Let me start with this…I don’t claim to be a wine country expert by any means. But I tend to get asked a lot about it, so I figured I’d type out a post as a primer. That said, we have been out there 4 times now and actually had another stop planned that we had to cancel. Hopefully, this post will help you get started with planning your own trip.
Sonoma Valley vs. Napa Valley
One of your first decisions is on where to go because there is a mountain range between the two regions that you don’t want to be traversing on a daily basis. It depends on a couple things…
What sort of wine do you like? Cabernets – you’re much better off in Napa. Pinots and Zinfandels – you’re probably better off in Sonoma. These are gross generalizations, but they’re true more often than not.
Are you planning on doing a lot of high end dining? Napa has more options in that respect. I’d give Napa the edge in mid-level and inexpensive dining as well…Though maybe that is because we are just more comfortable/familiar with Napa options. Gotts alone scores a point for Napa.
Are you a planner? You will probably have better luck just walking up to places in Sonoma compared to Napa – both in quality of the visit and likelihood of being accepted for a tasting.
The following are some things I hear in the Napa/Sonoma debate that I don’t necessarily 100% agree with:
Price…Actually I kind of agree with this. If you book tours/tastings in Napa that don’t refund the fee with purchase or you don’t plan on buying wine, then you’ll definitely pay more on Napa tastings. Also, Napa wine will generally be more expensive.
On the other hand, the last time I looked at staying in Sonoma (in Healdsburg), the hotels were actually more expensive than Napa for a comparable spot. So if you compare apples to apples, I don’t know that you’ll save much on staying in Sonoma.
“More personal”…This all depends on where you go. You can get commercialized tastings in Sonoma, and we’ve had plenty 1 on 1 tastings with an owner/winemaker in Napa. That said, a much larger percentage of wineries in Sonoma will give you that personal experience, so it is easier to have good tastings if you don’t do a ton of planning/research.
Crowds…same thing as the personal touch. You can avoid crowds in Napa, but you have to put more effort into your planning. And having some other people around isn’t always a bad thing. If you’re not that into wine, do you really want to spend 1-2 hours talking with someone about wine one on one? And if you search out good places, usually the other people in groups are very friendly and interesting to talk to. Usually…
And – of course – you can always split your time between the two.
Timing and Length
We just experienced firsthand what can happen in Napa in winter. Rain. We went in March and had legitimate hard rain every day. Of course the weekend before and after us were sunny and nice. It was cool, but not overly cold. My parents recently went in January and had some rain with colder weather.
The upside to winter trips is that they are less crowded and the rates are usually lower. Also, smaller facilities will have more time to spend with you since they are not dealing with the craziness of harvest.
Speaking of which, harvest can run from August through early November depending on the vintage and varietal. This is prime time in wine country and is priced as such. It is also the most crowded and expensive time. But, it is prime time for a reason. Rain is highly unlikely, the temperatures are nice, and having the grapes on the vine makes for the most picturesque time of the year. One other downside is that smaller facilities may not have time to visit with potential visitors because of harvest, but that would not be an issue at medium to large facilities.
Spring/Summer are good times to go too. You are much less likely to get rained on- especially from May on. That is one of the things that makes Napa such a good area for growing wine grapes. The weather will typically be cool in the mornings until the fog burns off, then hot in the middle of the day, then cool again at night. Prices will be higher than winter, but not quite as high as harvest season.
Really…you’ll have a nice time at any point of the year.
On the length – all of our trips have been 4 nights. I think that is a good length. I certainly wouldn’t complain about 5 nights. More than that, and you’d probably want a day or two of golf/relaxation unless you’re a hardcore wine taster.
On the other end of the spectrum, 3 nights is the shortest I’d want to go if you’re flying in from more than a couple hours away. 2 nights would be pretty short. However, I’d come out for day trips or weekends all the time if I lived in San Francisco.
Dining vs. Wine as the primary focus
Our first trip, we were going primarily to dine at the nice restaurants with wine tasting as something to do during the day. Every trip since then has been wine focused.
This is pretty obvious, but if dining is your primary focus, make your dining reservations then fill the gaps around them with wine tastings. Don’t overdo it, as you don’t want to hectically run to a dinner reservation you’re excited about because the last wine tasting took too long or you lost track of time.
