ahead.

Of course the “planning ahead” part is where most people veer off-course. Some fail due to laziness. Others falter out of ignorance. Here, then in no particular order, are four of our top secrets to wine-tasting with kids.

Tip 1: Pick the right winery

Not all wineries are created equal. Some are snobby. Some take themselves way too seriously. These are not the ones to which you should bring kids. Instead, look for wineries that promote a more laid-back vibe, ones with outdoor seating, or ones that actually go out of their way to be family-friendly. Some wineries—such as Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford—actually provide paper and crayons for kids who accompany their parents for tastings. Others, such as Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, have a host of activities for youngsters—everything from bocce to a big teepee with library books for perusal. If you’re not sure whether a winery would be good for kids, it never hurts to call and ask. Just remember: Don’t be intimidated by an attitude!

Tip 2: Pack distractions

Not even the best kids on Earth can be expected to sit still for an hour while their moms and dads get drunk. This is why distractions are critical to help them through it. The best distractions are the ones that elicit creativity—art projects, crayons and coloring books, card games (for older kids), or loom bracelets. Other distractions might include educational apps on a tablet or Mad Libs. (If you really must, technically you can stick your kid in front of a screen, but we are not fans of that approach around here.) The more distractions you bring, the longer you should have to linger with grownups. Just this past weekend, we visited Three Sticks Wines in Sonoma for a private tasting, and the glitter-sheets and sticker books we brought with us took up just the right amount of time.

Tip 3: Have a backup plan (and a DP)

If you’re bringing a finite number of distractions and it seems like one (or more) of the natives Is getting restless, it’s important to devise a Plan B. This can be as simple as using silly voices to describe certain highlights at the winery or as complicated as an exit strategy for dragging the family over to a vehicle across the street. At Three Sticks, where we plied the kids with arts and crafts, the backup plan was a sack full of Shopkins, and it worked like a little plastic charm (see what I did there?). Backup plans aren’t only good for the younger generation; they’re good for us grownups, too. It’s a good idea to always designate a “Designated Parent” who can stay relatively sober to deal with transitioning from the first distraction to Plan B. In our family we call this person the DP. (And, for better or for worse, I’m usually the DP.)

Tip 4: Reward accordingly

Once you’ve tasted your wine, once you’ve left the winery for the day, it’s important to reward your kids for good behavior. Not only does the reward celebrate their good choices, but it also makes it clear that they will receive benefits for good behavior down the road. The rewards can be different each time—sometimes we’ll take the girls to get ice cream; other times we’ll buy them each a (small and inexpensive) new toy (what are Shopkins anyway?). This past weekend, after our tasting at Three Sticks, we took the girls to a nearby playground and let them run around like maniacs for the better part of an hour. Then we treated them to a kick-ass lunch. They appreciated the indulgence. We grown-ups did too.

Over the years these are the secrets that have worked for us. Of course they’re not exclusive; I’m sure there are dozens of other good pointers on the subject of managing a wine-tasting with kids. If you have any other tips to share, please feel free to add them in the comment field.

UPDATE: A reader reminded me of an important caveat worth mentioning here: Don’t drink and drive! People who are not familiar with winery-hopping might not realize how much wine is poured and how quickly you can get tipsy. Also, remember that when drinking, you are setting a living example for your kids. This means it’s important that you sip and spit, have a Designated Driver, or hire a car and driver. These precautions always are important, but even more so with children. I’m just sorry I neglected to make this clearer from the beginning.

Ashton Kutcher feels our pain

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

In America, for better or for worse, nothing really is news until a celebrity deems it so. With this in mind, thank goodness we traveling dads have actor Ashton Kutcher on our side.

Kutcher was gallivanting in Los Angeles with his daughter this weekend. The kid needed a diaper change. But when Kutcher looked for a public restroom with a changing table, he came up empty. So he Facebooked about it. And his 18.7 million followers listened in a big way.

Within 24 hours, the episode was grabbing headlines on E! and other news sites. Two days after the post, his initial rant (if you want to call it that) had garnered 220,000 likes. Three days out—in other words, this morning—the subject had crept into the national discussion, popping up on morning news broadcasts and talk shows from sea to shining sea.

As the father of two girls who is out and about with them all the time, I can’t help but be amused.

I mean, Kutcher is right: More men’s rooms need more changing tables, absolutely yes. But thousands of traveling dads (including yours truly; this post was published back in 2012) have been saying the same thing for years, and nobody has so much as moved a muscle about it, ever.

Now that we’ve got this mouthpiece, here are a number of other fatherhood/travel issues I propose Kutcher espouse:

  • How condescending it is when strangers see us dads out and about with our kids on a weekday and think it must be “mom’s day off.”
  • The assumption that because we’re dads, our jobs are to schlep the family luggage through airports.
  • The proliferation of “Mommy Groups” that don’t include dads.

While he’s at it, I’d love for Kutcher to become the face of the anti-family travel hater movement. Even if he and Mila and Wyatt flew coach JUST ONE TIME and suffered the fools who assume the worst when they see parents and a young baby, raising awareness about their “hardships” could help the rest of us tremendously.

