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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An inexpensive visit to Sonoma County

Wine country travel is fun. It's "Disneyland for adults." It can also be expensive as in $25 tasting fees per person, $50-up bottles of wine, $300/night lodging, and $100 dinners. I'm talking about Napa Valley here as any other region of California tends to be less expensive -- which brings us to Sonoma County.

Following are some ideas for saving a few bucks on your travel.

Getting to Sonoma County

The most convenient for West Coasters outside of the Bay Area might be Alaska Airlines as they fly directly into Sonoma County from San Diego, LA, Portland and Seattle. In case you're thirsty after you land the nearest winery tasting room is about a half mile from the end of the runway!

San Francisco and Oakland airports are 1-1/2 hours away. Oakland doesn't offer as many choices for air travelers, but is often less expensive than SFO.


Santa Rosa is probably your best bet as it's the largest city so it has more choices.  There are the big chains like Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott plus some independents like the Flamingo and Fountaingrove Inn. I would recommend not staying at the Travelodge Downtown, the Golden Coin, or the Motel 6. Some of the big one do offer occasional discounts. In the smaller towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma getting budget lodging become a bit tougher--try America's Best Value Budget Inn in Healdsburg. The towns of Rohnert Park and Petaluma may offer some deals, but are farther away from the wineries.

There are a few campgrounds in the area: Spring Lake, Sugarloaf Ridge, KOAs in Petaluma and Cloverdale, plus some privately owned campgrounds.

Eating cheap
Image from


You can spend well over a hundred dollars on dinner for a couple especially with drinks. You may want to do this once or twice to experience wine country cuisine, but when you want to be cheap there are alternatives to the chain restaurants like Olive Garden or Denny's. Try Asian food restaurants and taquerias, for instance, as there are a number of good Thai, Chinese, and Mexican food restaurants. Check the online reviews.

Some other ideas:

Get a burger at Carmen's, Phyllis', Ausiello's Fifth Street Grill, or Flipside in Santa Rosa. In Healdsburg the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, Wurst Grill or the Bear Republic Brewery. In Sonoma The Black Bear Diner. For pizza in Santa Rosa: La Vera or Mary's Pizza Shack. In Kenwood at Cafe Citti you can get a big plate of pasta for a bit over ten bucks.

A way to get into some of the many nicer restaurants in Sonoma County while trying to control costs is to have your main meal at lunchtime in one of these establishments then have a lighter, less expensive dinner.

Wine Tasting
Korbel still has free tours and tastings

In northern Sonoma (Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander Valleys) the local winery association lists wineries that still don't charge for tasting or at least refund if you purchase. Most Sonoma County wineries, unlike Napa Valley wineries, fall into one of these categories. See and search by Amenity. Also, the Wine Road sells one and three-day passes that pay for your tasting fees.

If you have a Visa Signature card there are dozens of Sonoma County wineries that offer free tasting and some also offer discounts on purchases. Visa Signature  website. Check livingsocial and groupon websites for deals, too.

Some wineries that offer good bang-for-the-buck wine prices: Cline, Kenwood, Korbel, Pedroncelli, and Sebastiani.

Getting your bottles of wine home

If you are flying there's the issue with transporting your wine home since you aren't allowed to carry it on the airplane. Wineries will, of course, ship their wine for you, but note that the per bottle price is high if you're only shipping a bottle or two. For instance, you may find shipping one bottle home from a winery costs over $20 while you can ship a case (12 bottles) for about $45. Another option is gather up your purchases, take them to a UPS store, and let them pack and ship it. Your hotel may offer this service.

You can check wine as baggage on the airplane. This is probably less expensive than shipping depending on the airline. Note that if you are flying on Alaska Air out of Sonoma County you can check a case of wine for free. Just be sure it's packed in a shipping box.

Sonoma Coast
Free or cheap entertainment

Sonoma County has an abundance of coastal beaches on the Pacific Ocean with free access.
Armstrong Redwoods State Park is free if you park and walk in.
Speaking of walking you can stroll some interesting downtown areas: Sonoma, Petaluma, Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, and Healdsburg.
For ten bucks or less: Charles Schulz (of Peanuts fame) Museum and the Pacific Coast Air Museum.
During the summer there are various farmers markets, outdoor movies, and concerts.