And vice versa if wineries are your focus…Plan your wine stops then make dining plans that fit in with them (e.g. just bring a picnic lunch if you’ll be on a mountain all day).
Renting a car vs. hiring a driver
This is definitely a personal call. We’ve rented a car on every trip and have never had a problem nor felt like we were pushing it by driving, but we also usually do 3 spread out tours/tastings a day and eat plenty/drink plenty water during the day. But that’s us. To look at it a little deeper…
The old adage of one glass of wine=1 bottle of beer=1 shot turns out to be mostly true. I did the math. Of course, it all depends on your assumptions, but it will generally be in the neighborhood.
I’d say on average, you get 5-6 ounces of wine at a tasting – sometimes more, sometimes less. If you go to a place that pours 6 wines, you’ll likely get slightly smaller pours. On the other hand, we met with the owner/winemaker who had one wine to pour, and we killed the bottle split 5 ways (i.e. 5 oz a person).
So putting that together, how would you feel drinking 3 to 4 (or let’s say 3 to 5 to be conservative) glasses of wine over 6 to 8 hours with a decent sized lunch in the middle of the day and plenty snacks/water (if you do it right)? Or put another way, how would you handle 3-5 beers over 6-8 hours with a meal and snacks? Be honest with yourself. Some people can drink a lot and not be that affected; others will start getting woozy after a single glass of wine. The last thing you want on your vacation is a DWI. Here are some handy-dandy Leslie Knope charts to help you out (don’t forget to factor in the time):
Some other factors…My estimates above are just estimates. If you plan on staying on the main highway and doing as many tastings as you can fit in a day, you’ll be drinking A LOT more. I wouldn’t drive in that scenario. Four tours/tastings is the absolute most I would consider when driving.
If you don’t want to do the planning, you can hire a driver who will do it all for you. They’ll do a good job with the planning/making reservations (which can be a pain) and drive you around. Also, if you’re with a group, hiring a driver becomes much more cost effective.
I haven’t hired a driver, so I don’t have any personal experience with them. But we did spend 15 minutes chatting with driver while we waited for his group to finish up a tasting at Forman. He was very friendly and funny, and I could tell from our discussion that he knew what he was talking about when it comes to wine. His name is Michael Butler, and here is his site:
Bringing Wine Home With You
There are many ways, but the most cost effective (and best for your wine, IMO) is to buy a shipping box ($10) and check the wine with you on your flight home. The only downside to this is that you have to lug wine with you to the airport, but you can rent a cart – so it isn’t that big of a deal.
They also make rolling wine suitcases. They look really neat but aren’t exactly cost effective, and you have to bring it with you on the way to wine country.
Another option is bringing the wine to a shipping company in wine country. This would likely be an easier option than checking it on the plane, but it will be more expensive – especially if you go when it’s hot. In that case, you’d want to pay for overnight shipping (or at least 2 day air) so that your wine doesn’t get baked in a hot truck across the country. Even still, it will sit in a hot truck the day it is delivered. In New Orleans during summer, that could be a 100 degree plus truck all day long.
And the easiest option of all is to let the winery ship to you directly. If they are a good winery, they’ll monitor the weather and only ship when the temperature is appropriate. But this is only cost effective at larger quantities of wine (6 bottles +). However, some wineries will subsidize shipping prices, so it may be worthwhile to ship even small quantities.
Where to Stay
I won’t even get into recommending specific hotels. You can read about where we’ve stayed in our trip reports if interested. This is about what area to stay in. In most cases, it basically boils down to a cost benefit analysis of what location is worth to you.
Some general advice…unless you are going to relax and not do much, you will not spend a lot of time in your room. A day basically goes like this: wake up, get ready for the day, eat breakfast, wine, eat lunch, wine, dinner, then sleep. So don’t go overboard on the room. You want a decent place, but it doesn’t have to be over the top.
Location is where you want to spend your money. You want to have a good, hearty breakfast included to lay down a nice base layer for the day. So, it is worth finding a place that includes a decent breakfast.
