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Friday, May 14, 2010

Visiting on the Cheap

Almost everyone wants to save a few bucks this year. That doesn't mean you don't need a vacation or at least a long weekend away. And what better attitude-adjuster than world-class wine and food!

If you're not from CA you'll find that lodging, restaurants, and gasoline are probably more expensive than at home.

Saving on Travel

If you're flying you have a choice of several airports:
  • San Francisco has the most flights. You have to drive through SF to get to the Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino wine regions.  Just getting out of the airport can be a challenge.
  • Oakland is probably a bit cheaper to fly into and a very easy drive to Napa and not too bad into Sonoma
  • San Jose is quite a long, congested drive to Napa or Sonoma, but is close to Livermore and Santa Cruz wine areas
  • Sacramento is a small airport so there's not as many flights. It's farther than SFO or Oakland, but an easy drive. 
  • Santa Rosa/Sonoma County airport puts you right in the middle of the wine country, but there are few flights and they will probably be more expensive.  There are direct flights from L.A., Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle. Also, you can carry a case of wine out of this airport for free.
Coming into Santa Rosa. Not exactly LAX!
But you do fly in over lots of vineyards.

Getting Around

You really need a car and GPS or a good map to get started. You can take one of many bus or van wine tours, but you'll save money by getting around on your own.  Travel through the back-country roads in Sonoma County can be confusing so plan on getting lost at least once, but maybe that will lead you to some great, new winery you've never heard of before!

Where to Stay

There are lots of luxury or near-luxury hotels plus B&B's. There are numerous decent motels and budget hotel chains. The downside in going cheap is the view out your window will be of commercial establishments and traffic rather than vineyards. Decide what's important.

Santa Rosa, being the biggest town in the area, will have the best selection of inexpensive motels. There are good deals in Rohnert Park, to the south, but it's not as convenient of a location. Wine-trendy cute towns like Healdsburg, Sonoma or Yountville will be more expensive.


You can easily spend $10 for a salad, $25 for an entree and $50 for a bottle of wine every night of your stay. And maybe you want to do that sometime, but like anywhere else there are lots of good, cheaper eateries. You'll find non-chain burger joints, brewpubs, plus an abundance of taquerias and Oriental restaurants that are fun to try and not so expensive. 

If you're visiting in warm weather then take a loaf of a delicious local bread and some outstanding cheese along wine tasting and picnic at a winery.

Wine Tasting

Unfortunately, most but not all, wineries now charge for tasting in Sonoma County. In Napa there are very few freebies left,  plus you'll find the tasting fees in Napa to be higher than in Sonoma County and Napa wineries are less likely to refund your fee if you buy wine.   Just one more reason to visit Sonoma, huh?

The best thing to do if you're traveling with a significant other is to share tastings.  You can to contact the wineries and ask about their tasting fee policy before you go.

A number of wineries put out free or 2-for-1 tasting coupons.  These are available at other wineries, hotels, and visitors' centers.  If you have a Visa Signature card about 75 Sonoma County wineries offer free tastings.  

Buying Wine

It's generally not cheaper to buy at the winery unless they're running a sale. You may see a number of sales this year as they try to push out inventory.

If it's not on sale and you can probably buy it at home don't bother. Look for wines you can't find anywhere else as many wines have very limited or no retail distribution.

Getting Wine Home

The more you buy the cheaper the per bottle shipping cost. Wineries generally charge less to ship than a shipping company such as UPS. So if you find a winery that you really like it is cheaper to have a half or full case shipped home for you. Otherwise, if you're picking up bottles from different locations than it's either pay the price of a shipping company or carry it yourself and pay the airline. 

If you live close enough to drive to the wineries and carry the wine home yourself be very careful in hot weather as you will ruin your wine if it overheats. 
Friday night concert in Cloverdale
Other Things To Do

You can visit the Pacific coast or the redwoods for free. Both are worthwhile side trips when you need a break from wine tasting.

Santa Rosa, Windsor, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale all have various free weeknight events during the warm months.   One of the best is Healdsburg's Tuesday night concert series. in the town plaza.

Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Sonoma all have interesting downtown areas to browse.

The Sonoma County Fair runs late-July into early-August with lots to do for kids and adults and is semi-reasonably priced for a day of fun.