2019 Free Tasting Room Update

After a long hiatus, I’m back!  I just updated the list of free tasting rooms for 2019 and, well, the results are mixed. Only a handful of free tasting rooms remain in Oregon, Paso, and Napa although I was surprised to find a few new ones to add in Sonoma.

What happened to the free tasting rooms?

As I’ve written about before, the business model around tasting rooms has changed.  In the good ol’ days, tasting rooms were considered showrooms, often operated at a loss with the hope of making it up through bottle sales and club signups.  But today, the American economy is roaring and tourists have money to burn.  With this, many wineries have become destinations in and of themselves and the tasting rooms have become profit centers, especially in Napa where many formerly free tasting rooms can now easily run north of $40 per person!

Bargain hunters, take heart!

For those of us who enjoy free tastings, there are still options.  Outside of Napa, there’s a small but growing minority of winery owners who disagree with the tasting-room-as-profit model.  While they may not give away their wine, they often keep their fees low and many tasting rooms will gladly waive your tasting with a bottle purchase.

(For a while, there was a trend where wineries would only comp tastings with purchases of 3, 4 or even 6 bottles.  Thankfully, many wineries are jettisoning that model and are back to waiving the fee with 1-2 bottle purchases. )

Additionally, some wineries offer free tastings with Yelp! check-ins, many wine regions offer tasting passports, and tasting coupons are readily available from sites such as Wine Country This Week and my Free Tasting Room Guide.

If you’re staying in wine country, be sure to ask your hotel if they offer free tasting coupons (many do!) and ask your favorite wineries if they have coupons available for other wineries nearby.

Happy tasting!

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2016 Free Tasting Room Update

We just updated our list of free tasting rooms for 2016 and, well, the results aren’t pretty.  Only a handful of free tasting rooms remain in Oregon, Paso, and Napa.   Sonoma, on the other hand fares much better.

What happened to the free tasting rooms?

The trend away from free tastings has been driven largely by a shift in thinking around the tasting room business model.  Tasting rooms have historically been treated as a showcase for a winery’s products.  Operating them at a loss was considered acceptable, although hopefully the loss would be offset by wine club signups and bottle sales.  The new trend is to monetize tasting rooms as much as possible, backed by some high-profile industry reports which indicate how much money free tasting room are leaving on the table.

Free tastings still abound.

For those of us who enjoy free tastings, there are still options.  Many tasting rooms still refund your tasting with a bottle purchase (although that too is changing: many wineries now only comp tastings with purchases of 3, 4 or even 6 bottles.)

Additionally, many wineries offer free tastings with Yelp! check-ins and tasting coupons are readily available from sites such as Wine Country This Week and Local Wally’s.  Your hotel may offer free tasting coupons and some wineries will also have coupons available for other wineries nearby.

Happy tasting!

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Tasting in Temecula

It’s been quiet around here lately.  Too quiet, and I’m sure “real” bloggers are cringing at the silence.  But I’ve been out tasting and traveling, and today I’m back with a discussion on California’s Temecula Valley.

Never heard of Temecula?  Well, you’re in good company and there are a few reasons for its obscurity.  For one, it’s pretty small – only 40-ish wineries call Temecula home, and you can drive from one end to the other in about ten minutes.   It’s also pretty far off the beaten path for most wine travelers, located about halfway between LA and San Diego.  To top it off, the wineries here are fairly small, so their wines are rarely found outside of Southern California.P1150558

Until recently, any visit to Temecula would be a short one – there were scarcely enough wineries in the valley to make a day of it.  And what you’d find were mostly sweet wines and flavor-infused sparkling wines.  Nothing wrong with that of course, but it did mean that the region was always overshadowed by it’s bigger brothers to the north.

Fortunately for wine lovers the tide in Temecula is changing.  While the sweet wines and fruity bubbles are still there, the region is upping its game on the more traditional reds and whites.  Many could easily hold their own when compared to similar wines produced in other parts of California.  The Italian white varietal Arneis really shines here as well as Muscat made in a range of styles.  For reds there’s a huge variety, but Syrah and Zinfandel in particular are worth seeking out.

With over 40 wineries you can easily spend a couple of days here.  Wineries in Temecula fall into two broad categories: tiny-production family wineries, and large “chateaus” with plenty of room for busses and limos.  There’s really no middle ground.  Both are making pretty good wine, but I greatly prefer the smaller places which are less crowded and thereby offer more personalized attention.