With that said, my favorite places to stay on the Napa Valley side are St. Helena and Yountville. But those places can be significantly more expensive. Downtown Napa (and to a lesser extent, Calistoga) are more reasonably priced, but they are also more out of the way. For some perspective, downtown Napa to Calistoga takes 40 minutes without traffic and can take over an hour with typical traffic. [Pro-tip: when possible take the Silverado Trail over Hwy 29. The Silverado trail usually has less traffic.]
It just depends on what your budget is and what the convenience/small town charm is worth to you.
On the Sonoma side, it’s a similar situation. Healdsburg is probably the best place to stay, but it can be more expensive. Santa Rosa has more reasonably priced accommodations and is somewhat centrally located (the entire Sonoma Valley is even bigger/more spread out than Napa Valley), but many places you’ll want to go are a 20 minute ride away.
One more thing…there aren’t as many vacation rentals as you’d expect. This is a result of the area always closely regulating rentals/B&Bs and actually enforcing the regulations.
On to the main event – wineries.
First, a major tip…Buy a case of water the first day of your trip and leave it in your car. You can never have too much water, and it is much easier to drink water if you have it sitting there with you. Also, a case of water cost like 5 to 6 bucks at a gas station – well worth it.
Next, be honest with yourself on what your level of interest is in wine and if you intend to purchase much wine. If you’re not looking to buy wine or become a future customer, don’t go to a very small producer that will take time out of their schedule to open up several bottles of wine just for you and not charge a fee. Of course, they will likely never say anything if you don’t buy wine, but I consider it to be bad form. And it’s not a problem at all if you’re not interested in buying wine, there are tons of places to go – in fact, I’d say the vast majority are fine to go to and not buy wine. I just point that out because we go to some of these smaller producers, so reading our trip reports could lead you in the wrong direction. Plus, if anybody charges more than a nominal fee ($10), you should feel zero pressure to buy wine.
Speaking of fees, they’ve escalated rapidly since our first trip in 2010. Just a general sampling (you know I have all this in a spreadsheet for every trip). Schramsberg was $35 per person; it’s now $65. Jarvis was $40 (our first trip splurge); it’s now $80. Pine Ridge tours were $25; they’re now $50. Frog’s Leap was $10; it’s now $25. I could go on for a while…
$25+ is the new norm for a basic tasting. $50+ is average for a tour. Expect to pay $75+ for a visit to a “high end” winery.
There was also a sneakier price increase. Most fees used to be directly applicable towards the purchase of a bottle. Now, many places will only waive fees with the purchase of several bottles (6+ in many circumstances) or a dollar value purchased (e.g. $300+ per waived fee).
And while we’re on the subject…There are roughly 400 wineries with tasting rooms in the Napa Valley (thanks Google). How do you even begin to narrow that down to the 10-12 you’ll taste at on a long weekend trip? The first barrier to entry I almost always use is whether tasting fees will be waived with purchase (NOT waived upon joining the club – I’m not a big fan of the club model). It’s a concrete meaningful measure and can save a couple over $1000 on a single trip if you plan to buy wine. If a winery doesn’t advertise if they waive fees, don’t be shy to e-mail and ask.
Out of the places that waive fees, my next criteria is that I want a place that makes good wine. To me good wine is a wine that is balanced (i.e., has nice acid and tannin, is not overly ripe and fruity, and isn’t so high in alcohol that there is heat on the finish). These wines are usually ageworthy, but can also frequently be enjoyed young. Note: it is a common misconception that all wines improve with age. Most wines are not made for aging and just head downhill quickly after 5 years or so.
My final criteria in picking a winery is that I want a place that provides a generally enjoyable experience. What good is going to a place on vacation that pours great wine if the Soup Nazi is the person behind the bar doing the pouring and/or touring. Basically to me, this just means that I don’t want the place to be snobby or show-offy; I’d much rather something authentic. Usually, this is the easiest criteria if you’ve done a good job with the first two.
One thing that I’ve kind of mentioned in passing is tours and tastings. I’ve lumped them together, but they can be very different. A tasting is usually just that – a tasting of wine. They can be done differently – at a bar in a tasting room is most common, but we’ve also tasted at a table in an office and in a trailer. Tastings are usually quicker (30-60 minutes), but we’ve had some last over an hour and a half.
