Often when people think of wine, they think of expensive taste. However, after a weekend trip to California wine country, based on your vote, I learned that an escape can have high value without pretense or the price. And whether or not you splurge a bit on a fine vintage, you can have a quality experience.
What’s the deal?
Out of all of California’s wine regions, I chose to stick with the classics, Napa and Sonoma, focusing on the latter. Located near San Francisco and its airports, both of these valleys are easily accessible from just about anywhere in the country. Lodging options are vast and suitable for any budget, and most activities—wine tastings and tours, vineyard and garden walks, museums visits, and park hikes and picnics—cost little or nothing at all. The only potential expense lies in which wines you chose to bring home with you, from simple table reds to well-aged vintage ports.
The easiest way to get to Napa and Sonoma wine country is to fly into one of the Bay Area airports, then drive the hour or so from there. Because San Francisco gets a lot of air traffic, fares tend to stay low and competitive from most U.S. departure cities. An influx of low-cost carriers flying into Oakland airport, such as JetBlue and Southwest, have made prices that much lower.
The lowest fare I found cost just under $200 round trip on several major airlines for a flight with one connection. However, to maximize time for my short escape, I opted to pay a little more for a nonstop, and JetBlue had the best offer at $241.90. Had I booked early enough, I could have enjoyed that same route for as low as $100 each way. The only caveat to flying JetBlue, at least in my experience, was that the lowest fare on the return trip was a red-eye. But after three days of wine-infused pleasure, I can’t say that I noticed the difference.
The best way to explore the valleys is by car, so long as you have a designated driver. Because it’s a major metropolitan area, San Francisco’s car rental prices remain relatively constant and competitive. Most agencies consistently offer rates around $15 per day for a compact car with unlimited mileage. For three days, I paid only $55.64 with Budget at the Oakland airport. I found this same rate on multiple booking sites, but in a pinch, Hotwire is often a sure bet for low rental rates.
Although gas prices have continued to rise (at press time pushing $3 in San Francisco), filling the tank was not a major impediment to staying under budget. Because I was covering such a small geographic area, I only had to stop once before dropping the car off at the airport, costing $23.05.
Where to stay
The region offers a variety of lodging types such as brand name hotels, spa resorts, small inns, B&Bs, and rentals. There’s also a wide spectrum of prices, from as low as $53 to more than $400 for a single room. For me, staying at a vacation rental was the most value-added option. I picked the Old Hill Ranch, a craftsman-style cottage with an adjacent artist studio near Glen Ellen in the heart of Sonoma. Its setting on a 40-acre vineyard allowed me to experience wine country as more than a casual observer.
In the true gastronomic spirit of the region, my companions and I prepared several meals with the rental’s quirky Wedgwood stove. Although we picked up most of our ingredients from a local market, we also harvested herbs right from the garden. Will Bucklin, a viticulturalist who runs the certified organic vineyard, not only gave us a complimentary bottle of wine made from his own grapes, but also a private tour of the grounds with his farm dog, Tanner, in tow.
According to Bucklin, those who would enjoy his rental the most are “people who are genuinely interested in wine.” As most visitors just want to “see the barrels” and go to tastings, he hopes his guests are willing to go see the vineyards. Bucklin explained firsthand how vines are tended to produce unique and flavorful grapes, which translates into a higher quality wine. Old Hill prides itself on having a field blend, the best mix of various types of grapes, or what Bucklin lovingly refers to as ” viticultura promiscua.”
Two people could stay in the main cottage for $150 per night ($75 per person). For an extra $50 per night, another two guests could rent the adjacent artist studio with a half bath. The total price when divided among four people then drops to only $50 per night per person.
Bucklin posts his rental home on Vacation Rentals by Owner, where you can find more rental options. A good source for all lodging types is WineCountry.com with a rather comprehensive listing, including Sonoma and Napa.
When planning a trip to Northern California wine country, one question typically comes up: Napa or Sonoma? I sampled both and found that each has much to offer. While Napa favors larger, corporate wineries, Sonoma leans towards the smaller, independent ones.
Personally, I preferred Sonoma, with winding roads, a more bucolic landscape, and much smaller vineyards and wineries. In Bucklin’s view, smaller vineyards allow for “more attention to detail with more focus on growing and less on marketing the business.” At small places like his the vineyard is the story, where organics, land preservation (no irrigation), and the quality of the grape are the most important factors.
I spent two days tasting wines, one in Sonoma and one in Napa. On the first day, I started out at some bigger wineries like Sebastiani and Domaine Carneros, which is known for its bubbly but has nice Pinot Noirs. I worked my way up the Sonoma Valley, stopping at smaller establishments such as Gundlach Bundschu, which has a $5 fee, Valley of the Moon, and Wellington. My favorite was Valley of the Moon for its personal atmosphere, ultra-smooth 2001 port, and simple but interesting gift shop.
In Napa, I drove all the way up the valley to get a feel for the region, as everything is practically laid out on one main drag, then worked my way back down, stopping when whimsy hit. Of the multitudes of wineries, my companions and I were drawn into V. Sattui by a picnic barbeque. There I found some interesting whites and an unbelievable Muscat, which evaded the hyper-sweetness of many dessert wines. We then took a tour and accompanying tasting of Cakebread for a $10 fee. This winery is known for creating unique varietals, in which no two vintages have the same proportion of grapes, as well as for food and wine pairings where each wine has a special menu designed to complement it.
Many wineries charge a cover for tastings, but the fees aren’t prohibitive and sometimes get waived if you purchase wine. Over the course of two days of tasting, I spent less than $30. If money is a big concern, know that Sonoma tends to have more free tasting wineries than Napa.
Although everyone comes to wine country for the wine, the region is also distinguishing itself as a foodie’s utopia. Fine restaurants dot the roadways through small towns, along with yuppie grocers, some within wineries, and shops selling artisanal varieties of foods such as cheese and olive oil. One such shop in Glen Ellen, The Olive Press, offers a free olive oil tasting—its unusual blood orange oil is worth the stop alone. The region is also a hotbed for organic and heirloom produce, which you can often find at farm markets or on restaurant menus.
Because we cooked most of our meals at the vacation rental, we didn’t eat out much. However, when we did, we made it count. I chose The Girl and the Fig in the town of Sonoma, partly because I liked the name, but mostly because of the fresh, local ingredients it offered: Niman Ranch jambon, bloomsdale spinach, Bellwether Farms San Andreas cheese, and the list goes on. The fig and port ice cream is extra special.
Whenever I arrive at a destination, I like to immediately visit a museum that helps me get acquainted with the surroundings. My friend and co-editor, Christine Sarkis, who lives in the Bay Area, recommended Copia, which charges a $12.50 admission for adults. This museum devoted to food and wine features interactive exhibits that allow people to experience what good and bad wines smell like before they hit the tasting rooms. Other exhibits center on the history of food, where the “got milk?” gallery translates into “got knowledge?” Once I left the premises, I felt well equipped to smell, taste, drink, eat, and fully enjoy the region.
Ultimately, with my sensory nerves on overload throughout my trip, and a group of enthusiast friends, my experience can be best expressed in a phrase I once read on the façade of a Parisian restaurant: On mange. On boit. On sympathise, roughly translated as one eats, one drinks, one gets on well. And for less than $500, I have certainly got on well while in wine country.
Don’t forget to vote for my next escape destination.