TOUR DU JOUR
Take a guided cruise through local food and drink culture.
WRITTEN BY SUE EDMONDSON
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
Food and drinks have taken a spectacular turn in the Reno-Tahoe area over the past few years. It used to be that beer came from the grocery store and whiskey was something to swig. Now, aficionados sip and savor beverages at dozens of locally owned craft breweries and distilleries. And whereas the culinary scene (with a few exceptions) was once fairly ordinary, today’s local eateries dish out fresh, locally grown, creative, and, yes, extraordinary food.
Still, we had some catching up to do with larger cities, where tours of all sorts showcase their culinary and beverage industries. That, too, is a thing of the past. Those tours have taken root region-wide, with options as diverse as the food and drink they highlight.
Reno Food Tours
In her former life, Reno Food Tours owner Melissa Smith enjoyed the view from her downtown Reno office, where she’d spent 20-plus years in the health insurance industry. A self-described food enthusiast, she enjoyed all the new restaurants popping up in town.
“I’d walk around downtown and was amazed by all the different restaurants … not necessarily big names, just these little eateries with such great food,” Smith says.
Business travels took her to cities where food tours were integral to the thriving culinary culture. After embarking on her first food tour, she was hooked.
“Food is how I connect with a location when I’m traveling,” Smith says. “Food tours are such a fun way to get to know a city and its neighborhoods.”
She waited for someone to start doing the tours locally. Two years ago, when no one had, she took to the streets — Reno Food Tours was born. Smith chose walking as her tour platform, introducing, or in many cases reintroducing, customers to Reno’s downtown and Midtown neighborhoods.
“That’s part of the pleasure,” Smith says. “Most people feel it’s too daunting and a hassle to explore these areas. Our tours demystify the whole process. People learn where to park, places to eat, and also about our history, culture, and architecture. Customers feel empowered to frequent these locally owned small businesses, and that’s my goal.”
Preparation (including vetting for food allergies) and close relationships with vendors make for carefree tours. Each location offers something special to please the palate — tours start on a savory note, and the ending is (literally) sweet.
Despite her many tours, Smith’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned.
“It’s exciting to introduce Reno in a framework that’s based on our culinary scene,” she says. “On every tour, I serve up joy in The Biggest Little City.”
Reno Brew Bike
This is a brewpub tour — make that a party — on wheels. The covered, 15-passenger bike (picture a bar top surrounded on three sides by stools with pedals) is propelled by 10 of its riders. When people hop aboard, they put their mettle to the pedal.
While the concept isn’t new, Reno Brew Bike is the only one of its kind in Reno. Owner Duke Bristow was inspired to give it a try after his friends had success with a similar venture in Sacramento. Now, in its third year, business is booming.
“The bike advertises itself,” says manager/driver SarahFaye Flick. “Our passengers are having so much fun, it’s contagious.”
With 20 partnered locations, the bike really gets around. Stops vary according to passenger interest but can include breweries, brewpubs, and bars in both downtown and Midtown.
“Depending on the tour, we hit three to four locations,” Flick says. “We’re only limited by our extremely slow speeds!”
Drivers are happy to talk about Reno’s drink offerings, but once the bike is under way, music may drown out the conversation. The bike is equipped with Pandora and a stereo system for riders to use with their own devices. It all fuels the pedaling, which Flick notes seems to get easier as the tour progresses.
The real beauty of the bike may be that it encourages playfulness.
“Riding the bike is such an unusual experience that even the shyest people end up cheering and waving to people in the streets,” Flick says. “That’s why I love my job. I help people celebrate every day.”
Reno Booze Bus and Tahoe Brew Tours
If you’ve ever sat and sipped a great brew or unusual whiskey and wondered how anyone could make something that tastes so good, these are the tours for you. Neither company bills these as party tours. Still, they’re anything but dry — customers sample craft brews (or spirits, depending on the location) at every stop. The difference is that the sipping goes along with a behind-the-scenes tour of each local brewery and distillery.
“We do have fun, but the goal isn’t to go out and get hammered,” says Jessica Adams, who owns Reno Booze Bus and Seven Troughs Distilling Co. with husband Tom. “This is more about learning how spirits and beers are made and discovering new places. Many of the breweries and distilleries on our tours are small companies in out-of-the-way places that make it hard for the average person to find them.”
During transit, a Reno Booze Bus guide describes the local drink scene and the businesses they’ll visit. At each stop, a brewer or distiller conducts the tour and pours tastings.
Adams says business owners are eager to participate, and none, including herself and Tom, feels threatened by the competition.
“If you look at cities that have good alcohol tourism, they do business as one,” Adams says. “The more there are, the better we’ll do. We may all make whiskey or beer, but each has a unique taste.”
Tahoe Brew Tour owners and longtime friends Ben Kimple and Gus Banuski had enjoyed a few brewery tours of their own in other cities. As the Tahoe craft brew scene emerged, they noticed an influx of tourists at the Tahoe brewpubs they frequented.
