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Friday, March 25, 2011

What time of year should you visit the wine country?

What's the best time of year to visit Sonoma or Napa?   That's an oft asked question.  And like many questions there is no black-and-white answer so lets look at the various times of the year.   Heck, we can do it by month even!

Pro:  No crowds, you can often talk with the owners and winemakers.
Con: Weather can be cold and wet. In fact, the occasional flood can really put a damper on things. Some smaller wineries may be closed some days as some restaurants may.  I've found wines sometimes not tasting their best because the bottles have been opened for a couple days.

Pro: Still small crowds except maybe President's Weekend.  Weather improving.  Mustard growing in the vineyards.
Con: Can't completely trust the weather yet.

February in Russian River Valley

Pro: Usually pretty good weather (but not in 2011 as CA got pounded with rain).  March and April are my favorite times of the year to drive around the wine growing regions. There are special events in Sonoma the first three weekends.  Mustard plants in full bloom in the vineyards.  The vineyards can be beautiful this time of year.
Con: Huge crowds at the barrel tasting events in Sonoma County.

Pro: Uncrowded, usually great weather, green vineyards and hillsides, vines budding out. This is probably a near perfect time of year to visit.
Con:  Easter break is a bit busy in Napa.

Pro:  Warm, dry weather. A few more visitors, but not near peak season.
Con: Memorial Weekend crowds in Napa and southern Sonoma.

Pro: This is sort of the "secret" time to visit as crowds are often lower than May and the weather is good.
Con: The occasional heat wave can hit anytime between mid-May and early-Oct.  Nothing worse than wine tasting when it's 105!

Pro: First part of the month is still not too crowded. The Fourth is usually not busy as people are BBQing, boating, etc. Some wineries close early on the Fourth.
Con: By mid-July the crowds are out as it's prime vacation season.

Enjoy a summer afternoon at Domaine Carneros
Image from

Pro:  Harvest begins for sparkling wine and maybe some still wines.  The arrival of the first grapes of the season is an exciting time for the wineries.
Con: Vacationers pack the highways in Napa Valley and southern Sonoma County.

Pro:  Harvest gets up to speed as you see grapes going up and down the roads and in the production areas of the wineries.  A great time to take a winery tour that includes the cellar or crush pad.  You can smell the harvest. Also, September is usually some of the nicest weather in the area.  It's even warm in San Francisco!  Usually.  If you want to see the harvest the best time to visit is midweek in late September.
Con: Crowds!  Everybody wants to see the harvest in action.  Avoid weekends in Napa.

Pro: Harvest is still moving along and the weather is still good.  Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the first weekend.  Fall color in the vineyards peaks about mid-Oct to mid-Nov.
Con: There are still big crowds, but not as bad as in September though it's still a mess on weekends in Napa.

October in the vineyards

Pro: Crowds are gone, but so is the harvest probably.  Weather can still be nice.  Late Oct to early Nov is a great time to visit.
Con: Weather may also turn cold and wet--you never know.

Pro: Various holiday goings-on at some wineries including light displays and parties.
Con: Weather can be bad.

The weather in Napa and Sonoma:

Good and bad weather is relative depending on what you are used to putting up with.  The winter season runs from roughly mid-Nov to mid-Mar meaning the temps can be in the 40s or 50s with rain heavy enough to occasionally cause some flooding.  Or the temps may be in the 70s.  Usually it's somewhere in between.  Do you want to visit in cold, rainy weather to avoid crowded wineries and roads? 

The dry season is mid-Apr through Oct.  The cool, foggy morning and evening weather peaks mid-Jul through Aug. Mid-May until early-Oct has the potential for temps over 100 degrees.  This is pretty damn hot to be out tasting wine.  These heat waves are infrequent and usually only last for a couple days.  We have micro-climates so if you head for places with a marine influence they'll be cooler (such as Carneros and Russian River).  You can often find a ten degree temperature difference within a half-hour drive.

Folks from many places aren't always prepared for the difference in day to night temperature swings.  On a clear winter day it can be 65 in the afternoon and 30 overnight. In the summer it can be 90 in the day and 55 at night.

Crowds in Napa and Sonoma:

Weekends are always busier, of course.  The weekend crowds start on Friday afternoon and peak on Saturday afternoon. Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving weekend crowds are very heavy.

Napa is busier than Sonoma.  Southern Sonoma County (around the town of Sonoma) is busier than the northern areas (such as Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valley) because of driving distances from the Bay Area. 

The traffic is much worse in Napa because they get more visitors and because it is geographically more compact.  Sonoma County wine growing regions are more spread out so that spreads out the traffic.

Shipping wine home:

Heat destroys wine.  Be wary of shipping wine from the wineries in the summer.  Wineries should be able to hold your wine for a break in the weather to get it to you safely.  Ask them to do this.