Have you ever been on a trip that became more than a vacation? One where you find yourself wanting to make the reality of the place, the people, the food, and the culture part of your day-to-day life? It can be a tricky thing to make such a thing a reality, but some lucky folks figure it out and are able to live their dream in spades. One lucky gal who did just that is Gina Gregory, owner of Premier Vineyard Tours, an American tour company specializing in week-long wine and food tours of Tuscany.
My Journey to Italy
How I Became a Wine Tour Guide, by Gina Gregory
The first time I visited Italy I was in my mid-twenties. I was traveling around Europe with a couple of girlfriends on one of those exhilarating adventures that every young person should have before life gets in the way. We started in Paris then headed south to Nice. Although France impressed me, with its amazing food and rich culture, the moment we crossed the border into Italy I was instantly in love! Everything about Italy made me feel alive and inspired: from the Mediterranean cuisine, to the beautiful landscape, and its passionate people. We journeyed across the Riviera, onward to Tuscany, then headed north to Venice. I felt so connected to the land, like I belonged here. I have always wanted to go back to Italy, and I never gave up that dream.
In 2003 I started managing Seattle-based Portalis Wine Shop + Wine Bar, a large retail shop and restaurant featuring wines from all over the world. Initially, my interest in wine was as a hobby and a part-time job, but it quickly became my passion and career. Then, about 5 years ago, my friend, Ari Manzin, who is an Italian wine importer, invited me to join him and his sales team on a trip to Italy. This was an amazing opportunity for me, and also a life-changing trip.
We visited many small, family-owned and operated wineries all over Italy. On several occasions my friend would have to translate for me because I didn’t speak Italian and the winemaker didn’t speak English. This didn’t bother me, though, because I still found their story fascinating and their enthusiasm for their wine so contagious. I learned so much about the people of Italy by spending time with them walking through their vineyards, sharing meals in their homes, and drinking the wine they so lovingly crafted. It was a wine experience like none I had had before.
It was during this trip that I began to dream a different life for myself, one that could incorporate two things close to my heart: Wine & Italy. I was so moved by my travels through the Italian wine country, I wanted to share it with those back home. Why not bring people to Italy so that they can enjoy an intimate look at the Italian way of life as I had? I felt that the same type of wine tour would enrich many of my customers back in the US. And so the idea of Premier Vineyard Tours began to unfold.
There were so many details and logistics to work out starting my own wine tour business. What part of Italy should I go to? Which wineries? Where to stay, where to eat and how to get people signed-up for my tours; the list seemed endless. Let’s just say there were many “research” trips for my new venture. The biggest hurdle was I didn’t speak the language at all, beyond si, grazie, and prego. So I enrolled in a beginner Italian class, which was fun, but by the next course I had scheduling conflicts so I didn’t enroll again. Next I tried Italian lessons on CD’s, but with no teacher to motivate me, let’s just say my progress was very slow. So I decided to hire a private tutor, which proved to be the perfect solution for my busy schedule but also keep me on top of it. Another good decision I made during my start-up days was to bring on a business partner. Having someone else to handle the business & marketing end of things, freed me up to focus on what I do best: wine, hospitality & travel.
My journey to being a wine tour guide hasn’t been without its moments. Our first tour we planned a scenic walk around the Tuscan countryside, which we thought would be a relaxing activity after a big lunch. It instead was several miles longer than we expected and a test of our endurance in the relentless heat. Note to self: check to make sure all guests have proper footwear before a long hike. Another time I misread a road sign and drove us right into a village where “no cars were allowed”. That was fun! But one of my favorite memories has to be at a small osteria, when my husband and I got our metrics confused. When it came time to ordering the size of our bistecca (steak) we accidentally ordered a two and half pound steak…for our third course! Oh boy!
I feel very lucky to have such stories to tell. With every trip to Italy brings more surprises and experiences. It’s what makes this journey of life so interesting. Many years ago, I was drawn to Italy. I didn’t know how or when, but felt inside that it was going to play an important role in my life someday. Maybe I willed it to happen, maybe it was destiny, but one thing I do know is to never give up believing you can accomplish whatever you set your heart on. It could just happen!
Gina resides in Seattle, Washington, USA, with her husband Kenny. She is the Store Manager for Portalis Wine Shop + Wine Bar and is the co-owner of Premier Vineyard Tours. For more information about Gina and upcoming tours visit: www.premiervineyardtours.com