When you think about wine production in the US you most definitely think California. First vines were planted by the Spanish in the 18th century and the industry steadily grew until the introduction of Prohibition laws. Vineyards were uprooted and cellars destroyed and modern day wine making didn’t make a comeback until the 1960’s. California’s diverse climate and geography lend to varying and distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Perhaps most notably, the North Coast wine region; home to Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
BUDGET TRAVEL: SONOMA VALLEY
In established wine regions [like Napa & Sonoma] where tourism is high, touring can get pretty highbrow. That air of sophistication comes with a hefty price tag. Lodging, food and, of course, the wine will add up and the last thing you want is to feel bad when next months credit card bill is due. Well, rest easy. This post is all about how to get the most out of your California wine trip without having to sacrifice one glass of grape juice.
Budget Travel Tip 1: choose Sonoma Valley over Napa. Not only will you find more affordable accommodations, but you’ll enjoy a more rustic charm to the business-like atmosphere of Napa. Added Bonus: you can enjoy the same varietal wines, and perhaps even more diversity, as the Sonoma growers haven’t committed to a single grape [Cabernet Sauvignon] like many Napa vineyards.
Budget Travel Tip 2: There are FREE tastings – and not just because you bought a bottle! Many of the wineries offer discounts through the local visitor borough, collaborations with businesses and hotels, and on social media. Your host or hotel should have info, and hopefully deals!, to share with you. Utilize the community review based site, Yelp, to check for nearby attractions; a lot of which have check-in offers.
Carneros Region, Sonoma Valley
The first winery you should visit is Cline Cellars. A family owned vineyard on a beautiful location. The wines are good [!!] and well worth the visit alone but let me just seal the deal for you. The tasting here is free! A bit of a rarity in this area. Our tasting guide was wonderful and gleefully offered up samples of the reserve bottles.
Only 1.1 miles from Cline you’ll find Cornerstone Sonoma – a series of walk-through sculpture gardens displaying designs by international landscape architects and designers. A perfect way to spend an hour or two navigating the garden paths and, like Cline, it’s free to meander the grounds. There’s a restaurant (although if looking for something more low-key check out my next suggestion), unique shops and, of course, tasting rooms. Check-in on Yelp at Meadowcroft Wines and receive 50% off tasting fee. At the time of my visit, they also offered a tasting of port paired with chocolate syrup if you ‘liked’ them on Facebook.
You’re probably feeling a bit hangry by now and I suggest you hit up Angelo’s Wine & Country Deli. It’s only .2 mile from Cornerstone – you can walk if you’re tipsy. These sandwiches are exactly what’s needed. Around $8 each; they’re large and flavorful. Although, the best part about Angelo’s isn’t the sammie. It’s the jerky tasting bar. There are 11 different flavors plus bread and chips with dipping condiments. You’re encouraged to try all!
Budget Travel Tip: dine ‘European‘ for lunch. Pick up a baguette, local cheese, and a bottle of white at whatever winery you stopped at first. If you’re looking for a great picnic lunch spot, head to Larson Family Winery. Another family run vineyard set deep down a dirt road; it’s picturesque and offers breathtaking, unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains. The picnic area has plenty of seating, lawn games, and with a plethora of good wine only a few feet away, you could easily spend hours at this friendly, low-key winery [reservations are a good idea on weekends]. Ready for me to seal the deal; check-in on Yelp and get 1 free tasting with additional tasting purchase. Boom!
Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley
Onto Santa Rosa. As the 5th most populous city in the San Francisco Bay area, there’s no shortage of vineyards, shops, restaurants, etc. Start your day at The Naked Pig. Offering farm to table breakfast and brunch with a rotating menu, this small eatery was absolutely delicious. It’s not the cheapest option, but the intimate space, communal tables, and ever flowing French press coffee made this an instant favorite.
As a beer enthusiast from the East coast, a trip to Santa Rosa wouldn’t be complete without stopping at Russian River Brewing. Pliny the Elder on draught? Yes, please! Lines at the bar can get unreasonably long; try it out on a Sunday. Which just so happens to be the day happy hour [$3.50 draughts] lasts All. Day. Long. The food is good and the beer is better. The Supplication and Consecration are not to be skipped if you’re a sour beer appreciator. Looking for something more low-key? The Ethiopian at Abyssinia Restaurant was fantastic and it’s BYO, so go ahead and get a 6-pack from Russian River to go.
Head west to the coast to check out some vineyards and dip our toes in the freezing Pacific. But first, stop at Ancient Oaks Cellars which is not only a deli but a tasting room as well. [This is probably not as uncommon in the area as it seemed to me at the time.] Owner, Melissa, was there and extremely helpful. She took the time to map out a wine route for the day and threw in comp tastings at a winery, Balletto Vineyards. Let’s not forget the subs. Fresh baked bread, delicious ingredients with interesting combinations – Ah-mazing.
Don’t skip Taft Street Winery in the Russian River Valley. Taft Street follows the tradition of the “garagistes” [origination in chateau-alternative locales] and started their ventures into wine making, literally, in their garage. There are no pretensions and a laid back vibe and was a welcomed change from the “normal” tasting rooms. Take a bottle out back, play bocce and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Taft Street often has small concerts; check out their events page and be sure to stop in.
If you’ve come this far you might as well finish the journey to the coast. The drive to Bodega Bay via Occidental Road is scenic and from there you’ll hop on Westshore Road around the Harbor and eventually find yourself at a relatively secluded parking lot on the coast. Walk down the trail to the small beach, unpack your lunch, open your chilled bottle from Taft and enjoy the view. This secret, quiet spot was the perfect location for a last day picnic.
Sonoma Valley is full of amazing wine and hundreds of vineyards. It can be overwhelming to decide where to go. But what’s great is that almost all of the places you’ll visit will be worth your time. Don’t stress and enjoy the weather and wine!
Happy Grid Walking! 🙂