Enjoy Wine Country on the Cheap
You Can Afford a Wine Country Vacation
Many visitors to California dream of visiting wine country; Sonoma and Napa counties are the big names of renowned wines. For decades, these two counties had a monopoly on fine wine coming from the coastal state. Sonoma and Napa are beautiful counties and indeed, they offer great wine, but unless you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars per night, it can be challenging to find a hotel.
Since 1976 when California wines blew the lid off the competition in France, worldwide interest in the region helped the industry to boom. What many visitors, and many locals, do not realize is that since that 1976 wine competition wine country has spread outside the original boundaries, and now includes several quality, yet affordable wine regions to visit.
Vineyards now run the length of the state, with clusters found from Santa Barbara, north. Central California and even the Sierra foothills all share the rich volcanic soil and climate that produce superior wine grapes, and at a much lower cost to the taster.
A room in Santa Barbara goes for less than half the cost of a Napa/ Sonoma stay. Here you can visit Au Bon Climate on the internationally recognized Bien Naidu Vineyard. Sample brilliant Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and fine chardonnays produced by Jim Clendenen, who was named Winemaker of the Year in 1992 and 2001. There are several fine wineries, which offer tastings, or take a wine tour for as little as $70, and they do all the driving. Sadly, the days of free tastings are largely forgotten.
Each tasting room has its own pricing rules, which can range from $5 upwards, and often per glass. Try to take advantage of any package deals. Some tasting rooms offer lower prices if you purchase a tasting package, such as thee tastings for $5. I recommend you ask before you sip, especially if the budget is tight.
Vineyards are dotted along the beautiful California coastline, which is an attraction in its’ own rights. Consider taking the Coast Highway (Hwy 1) as you stop to visit the many vineyards along the way. The Central coast winegrowing region extends all the way to South San Francisco, offering stops in San Louis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara. This route can be pricey, but many small hotels and motels can save you serious cash. A little research on discount travel sites can get you a room under $80 per night, at a quality chain, or clean Mom and Pop place.
Try to avoid hotels that cater to a different attraction. For example, in San Louis Obispo, Hearst Castle is the dominant draw. Hotels closest to the castle are far pricier than those a few miles up the road. The same is true for areas such as Big Sur or Monterey. Try looking for a room slightly inland, and you can find real bargains, while maintaining a good proximity to tasting rooms.
The Central coastal region American Viticultural Area (AVA) is often overlooked, however, with more than 100,000 acres dedicated to wine grapes, you can rely on delightful surprises along the way. The cool Pacific breezes draw the grapes to perfection. It still surprises me that these wines remain unknown.
Even as a California native, I was unaware of the burgeoning wine industry in the Central Valley. When a family member moved to Lodi, I was delighted to find some very impressive wines coming from local sources. Aside from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song about being “stuck” there, Lodi had not been in my conscious mind since grade school, when we learned about California’s Fertile Crescent.
Another benefit from visiting Central Valley wineries is the plethora of other fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts available at ubiquitous roadside stands. Consider the season to take advantage of the areas festivals, celebrating the local bounty. From Cherry Festivals to Garlic Festivals, and everything in between, the Central Valley produces excellent produce, including wine grapes.
As Catholic missionaries made their way north, building the California Missions, they needed wine for sacrificial offerings. The rich soil of the region helped bring bountiful harvests, which continue to this day. As wine has grown more popular in recent years, the area has increased production and new vineyards are still popping up.
The Central Valley AVA includes several counties, extending into the lush Sierra Foothills. Areas to consider visiting include the San Joaquin Valley, the Delta and Sacramento. When I last visited the foothills, there were only a handful of tasting rooms, but things are changing quickly. Check out the Grass Valley and Auburn areas for your best affordability. Nearby, gold country, and silver mining, brought tiny towns, which may not even appear on a map, but the historical and geological features make for a fascinating visit. As you drive the scenic highways (even if they are winding two-lane roads), you may stumble upon an inviting cellar providing a taste of local wines. Walk through a gold mine and sip on fine wine in the same day.
The Delta and Sacramento are the exception to the rule when it comes to paying for samples. Because the region is new to the wine industry, tastings rooms are trying to lure wine aficionados from Napa and Sonoma Counties by offering free tasting and tours. You never know, you may be greeted directly by the winemakers, inviting you to an up-close look behind the scenes. You will not find that sort of access elsewhere.
Sacramento is a hubbub of activity. Perhaps best known as the states’ capitol, Old Town Sacramento is well worth a visit. You can even check out an historical river paddleboat that once served the area as transportation up and down the Sacramento River. A truly outstanding train Museum is also located in Old Town, which features original architecture, including wooden sidewalks, housing shops, and eateries and amusements. This is an ideal side trip while you are touring the many Sacramento area tasting rooms.
Ideal wine growing conditions surround the city on all sides. Some authorities call this the “Napa Valley of 30 years ago.” They may not have the same vintage appeal of the old school wineries, but these wineries are producing some of the best wines in the state. Who knew?