If you’re a first time visitor, Hart Winery is a great place to start.  This small family winery is the first one on the map and serves as a great introduction to the wines of Temecula.  If you’re not sure where to go from there, they’ll offer some solid recommendations of both large and small wineries.

Tasting fees in the region are generally $10-$15 for 5-6 pours.  Most places hold you pretty strict to that number, often by using poker chips to keep track of your pours (a blatant and tacky tie-in to the nearby casino.)  However, an extensive collection of 2-for-1 tasting coupons is available at http://www.temeculawines.org/wineries-vineyards/coupons.php .  A few appear in the printed Temecula Visitor’s Guide as well as on winery web sites.

P1150556The nearby casino is your first hint that despite being a legit wine region, Temecula has also become a party destination for Southern Californians with money to throw around.  In fact, weekends here can be nothing short of miserable, especially during the summer as the larger wineries become crowded and  temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.

So if you’re trying to save a buck here, avoid weekends!  For inexpensive hotels, check out nearby Corona and San Marcos, or even San Diego.  In fact, combining Temecula with a visit to San Diego is a great way to experience the region, especially if you’re a beer lover (since that’s kinda San Diego’s thing.)

If you get hungry, your best option is to head back into the city of Temecula or pack a picnic.  Several wineries are picnic friendly and offer first-come-first-serve picnic areas for groups of 10 or less.  Many of the larger wineries do have restaurants on site, but most are unjustifiably expensive and only open on weekends.   The one exception seems to be the deli at Cougar Vineyard & Winery where you can get a pretty good deli sandwich and drink for about $10.

So, should your travels take you to southern California, or if you just happen to be in the mood for something a little different for your next wine trip, give Temecula a shot.  I’d be curious to compare notes!

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Day Trip – Avila Beach, CA

As winter draws to a close, I always start dreaming of warmer places.  So this seems like a great day to talk about one of my favorite “accidental” California wine country discoveries – the tiny coastal town of Avila Beach.

While poring over our map on a recent Central Coast trip, we spotted a small cluster of wineries on the coast that we’d never noticed before.  Given that we’d driven past it dozens of times on California’s 101 freeway, we were a little surprised at our oversight – how had we never heard of Avila Beach?Avila Map

Only a few minutes from the bustling Paso Robles/SLO wine region, Avila Beach is a popular, yet uncrowded destination for many California golfers and beach goers with a unique history.  In the mid 90’s, a ruptured oil pipeline had rendered Avila Beach uninhabitable.  The state of California sued, and the oil companies spent a record-setting $200 million cleaning up the mess.  In the process,  the entire town was literally razed and re-built. Today, Avila Beach is a clean, charming town bustling with shops, restaurants, wineries and hotels.

If you’re looking for a break from the usual wine country scene, Avila Beach is the perfect day trip.  Once you make the short drive from Paso, you’ll find plenty of free curbside parking.  Ditch the car because you can walk the entire town easily.  In the center of town, four wineries (a good number for a day trip) have tasting rooms to keep you busy: Alapay Cellars, Peloton Cellars, Morovino Winery, and 2nd Chance Winery.  There is a fifth – Kelsey See Canyon – that’s on your way into/out of town as well.  Tastings are reasonable – less than $10 per person – and always waived with bottle purchase.  Most also offer wines by the glass.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Avila boasts plenty of great restaurants, but I recommend grabbing some tacos from Taco Shack (it’s better than the name suggests) and have lunch on the beach.  Save the nicer places for dinner, where you can grab a table by the ocean an enjoy a more relaxing meal.  If you need a pick-me-up, there are a couple of great local coffee shops as well.  I’ve also been told that a soak in the hot tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs is an absolute must.

Given the touristy vibe of the place, we didn’t have the highest of hopes for the wines.  Perhaps that’s why we were so incredibly thrilled with what we tried.

Alapay and Peloton both featured solid, well-made wines – a number of which came from high-profile vineyards.  Some crowd-pleasers, but also some fantastically complex wines as well.

Morovino offers a fun take on Italian varietals, while 2nd Chance is the second label for Cottonwood Canyon, should you happen to be a fan of their wines.

While we didn’t get a chance to visit Kelsey See, they look to be a worthy stop as well.  Along with the usuals, they also pride themselves on making apple wine – a gutsy move in this part of California.