Tours are different. Usually a tour starts off by taking you around the winery, and you might go out into the vineyards or caves if the winery has caves. Afterwards, you usually return to a tasting room or a picnic table and taste the wine. Tours will take a little longer (60-90 minute on average), but they too can vary.
Here are some resources for helping you pick out wineries:
- Forums – Wine Berserkers is a good free forum. Wine Spectator has a free forum too. Vinous and Robert Parker have good forums, but those are subscription sites.
- Yelp and Trip Advisor can help you get a decent feel for the winery experience. As always though when dealing with these sites, proceed with caution.
- Websites – Napa Wine Project has a lot of reviews. Napa Valley Vintners has some good resources. Wine Folly is an easy to read, good for all levels general wine site. Really there is a ton of info out there.
- Blogs and Online Trip reports can be good resources if you can find them.
- Google Maps can actually be very helpful if you have an idea of one place you want to go that is off the beaten path. Click on it in Google Maps, and it will usually show you other wineries nearby, which you can then research.
- Critics (e.g. Vinous, Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, Wine Spectator, etc.) – Critics are much criticized in the wine world – they direct the market, they’re biased, they’re inconsistent, their palates don’t match mine…and on and on…It can all be true, but here is the bottom line – critics can be useful for giving you an idea of places to try out of the hundreds. Then you can let your own palate decide. That’s not to say I won’t go to places that haven’t been critically rated; we often do based on other recommendations. But I’ll look at scores too. Don’t put too much emphasis on scores, but they can be one useful tool of many in planning. If you’re not that into wine, don’t even worry about it.
Once you have an idea of where you want to go, it’s time to book. This can be frustrating and like putting a puzzle together…or an LSAT game. For example:
Place A is open only Thursday and Saturday and does tastings at 11:00 and 2:00 only. Place B is open Monday – Friday and does tastings at 10:00 and 2:00. Place C is open by appointment only (no guidelines) and takes 10 days to respond to e-mails. Place D… You get the point.
This is more of an issue for tours and tastings off the beaten path. If you do mostly tastings on the main highway, it will be easier. Either way, don’t be surprised if your final schedule ends up very different than your initially planned schedule – maybe even with some different producers.
The earlier you plan the better. I’d aim for one month out minimum if you’re trying to go to some of the smaller places because they will book up. Big ones can too. You can plan closer in, but you’re more likely to have to modify your ideal schedule/times/locations.
For starters, I usually allow 2 hours between scheduled tours. That gives you an hour and a half for the tour, some time to get to the next one, and some time for over run. Tastings can vary. Allow an appropriate time for lunch. If you have less time available for lunch or if spending the day in an area where there is nowhere to buy lunch (Spring Mountain, Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain), bring a “picnic” lunch. A picnic can be anything you can take with you. Our favorite is picking up an assortment of meats, cheeses, and bread. We’ve done sandwiches too. We’ve even stashed some grocery store sushi in a cooler.
The next tip is a big one…Plan your itinerary in a logical manner for easy travel between visits. Sounds obvious, but it needs to be said. As discussed earlier, it can take you an hour to get from downtown Napa to Calistoga with traffic, so we’re not talking about small distances.
Ideally, you could just pick one area in a day and concentrate only on that area. But it doesn’t always work that way. So if not, it is probably best to start at the farthest away winery and work your way back. Another technique (if staying mostly on the main Hwy), is to plan your day maximizing right turns on the Hwy 29 – i.e. head out hitting all the wineries on one side of the Hwy (right turns), then hit all the wineries on the other side of the Hwy on your way back. It sounds goofy, but turning left on the Hwy can be a beast in the middle of the day.
Phew…That’s a lot to say on wineries without recommending a single one. And I’m not going to go into a detailed expose of wineries either. You can read our previous posts on Napa for more detail on places we’ve been. I will hit some areas/highlights though:
Valley Floor/Main Highway/Silverado Trail – I’m lumping these together and not really saying too much on them because there are hundreds.