Kutcher, dude, we’re counting on you. Don’t let this opportunity disappear.

The harsh realities of spotting fish

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

There’s a saying in poker that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the fish [a.k.a., the worst player] at the table, it’s probably you.” Something very similar could be said about family travel—when you can’t spot the most poorly behaved child on a plane or at a resort, it’s probably yours.

This isn’t a platitude, people. It’s not me waxing philosophical. It’s truth. It’s reality. It happens to every traveling family at one time or another. It happened to us. On our vacation to Maui earlier this month.

As amazing and perfect as she is, our Big Girl, L, is incredibly sensitive to disruptions in her sleep schedule. As a result, the poor thing spent portions of our trip being a wildwoman. She hit. She scratched. She screamed. She kicked. She said horrible things about how she wanted a new Daddy. At times she even lashed out at her Mom (this is akin to the Dalai Lama dropping an f-bomb).

In short, my kid had a few bad days—just like every other 5-year-old in the history of 5-year-olds.

For us, managing her during these episodes was trying and exhausting and exasperating and awful. For other guests of the hotel, however—people who don’t know her or us—the scene was full-on hell.

These people gave us eye rolls. They tossed dirty looks. Some shook their heads in disapproval. One night, when L was grunting like a gorilla because she didn’t want to pee before bedtime, a neighbor actually shouted, “Shut the hell up!” from his lanai.

To be honest, I sort of don’t blame the guy.

I also don’t feel bad. Kids are kids. When you travel with them, sometimes it gets ugly. As parents, we can try our best to manage these situations when they arise. But at some point, you just have to deal.

Many parents “deal” by not taking their kids anywhere. That’s not an option for us. And it never will be.

Instead, we simply take things as they come. On good days, those days on which everyone behaves, Powerwoman and I kick back and watch the girls and smile squinty smiles and whisper to each other how lucky we are. And on bad days, those days on which a stranger tells our kid to shut the hell up, my partner and I try our best not to snap at each other, and to remember that, despite the drama at hand, life’s still pretty great.

Sometimes we fail—we’re human, after all. Sometimes it’s so stressful that one or both of us ends up crying in the bathroom. And sometimes we wonder why we even try to travel with such young kids.

Here’s the thing. Sure, we question. Yes, we doubt. But we never waver from our commitment to show our kids the world. Traveling with children can be tough—we’re the first ones to admit it. But even when our kids are the fish at the table, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Deep thoughts on education and travel

To what extent would a pricey school prevent us from doing this?

Would a pricey school tuition prevent us from doing this?

The grownups of this family are in the throes of decision time over here. The question: Where to send L (and, eventually, R) for kindergarten (and beyond).

Settling on a final answer has been challenging. In California, we are lucky enough to have a host of options: straight public, public charter, private, private parochial, and more. Because Powerwoman and I are researchers by nature (translation: because we’re total overachievers), we have investigated, toured and applied to nearly a half-dozen schools. With one of the deadlines bearing down on us next week, it’s proverbial crunchtime.

Ultimately, our decision will be based on a variety of factors. There certainly have been lots of issues to consider, including educational philosophy, class size, arts programs, and more. Of course another biggie is cost—not only because some of the schools are expensive, but also because every dollar we spend on school is one less dollar we can spend on travel.

To some of you readers, this notion of potentially sacrificing travel for the sake of mainstream education might seem trivial (or, maybe, short-sighted). For us, however, it’s a serious issue—not necessarily a deal-breaker, but a biggie.

Travel is a huge part of how this family rolls. My wife and I are committed to broadening our daughters’ perspectives on the world by spending at least one month out of every year living in a new place. Heck, we just wrapped up a four-month stint of living in London! We’re also committed to exploring through shorter trips, as well. Case in point: Next month, we’re headed to Yosemite National Park as a family for the first time ever.

From a practical perspective, Powerwoman and I also work to weave travel into the overall fabric of our girls’ education. This means our trips incorporate learning at every turn. We don’t just go to the beach and sloth. We go to the beach, and by DOING, EXPERIENCING and EMBRACING new things over the course of the day, we share lessons about geography and biology and botany and history and a whole host of other disciplines. We also strive to incorporate the journey into the overall experience; yes, those 6-hour road trips and ten-hour plane trips are challenging, but they also are great opportunities to bond with our girls.

In short, travel isn’t something we’re willing to sacrifice. Which means we’ve been thinking long and hard about putting ourselves into a position that could endanger our resources to do it.

This blog post isn’t the forum to diagram our answer—how and where we choose to school our kids is a private decision and one we’ll make privately. Nevertheless, because this is a travel blog, because travel is such a huge part of our world, I thought it was important to share some of our biggest concerns here, and solicit input and feedback from you.

What’s your take? How would you reconcile this conundrum? If you’re a parent who already has been there and done that, which way did you go and why? If you’re currently dealing with these issues, what are the issues that are keeping you up at night? Sharing your opinions on this subject could help Powerwoman and me—all of us, really—make the most informed decisions possible. I’m all ears.

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