On the Vino Road! A Day Aboard the Little Wine Bus.

The rolling hills of the Benmarl vineyards.
The rolling hills of the Benmarl vineyards.
Sarah Zorn

Seeking to mix things up for our third anniversary, my husband and I decided to ditch our preconceived notions of group tours and give the Little Wine Bus a try (or, I went ahead and booked a couple of tickets, and he had no choice but to get up at 8:30 on a Saturday morning and deal with it). Created by Tania Dougherty, a travel counselor and C.I.A.-trained pastry chef, the Little Wine Bus (and its newer cousin, the Little Beer Bus) shuttles city-dwellers from Times Square to the Hudson Valley for a day of fresh air and supervised intoxication.

We'd signed up for the standard "Take Me to the Vino" package, which for $125 per person includes stops at three wineries, a barrel tasting and cellar tour, plus breakfast, lunch, dessert, and snacks all made by Dougherty. Sounded good, but had we resigned ourselves to sharing our special day with creaky blue hairs, bumping along in an old, converted Greyhound?

Barely out of Manhattan and well into Dougherty's strawberry-wine scones and mimosas, my husband's spirits had lightened considerably. As had those of some of our fellow passengers, an exuberant gang of Jersey gals out for a birthday celebration. As we wound our way towards the Hudson Valley in a white minibus dripping plastic grapes and vines from the ceiling, Dougherty led the group in karaoke (Bon Jovi for the Jersey girls) and wine trivia. The party had officially started.

A little over an hour later and effectively pre-gamed by the mimosas, we were ready to get down to business. Our first stop was in Marlboro, New York, to visit Benmarl winery, founded in 1957 by magazine illustrator Mark Miller, and boasting the oldest vineyard in America. After touring the extensive grounds and cellar with owner Vic Specarelli and sampling a number of wines, we settled down for lunch. Turkey on ciabatta with pinot drizzle, Champagne cupcakes, and birthday cake for everyone--just enough carb-age to prep our stomachs for another round.

On to Brotherhood, in nearby Washingtonville. Founded in 1810 by French Hueguenot Jean Jacques, it's America's oldest winery. Although Brotherhood no longer has a vineyard onsite, visitors can check out the wine aging in 17th-century oak barrels, housed in a funky network of subterranean caves. Back above ground in the tasting room, we couldn't help but feel a little smug nibbling on cheese and chocolate as other tour groups gnawed oyster crackers around us.

Palaia Winery in Highland Mills was our last stop of the day, its pathway flanked with hand-painted signs like "Mom Needs Wine." Our kind of place. After tippling on Lemberger and Mead, we wandered out front to where a bluegrass band was starting to set up. "I'll stay if you guys are up for it," said Dougherty. We grabbed a glass of Gewurtz and the party rolled on.

Heading back to NYC after a 10-hour spree in wine country, we cracked open a couple of bottles of Baco and drifted in and out of food- and alcohol-induced sleep. After dropping the Jersey Girls off in Times Square, Dougherty offered to take us back home to Bay Ridge. No one ever offers to take us back to Bay Ridge! All in all, it was so infinitely better than the day of droning tour guides and gas station stopovers we'd expected, that when handing over our $250 at the end of the evening we couldn't help but feel like we'd gotten away with something. Next time an anniversary rolls, we're thinking beer....

For more information, visit www.thelittlewinebus.com or www.thelittlebeerbus.com. Have a tip or restaurant-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.


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