I would suggest staying out of downtown, if you are looking for a bargain price. Because of the demand near the Capitol and downtown, room prices escalate quickly in these areas. There are tons of viable alternatives just outside those limits. We visit this area frequently, and we find rooms in the $50 per night range, at 2-3 star hotels that are less accessible to the center of power, but still close to the freeway to make tasting tours easy.
Before prohibition forced wine growers to switch to other crops, the wine country was much larger. Lake and Mendocino counties were among the best wine producers, exceeding Napa and Sonoma in both quality and quantity. When prohibition was initiated, priests claimed religious immunity, because they needed to produce wine for services. They were the only vineyards not turned into other crops.
Lake and Mendocino have gained recognition as tremendous walnut and pear producers. The Bartlett Pear originated in Lake County where the soil was particularly rich from volcanic activity. Mendocino likewise had to replace their grapes with other crops. Several previous vineyards managed to retain their viticulture roots, and have returned to wine production once prohibition ended. For example, Guenon Winery near Middletown, CA has restored the historic glory of the property once owned by society socialite and actress, Lily (Lillie) Langtree, who had ties to British royalty. She was quite the colorful character, and drew many visitors to her home. Here you can soak up history while sipping fine wines.
Follow Hwy 29 to Clear Lake, and choose a direction. The lake is surrounded by wineries in both directions. Continue on Hwy 29 and you will find the Red Hills region, resting at the base of picturesque Mount Konocti, up to Kelseyville. The views can be as outstanding as the wine you will sample.
If you choose to follow Hwy 53, you can turn east on Hwy 20 and find several tasting rooms dotted around the area. The High Valley wineries that produce the wine for these tasting rooms can be remote, so you may not be visiting a winery per se, but none-the-less you will have the opportunity to sample some of the best wine in the region.
Most of Lake County is considerably less expensive than their Napa neighbors’ rentals. Twin Pines Casino in Middletown is a favorite place for us, so we can easily travel to Napa and Sonoma wineries, as well as the fantastic local venues.
To the North and East, Mendocino County offers reliably good wines from Anderson Valley, Potter Valley, and Covelo, close to Ukiah. All of these locations will also offer hotels available for less than half the price of traditional wine country. The beautiful town of Mendocino has some fine tasting areas, but the hotel prices can be painful for budget travelers. I suggest you stay near Ukiah or Hopland to reach all these areas easily. Hopland, as the name suggests is well-known for their superior hops. If you get tired of sipping wine, try any of their boutique breweries. The area is rich in microbreweries also offering samples. Viva la difference!
If you really must stay in Sonoma or Napa wine country try smaller towns, such as Windsor, which is just north of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County. Even Santa Rosa offers some bargains. Towns more associated with the wine industry include Healdsburg, Bennett Valley, the Russian River Valley, and those along the Sonoma coastline. It truly feels like most of Sonoma County is covered in wine grapes, so tasting rooms are everywhere. If you see an interesting hole-in-the wall, check it out. We found featherbed heaven, in a rustic little room at a motel we were initially dubious about.
Truthfully, we had “sampled” a bit too generously, and did not want to drive any further. Looking beyond the first impression, we checked the place out, and for $65, we enjoyed a terrific night’s rest in a funky but fun room, in a “town” that had no name.
Try to avoid the Napa Valley, Saint Helena, Calistoga, or what is called the Stags Leap District, if you want to keep costs down in Napa County. Any of these areas will have room rate that will break the bank. Try Oakville, Rutherford, and Yountville for rates that are more reasonable.
What Else to Know about wine country
When you are on a tight budget, you may not consider tours because the pose an extra expense. Many of these wine regions have narrow, winding roads that can be difficult to deal with, especially if you want to enjoy the wine. All of these areas know that wine tasters sometimes overdo it, and the CHP and local cops are always on the lookout. The cost of a tour is far more reasonable than a drunken driving offense. You will want to shop around, however, as not tours are created equally. Alternatively, it is wise to have a designated driver who does not taste.
Another overlooked budgetary item is food. Many dining establishments offer a high-end menu, at a high-end price, simply because they are located in wine country. This is especially true in the two primary wine areas of Napa and Sonoma. If you want a five star chef, splurge on any of the fine restaurants in these areas, but if you look, there are tons of smaller eateries offering a bargain. I always ask to see the menu if I am not sure. I was charged $45 for a burger and fries at one joint. Now I look before I leap. It is less embarrassing to ask for a menu than be caught short.
Another food suggestion: be sure to eat before you go tasting. A hearty late breakfast or lunch will provide a good base for tasting. Some of these wines are very potent, and they can easily sneak up on people. If you have an empty belly, you are inviting trouble. I was visiting Sonoma wineries with a friend, and we agreed we would stop for French bread, and cheese to picnic with along the way. Once we left the quaint town of Sonoma, we did not find another place to eat that we could afford to splurge on. A $15 sandwich is not as appealing as a $3 loaf of bread, and some good brie.
If you like wine, (and who doesn’t?) you should plan a trip to the California Wine Country, but be sure to spread your wings and try some of the amazing offerings, that are off the beaten path. You can afford more than you think if you look outside the box.