How to Choose the Perfect Bottle of Wine While On Vacation

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John McCarroll of wine podcast Disgorgeous is an expert at choosing vino in foreign destinations (including the secret to packing bottles so they never break). Now, he shares all his wine-buying secrets with DEPARTURES.

The world of vacation souvenirs is vast, varied, and completely overwhelming. If you’re looking for a gift that keeps on giving—at least for a little while—look to local wines.

Don’t be intimidated by thoughts of successfully packing multiple bottles into your suitcase (more on that later). Finding a great and unique local wine says so much more about a location than a keychain or shot glass. But finding the right bottle can be a task. This is where John McCarroll comes in to save the day.

McCarroll is one part of the wine podcast Disgorgeous, which focuses on the broader culture around wine. “We’re all about normalizing wine, creating a transparent dialogue about what wine is, how it’s made, how it’s consumed, and who it’s for,” says McCarroll. “We love wine and want everyone to love it with no fear of ‘being wrong.’” Before Disgorgeous, McCarroll worked at a vineyard as a grape stomper and assistant winemaker through college. “I spend close to a decade traveling around Europe and the Middle East eating, drinking, and goofing off—obviously wine was always near and dear to me.” What better person to guide us through the act of choosing that special bottle while traveling?

McCarroll says the biggest thing to remember: Have fun and don’t be intimidated.


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Choosing Wine When You Know Nothing About Wine

Don’t be intimidated by the walls of perfectly-designed labels and foreign phrases. “Don't try to impress them with words you don't understand, and don't try to be too safe,” McCarroll says. “Ask shop owners what they are drinking that's fun and give them a price range. It's their job to have wine thoughts. It doesn't have to be yours.”

Find a Wine Shop That Cares

Do a bit of research and find a wine shop that sells varietals from the area. “Find a wine store that seems like they care,” McCarroll says. “Avoid gas stations in the Balkans unless you really need a bottle, but walk around and take chances. One of the best wine experiences in my life was drinking liters of Okay Debit (a white from Croatia) on the Dalmatian Coast with two of my favorite people. It was unfussy, imperfect, and delicious with fried sardines. Don't spend your vacation looking for unicorn wine; have some fun instead.”


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Ask the Right Questions

Once you find a shop, make sure to ask the employees a few questions. McCarroll suggests: “What do you like to drink? What goes well with a local dish? What are you proud of?” Don’t be shy.

Three Wine Terms /Phrases to Drop From Your Vocabulary

Dry rose: “If you're at a place worth going to, they are almost all dry. This sounds like you're scared to order pink wine.” 

Smooth: “This is my biggest pet peeve. It means nothing. Also ‘strong.’” 

I don't like Chardonnay: “Go directly to jail. You just haven't had a good one.”


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Read the Back Labels

It’s easy to disregard the back label when the front of the bottle can be so alluring. But there may be some information hidden that could introduce you to a whole world of favorite wines, instead of just one new go-to. “If you're in a big city, check out the back labels of wines you like and make note of who imports them,” McCarroll says.

“Importers tend to have house styles and philosophies, so if you like a few bottles from one, you'll probably like a lot of what else they have. When I'm in smaller markets, I unabashedly look for Kermit Lynch wines. He's an OG importer and has been banging on about honesty and transparency in wine for 40 years or so. His wines tend to have his name on the front label because he's just that important. Use those as gateways to explore your tastes, and then seek out other wines from appellations or regions.”

The Secret to Packing Wine in a Suitcase

Sure, you could buy those fancy, bubble-wrap pouches for your wine, or you could look to your wardrobe. “Wool socks, and bring a bunch,” McCarroll says. “Put a sock on either end of the bottle so that it's entirely covered. I’ve never broken a bottle, and I always drop stuff.”


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The Ultimate Wine Vacation

“I'd say Terra Alta in Catalonia, which is incredibly rugged and almost looney-toonseque in terms of improbable mountains,” McCarroll says. “Also, they drink incredibly fun wine, constantly, and it's a gem of a place. However, I'm getting a real hankering to go visit Georgia, which has an incredibly deep autochthonous wine tradition that gets very little love in the U.S. outside of rarefied circles.”

If you’re into natural wine, this is even more reason to check it out. “So many of the dweeby natural wine trends that everyone is crazy about— like skin contact white wines (orange wines) and fermenting in amphorae—are endemic and there's a culture of feasting.”

Finding Out About New Wines

If you want to do some research before your trip, McCarroll urges the importance of Instagram. “Follow wine Instagram accounts. I'm crazy about @theglugreport. But the best way to learn about wine is to listen to Disgorgeous and buy everything we like religiously, of course.”