Note – all of these area lists are NOT exhaustive. Again, it’s impossible to list everything even in the smaller regions. Just because I didn’t list something doesn’t mean that I have something against that place. On the other hand, I’m also listing places that I haven’t been, so don’t take a name as a personal recommendation.
Howell Mountain – Some places worth looking into- Dunn, Outpost, O’Shaughnessy, Arkenstone, Cade, Viader, Ladera, Cimarossa, Buehler.
Conn Valley – Forman, Seavey, Anderson Conn Valley Vineyards, Amizetta. Hall Rutherford is also kind of in this area.
Pritchard Hill – Chappellet, David Arthur, Continuum, Ovid.
Coombsville Area – Farella, Jarvis, Palmaz, Failla, Arietta.
Mt. Veeder – Mayacamas, Lagier Meredith, Wing Canyon, Hess Collection, Mt. Veeder Winery, Hendry (more at the base of Mt. Veeder).
Spring Mountain – Pride Mountain Vineyards, Behrens Family (if they’re back up there), Robert Keenan, Schweiger, Vineyard 7 & 8, Smith-Madrone, Barnett, Sherwin Family, Terra Valentine, Stony Hill (though located on a different road up the mountain).
Sonoma – Ridge, Ramey, Quivira, Paul Hobbs, Peay, Copain, Carlisle, Bedrock (though they usually meet with mailing list purchasers)…And I realize I’m doing a tremendous disservice by lumping “Sonoma” together, but it’s better than nothing.
So those are some names to get you started off for off the main areas. Again, they are by no means an exhaustive list, nor a guaranteed fantastic all around experience – just a start.
I’m really not going to say much on dining. There is a plethora of information out there. You can read our past trip reports. Plus, there are tons of good places, so it’s hard to go wrong. But by now, you should know I have to give at least a couple pieces of advice:
- Don’t skip meals. I’m the king of skipping meals on a daily basis at home, but not when I’m in wine country. You need the meal to break up the tastings and give you some food in your stomach to offset the wine. Even if you’re stuffing your face in a “car picnic” – it needs to happen.
- Have water with you when out tasting.
- Eat at Gotts at least once.
Bottom line – There’s not that many deals in the Napa Valley. You can use hotel booking methods I’ve detailed in other posts, but that’s about it for lodging.
One thing I’ve used in the past is the “Gems of Napa Valley” program. Basically it used to work that you signed up for the club at one winery (we did Chappellet), and you got free tours at all the other Gems wineries. We used this on our 2012 trip, and it was actually a very good deal. But – as seems to be the case with all things Napa – things have escalated quite quickly. For example, tours at Hall-Rutherford were free for Gems members in 2012 (it was $50 per person for general public). Now? $100 per person for Gems members. I’m sorry. That is ridiculous. For the general public, it’s $125 per person. Hall-Rutherford was a nice tour, but – I’ll put this bluntly – they’re not playing in the same ballpark of the people that can get away with charging that kind of fee. And even if they were making that kind of wine, the tour we got was not worth anywhere near $125 – even in the current day, crazy Napa pricing world. Skip it. Honestly – I can’t get over it…They charge their own club member $100 per person. That’s highway robbery unless they’re pouring a 10 vintage vertical of their finest wine.
Back to the point – which there isn’t much of one. There is still some money to be saved through the GEMS program, but it isn’t worth joining a club just for the benefits. Here is a list of the 2016 benefits.
Of course, the biggest money saver is to mostly go to places that waive the fee with purchase. Another trick is to be an “active mailing list member” – i.e. buy wine before you go instead of when you’re in wine country. That’s how we got our tasting fees waived at Shafer.
If you don’t have plans, you can ask your hotel if they have any recommendations/tasting passes. Sometimes they will have free tasting coupons.
One more option is to buy a tasting pass. We’ve never done that, but it could be a money saving option depending on what’s on the itinerary. Here are some links on those:
Sonoma actually has a decent deal if you have Visa Signature card. You can get 2 for 1 tastings at a long list of places. Plus, Sonoma is probably a good bit cheaper overall if you’re not planning on buying much wine.
I’ve probably over complicated it with this post. It’s not that complicated. Just go to wine country and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Plus, drinking all day has never been so classy.