California’s wine regions are known to be expensive. With high-end wineries like Caymus and Opus One located in Napa Valley, you could easily spend a lot. But, you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa. Visiting California wine country on a budget is definitely possible. In fact, it’s a lot of fun!
Living in Miami, we left town suddenly before Hurricane Irma hit. We used some AAdvantage miles and booked a same-day flight out to San Francisco. We flew out on Wednesday and had booked a return flight for the following Monday. However, on Sunday night, we found out the Miami airport closed over the weekend and remained closed on Monday. American cancelled our flight, and to our dismay, San Francisco was completely sold out due to a city-wide conference!
Not wanting to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a hotel for two more nights, we did some quick searching and found much cheaper rooms in Sonoma. Just an hour drive from San Francisco made it totally doable! We rented a car and drove up, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, on Monday morning.
I enjoyed our time in wine country so much, I wanted to share a few tips so you can enjoy it too. Keep reading for guide to an affordable visit to California wine country.
Do Some Research
In my case, I didn’t have much time to research which wineries I wanted to visit. Thankfully, there is a wealth of winery information available online and in print (like maps and magazines that you can pick up pretty much anywhere in the area).
When planning out a day, I recommend narrowing your scope to a particular region. Otherwise, you may spend more time on the road than tasting wine.
Then, start Googling! On our first day, we wanted to experience Napa, so we pulled up a map and started going down the list. We didn’t want to spend more than $20 per tasting flight, so that helped us narrow down our options. Nearly all wineries have a description of their tasting offerings and prices online. Combined with Google and Yelp reviews, we were able to find some quality spots.
Another consideration when researching – does the winery accept walk-ins or do you need a reservation? Since we were there on short noticed, we focused on tasting rooms that accepted walk-ins. But if you have more time to plan, you could secure a reservation.
Find Tasting Deals
If you’re visiting California wine country on a budget, you’ll want to keep tasting fees in check. Some wineries charge upwards of $50 per tasting flight, proportional to the cost of the wine, of course.
Lots of wineries offer flights between $10 and $20 – which can include anywhere from 3 to 7 tastes. Sometimes the cost of the tasting can be applied to a wine purchase, which also makes for a great deal!
In addition to just looking for less expensive tastings, many wineries offer promotions. You can find these online or in the maps/magazines you pick up on the way. Deals might include 2-for-1 tastings or bonus tastes with a purchase of a flight (free sparkling at the beginning, for instance).
There are even some wineries that offer free tastings – usually larger, more commercial ones. Check out this list of free tastings in Sonoma County, and I would just double check on their website to confirm availability.
Plan Your Transportation
In Napa and Sonoma Counties, there are well over 400 wineries, spanning thousands of square miles. Public transportation is sparse, meaning getting around takes a bit of planning. And if you’re visiting California wine country on a budget, you don’t want to get stuck paying for a $50 Uber ride when you’ve had one too many tastes.
Renting a car is a great option, especially if you’re driving up from the San Francisco area. Many hotels offer free parking, and having your own car gives you the freedom to drive around and enjoy the scenery. However, driving after several wine tastings is definitely NOT recommended, so plan accordingly.
There are dozens of wine tour companies which you can easily find online, but they’re not cheap and usually don’t give you the freedom to visit whichever wineries you’d like. Taking a wine tour does afford you the luxury of drinking as much as you want, though. Search on Viator for a good selection of wine tours.
However, if you don’t want to deal with transportation, book your accommodation in a town with lots of wineries within walking distance. We stayed in Sonoma, a block from Sonoma Plaza, where there were dozens on tasting rooms within a few minutes’ walk. Healdsburg also offers a variety of walking-distance wineries.
BYOP (Bring Your Own Picnic)
What could be better than enjoying a picnic at a vineyard, while tasting delicious wine? Well, seems that not much could be better, because some wineries charge pretty steep prices for a catered picnic and wine flight! I saw some prices starting at $150 per person – not exactly wallet-friendly!
But don’t worry, the picnic experience can be affordable too, at wineries that allow you to BYOP! Definitely an essential part of visiting California wine country on a budget.
My picnic essentials:
- Olives or other nibbles (figs are delicious, see below)
- Your choice of cheeses/charcuterie/dips/spreads
- Optional salad (love me a good grocery store salad bar)
- Nibble of chocolate or fruit for the end!
Only a few wineries have BYOP policies, and we visited two – Hagafen Cellars and Laird Family Estate. One of the best parts of Hagafen Cellars – they have the cutest kitten, Sylvester! I read that Napa Cellars also allows picnickers, but we didn’t have a chance to visit.
For your picnic supplies, I recommend the Whole Foods in Sonoma or Napa. Or, there are many smaller natural foods markets, like Shelton’s in downtown Healdsburg, where you can find lots of local goodies.
Visit in Off-Peak/Off-Season
If you’re flexible on time, adjusting your visit to off-peak dates can save you a lot of money and hassle. We learned that weekends (Friday to Sunday) are significantly busier than weekdays, and that fall/winter months are much busier than spring/summer months.
With the influx of crowds during peak times, lodging prices will increase dramatically. Not only that, but tasting rooms will be busy, and you may need to make reservations to visit them. We had a fantastic time on our Monday and Tuesday night stay with no traffic or crowds.
In fact, our mid-week visit seemed to offer more locals-oriented activities. On Tuesday evening, we went to the Sonoma Farmers’ Market, held every Tuesday in Sonoma Plaza. There were produce vendors, food trucks, live music, and lots of happy people. And the best part, the park is a “wet park,” so you can bring your own bottle of wine! It was a super fun, low cost evening activity and we enjoyed a delicious local dinner!
Enjoy the Scenery
Although the main draw of wine country is indeed the wine, the area’s natural beauty is an attraction itself. With numerous parks nearby, maybe a morning hike is the best way to shake off your hangover 🙂
Annadel State Park is a great bet for hiking, and it’s centrally located within wine country. If you want to drive a bit further, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is famous for their redwood forest. That one is on my list for my next wine country visit!
Have you visited California wine country? Or is it on your list to visit? Hope my money-saving tips will help you maximize your stay while visiting California wine country on a budget.