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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

First visit to Sonoma County? Some FAQs

When visiting anywhere you're not familiar with it's good to have a few pointers to start your trip off right. We want you to enjoy your visit to Sonoma County!

Distances
From San Francisco or Oakland Airports it's an hour or two drive depending on the traffic and where you're going within Sonoma County. Driving within the county can take longer than you might expect. It's over 45 minutes from Healdsburg to Sonoma and the times between wineries outside of these towns can be well over an hour.

Tasting room locations
If you've been to Napa Valley you've seen the line of tasting rooms up and down Highway 29. Sonoma is much more spread out though there are several areas where wineries are concentrated such as Dry Creek Road, Olivet Road west of Santa Rosa, and Highway 12 thought Sonoma Valley, to name a few. The towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg are full of tasting rooms.

Lodging cost
Good hotels can be had for about $125 a night. B&Bs will be more. You can find basic motels for less. The most expensive place to stay is Healdsburg with Sonoma a close second. Santa Rosa, as the biggest town, will offer the most choices, reasonable rates, and still be near the wineries.

Restaurant cost
Figure dinner at a nice restaurant will be about $25-40 per person before tip and drinks. Dress is casual almost everywhere. You should probably make reservations especially on weekends.

Tasting fees
Each winery sets its own policy with tasting fees generally running from free to $20. An average is probably $10 pp with the fee waived if you buy bottles of wine. Two people can share a taste to cut costs and cut alcohol consumption. Why do they charge? It's not free for them to build and staff a tasting room and pour their product.

When to visit
Winter can be wet and cool, but will be much less crowded. Weekends from July through October will be the busiest. A good all around time would be April/early May or early November. Mid-Sept to mid-Oct is peak harvest season with lots of winery activity plus the weather is usually great.

Winery tasting room hours
Wine tasting is a daytime activity. On average, tasting rooms are open from 11 am to 5 pm seven days a week except major holidays, but all set their own hours. Some open at 10 am or noon. A few are open until 6 or 7 pm. Some are closed mid-week. Some aren't open for drop-in visits, but require an appointment or not open to the public at all. Don't worry, there are a couple hundred open to visitors so you'll find plenty to choose from.

Overwhelmed by the choices of wineries to visit?
Do your homework--pick out a few, maybe near where you're staying that sound interesting. From there you can ask at your hotel and at wineries. But it will help if you can narrow down what you want in a winery: Small family-owned, medal-winning Chardonnay, lots of different wines available, views, picnic grounds, etc. Many wineries offer two-for-one tasting coupons so check their websites and ask at your hotel.

How many wineries to visit in a day
About four is reasonable with a lunch stop in between. Even if you have a driver who is not drinking your palate will be much less discerning after several stops and your wallet will be more likely to open up.

Transporting your wine around
Heat and direct sunlight will ruin wine. Your best bet is a cooler or styrofoam wine shipper.

Getting wine home
You cannot carry it onto a plane, but you can check it through. If you have just a couple bottles many wineries sell sealing bubble-wrap wine bags. You can buy a styrofoam shipper to pack and check your wines through. You can ship it yourself from a UPS store.

Cellar or vineyard tours
A few offer tours of their production facility or their vineyards. Some have self-guided vineyard tours, but most are not set up for tours.

Bringing food and picnic at a winery
Many wineries have picnic tables available.

Bringing your own wine or other beverages
You cannot open any alcoholic beverage on winery property unless you've purchased it there. Not every winery will be permitted to allow you to have open alcoholic beverages on their property. That is, some are licensed for by the glass or bottle consumption on their property, some are not. It's generally only those with a picnic area. You can bring any non-alcoholic beverages you want.

Wineries with a restaurant or deli
There are only a couple wineries with restaurants and a few others with a deli. Several others have things like cheeses and bread for sale. Some offer food and wine pairings, but this won't substitute for lunch. It's always best to pack a picnic or plan your lunch stop ahead of time.

Special wine events
There are a few major wine events during the year plus many other smaller ones. Check an events calendar (there are seasonal event calendars on this blog).

Bringing dogs to the tasting room
Some are dog-friendly, but ask first. If you see any kind of food service assume not.

How to dress
As I said it's pretty casual here. You'll look out of place with a coat and a tie. It's important to understand the weather to be comfortable. Temperatures vary widely from the morning to mid-day to evening so dress in layers. Even in the summer you might want that sweater in the morning and evening even though it's t-shirt weather in the afternoon. Different parts of the county will be warmer or cooler than others. If you're coming out of a restaurant at night into chilly air and start to grumble about, "It's warmer back home" remember world-class wine grapes require that cooling influence.

Nightlife
Not much especially outside of Santa Rosa. You can go to a locals bar, a beer bar, or a club, but you've probably already had enough to drink. There's always a movie after dinner. There's a couple evening farmers' markets or there's sunset at the coast.

Why visit Sonoma County rather than the famous Napa Valley
Sonoma is less crowded, less expensive, there's a wider variety of wines available, and maybe we're a bit friendlier (at least that's what I've heard).