With wine flowing and a bounty of gourmet food surrounding you, it may seem impossible to go to Napa and Sonoma without breaking the bank. But staying at small bed & breakfasts slightly off the beaten track, focusing on wineries without tasting fees, and being friendly with innkeepers and winemakers can keep your gourmand trip under budget.
A short drive from the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, the town of Calistoga offers a plethora of small inns and B&Bs starting at as little as $58 a night. After filling up on a full breakfast at the inn, grab the makings for a picnic lunch at a local grocery store. Plan to stop at a vineyard with an outdoor picnic area around lunch, and while at the tasting, ask if you can take the final tasting glass out to the picnic with you. Often, the person serving you will be happy to top off your tasting glass so that you can take it to lunch.
Tasting fees generally range from $5 to $10 for anywhere from four to 10 samples, but you can easily avoid tasting fees with a little planning. The Frommer's Napa & Sonoma guide gives short descriptions of all the vineyards, as well as how much they charge for tasting fees. As a general rule, Sonoma offers more vineyards sans fee than the more touristy Napa. However, don't limit yourself to the free tastings. Stick to small vineyards, be friendly with the staff, and ask for recommendations on where to go next on the wine trail. They may give you a referral card or tell you the name of the winemaker. If you walk into the next vineyard with a recommendation, the winemaker may just waive the fee.
Getting to know your innkeeper and winemakers can get you valuable recommendations, but that can be difficult when the town is overrun with tourists. As with any budget travel, go in the off-season and you will receive not only discounts, but also personal attention.