“We thought, ‘Why not do brewery tours here?’” Kimple says. “You need transportation to get from place to place around the lake, and we decided to provide it.”
They do North and South Shore brewery tours, doling out local lore while cruising. The price includes appetizers, tastings, and brewer-led tours at each location.
“We’re offering brewery tours, not pub crawls,” Kimple says. “Our goal is to educate people about the craft beer industry, the process of making beer, and the craft brew scene here. Tahoe is so amazing that people keep coming back. We hope to make brewery tours a regular part of their experience.”
This is a specialty tour in more ways than one. First, it offers tastings of boutique Northern California wines unavailable anywhere else other than the wineries themselves. Second, the wine tastings take place aboard the Golden Rose, a Chris Craft cruiser turned Venetian water taxi (right down to the 24-carat-gold-plated chrome). Finally, co-owner Diondra Colquhoun dispenses the stories behind each wine while captain, co-owner, and husband Shane navigates Lake Tahoe’s stunning South Shore.
It helps that the Colquhouns are oenophiles and avid boaters. Diondra had hoped to open a wine bar at Lake Tahoe, but when the Golden Rose went up for sale, the couple took the opportunity to combine both their loves.
“We take pride in doing the ‘hard work’ ourselves to search out the wines,” Diondra says, laughing.
The wines featured are uncommon, even rare varietals, and all but one come from wineries outside Napa-Sonoma.
“We wanted to give people wines they’ve not had before,” Diondra says. “And we have so many favorites that we often swap wines out. Guests that go out with us multiple times in a season will likely have a different selection each time.”
It’s a busy job for the couple, but they don’t mind.
“What’s there to complain about, being on a boat in one of the most beautiful places in the world while sharing great wines?” Diondra asks.
Reno Tahoe Brewery Tour
Jon Wilson didn’t plan to get into alcohol tourism. He just bought a van with the idea of transporting fellow mountain bikers to and from their destinations. When the concept failed to take off, another idea started to, well, ferment. It started when Reno Brew Bike guests came into a brewpub where he bartended.
“They were all having a great time, and a lot of my customers said they wanted to do tours, only not on a bike. I already had the van, so I just switched gears,” Wilson says.
The name of the tour company is a bit misleading — breweries are just a few of the places Wilson takes clients. In fact, a customer favorite is his Dive Bar tour.
“I have a list of about 40 dive bars, most of which people have never heard of and will never experience otherwise,” Wilson says. “Some of these bars are in back alleys, others are on side streets. But they’re places people are really curious about. The owners are thrilled that we’re there and go out of their way to make my customers feel welcome.”
Flexibility is Wilson’s theme. He’s open to customers choosing their destinations. There is one thing he tries to keep consistent, and that’s a midnight quitting time.
“Much later than that and bars can get a little crazy,” Wilson says. “It’s just better to quit while you’re ahead.”
Freelance writer Sue Edmondson has written for various publications in Northern Nevada and Northern California. After discovering food and drink tours, she can’t imagine exploring an area any other way.
It’s easy (and smart) to book tours in advance, either online or by phone. Most companies also offer private tours. Owners say they’re perfect for employee team-building outings and to celebrate special occasions.
Don’t overlook self-guided tours
• Downtown Reno Wine Walk and downtown Carson City Wine Walk take place monthly. Socialize while sipping your way through shops, eateries, and drinking establishments. For details, visit Renoriver.org/features/wine-walk and Visitcarsoncity.com/event/wine-walk/all
• Reno’s RiverWalk Merchants Association sponsors Dine the District twice a year. During this event, participating downtown Reno restaurants showcase their cuisines. The event usually sells out, so buy tickets early. For details, visit Renoriver.org/features/dine-the-district-food-tour
• For the first time, the Nevada Restaurant Association is promoting a Breakfast Week at participating Northern Nevada eateries July 24 – 30. For details, visit Nvrestaurants.com
• Last but not least, Reno Bites offers seven days of food and drink experiences at establishments throughout Reno. Prices vary from place to place. This year’s Reno Bites takes place Oct. 9 – 15. For details, visit Renobitesweek.com
For reservations, prices, and tour details
Carson City Wine Walk – Visitcarsoncity.com/event/wine-walk/all
Nevada Restaurant Association Breakfast Week – Nvrestaurants.com
Reno Bites – Renobitesweek.com
Reno Booze Bus – Renoboozebus.com • 775-335-2050
Reno Brew Bike – Renobrewbike.com • 775-771-0164
Reno Food Tours – Renofoodwalks.com • 775-453-6635
Reno Tahoe Brewery Tour – Reno-tahoebrewerytour.com • 775-338-1293
Reno Wine Walk and Dine the District – Renoriver.org
Tahoe Brew Tours – Tahoebrewtours.com • 775-386-2739
Tahoe Tastings – Tahoetastings.com • 530-494-9222