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Monday, November 17, 2014

Visiting Wine Country in the Winter

What's it like to visit the Sonoma/Napa area in the winter? And how does it differ from summer travel to Northern California?

February in the Russian River Valley

The first thing on your mind is Weather

As always, you can't control the weather. You might see pouring rain and chilly temps or you can get sunny and 70. Mid-Dec through early Feb are usually the coldest and wettest times. March is usually one of my favorite times of the year here, but it was kind of wet in '14 after a very dry and warm January, so you never know.

Santa Rosa, in the middle of Sonoma County, gets about 30 inches of rain annually (except during the last few drought years). The thing is, it all comes during late autumn through mid-spring with Dec and Jan being the wettest. This is on average. Areas to the north of Santa Rosa can get a lot more rain and towns to the south get less. And I mean towns just 10 or 20 miles away.

Nice days in the winter are usually very nice as things are greened up and the skies are crystal clear. Plan on it getting cold at night. Snow is extremely rare. In 35 years I've seen it once on the valley floor and once every few years in the hills at higher elevations.

Next thing is, Are the Wineries Open?

Wineries that are open to the public for drop-ins generally keep the same hours all year long (usually seven days a week). A few of the smaller ones may close for a couple days midweek. You may also find some of the small, appointment-only places closing for a week or two as this is about the only time vintners can safely get away from their cellar. But it won't be a problem finding enough interesting places to visit.

The best part about visiting during the off-season is the lack of crowds. It's calmer, more easy-going, and you have a chance to chat with the winery folks.

A few restaurants shut down for a week or two after New Years and a few may close for a day or two midweek. The vast majority will be open the same hours as in peak tourist season and they will be a lot less crowded, of course.

Oh yeah, How much Cheaper is It?

Restaurants generally carry similar prices, but check for coupons. The same is true for hotel rack rates though you are much more likely to find online deals as they don't usually come close to capacity. Wineries will have about the same costs. A few may offer tasting coupons to entice visitors--any visitors--as there will be some days when they may not see anyone!

Special Events During the Winter

There are a few weekends in the off-season that can be fairly busy. Wineries tend to be very busy on Thanksgiving weekend. There are a few events that draw weekend crowds. Check the Wine Road and Heart of the Valley calendars for these.

If I were Planning a Visit

There are definitely benefits to visiting during the off-season. If I'm planning in advance I'd look at the first half of November or late-March through April. These are good times to get a balance between decent weather and smaller crowds. If you don't mind the possibility of some cold rain then it's no problem. Having no one else in the tasting room and being able to get restaurant reservations on the fly is worth it. As I like to tell people, I only visit Napa Valley on rainy Tuesdays in January.

So, What to Expect in the Winter

A lot fewer people, some bargains, especially on lodging, maybe cool and wet weather, smaller crowds and less traffic--sounds great, doesn't it? Besides, tasting wine when it's 55 degrees is much better than when it's 90 degrees. Of course, cold weather is relative. If you're coming from Minnesota you'll probably be in shorts when it hits 60 degrees, huh?

Early January at Armida Winery in Dry Creek Valley