So next time you’re in the Central Coast and need a break from the norm, take a day trip to Avila Beach.  You won’t regret it!

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Navigating Wine Sales Without Getting Burned

It’s that time of year when most of us are short on cash and retailers imageare desperate to clear their shelves and shore up their balance sheets. Bring on the wine sales!!

Ordinarily this is more of a travel blog, but during the Christmas season few of us are doing any wine travel. Instead, our wine focus has shifted, for the moment, to supplying wine for a month of nonstop holiday parties, Christmas dinners and other wine-centric events. Naturally we’re hoping to save a buck, so now seems like a good time to tackle the topic of wine sales.

Most wine retailers are running big sales this time of year. However, some of them can be kind of scammy. That’s why wine sophisticates, hoping to save people the pain of a bad “hey, it was on sale!” wine purchase, often steer people away from sales (and especially closeouts). Unfortunately if you listen to their advice you’re gonna miss out on some really good deals!

Don’t get me wrong – there’s some truly terrible wine out there. And there’s a reason it’s cheap. But some really excellent stuff lurks in the sale aisle as well. Armed with a bit of knowledge and a few simple tools, it’s easy to weed out the bad stuff and score a bargain.

Wines go on sale for hundreds of reasons – usually involving someone in a cubicle with a spreadsheet if its a large retailer. Grocery stores in particular run generous seasonal discounts on wine they know they’ll sell a ton of. But closeouts are a more interesting story.

Wine hits the closeout shelf because the retailer is desperate to get rid of it. Sometimes the wine is terrible, but often it’s fine. Sometimes with large stores a change in management or direction will trigger a big sale. Small retailers may be clearing out odds-and-ends to free up valuable shelf space. Often a closeout sale springs from a tactical error by the retailer. Sometimes they’ll mis-judge a trend and order too much of something. Or perhaps the wine was a pet favorite of the retailer but they couldn’t talk their customers into it.

Grocery stores and big-box stores often purchase really great wines but market them poorly. Their staff often don’t even know that those wines are ever there! And even if they did, they often don’t know how to sell them. As a result, small artisanal wines languish on the shelf unloved in favor of the big-brand wines that are easier for quasi-knowledgable staff to sell. Eventually corporate says “get rid of it.” All the better for you when they go on sale!

So how do you separate the plonk from the gold? Start with price.

Any wine that’s discounted more than 30% is suspect. At that price, the retailer is selling below wholesale, so they’re either losing money or using an artificially inflated price to “manufacture” a discount. Tools such as wine-searcher.com or the Vivino app can quickly tell you what the “actual” retail price of that wine really is.

Customer reviews are also worth their weight in gold, especially in the

Wine-searcher.com is very useful - especially the "Details, Scores, and History" tab.

Wine-searcher.com is very useful – especially the “Details, Scores, and History” tab.

absence of a knowledgeable wine merchant. Apps like Vivino, or web sites like Cellar Tracker can quickly tell you what other folks who bought that wine thought of it. Some programs will go even further and rank the wine compared to similar wines from the region. Under the “all vintages” tab, wine-searcher.com will even give you a 30,000-foot view of the wine’s quality over the years.

As a last resort, check to see if any professional wine reviewers have given a particular wine their blessing. I’ve seen some very highly rated wines in the closeout bins (which likely wouldn’t be there if the merchant actually knew what they were selling.) Again, wine-searcher is a favorite of mine for finding reviews, although a Google search can also come in handy.

There you have it. So the next time a wine sophisticate frowns at you for rooting around in the closeout bin, you can tell them that you’re smart enough to spot a real bargain. Happy hunting!

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Willamette Valley on a Budget

Updated for 2019!

Nothing says Thanksgiving like pinot noir, the go-to wine for many a turkey day dinner.  And nothing says pinot like Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home of all things pinot noir.  So in the spirit of Thanksgiving it seems appropriate to devote a little time to Oregon.

Wilammette Valley MapApproximately 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Valley follows the Willamette river south from Portland to Eugene.  Known primarily for pinot noir, the valley is also home to some truly amazing riesling and pinot gris.

Unfortunately, “cheap” and “Willamette” are two words generally not found together.  Willamette wines, while generally of amazing quality,  sport notoriously high price tags.  And Willamette winery owners in particular have been very vocal in their opinion that tasting rooms should not be free, rather they ought to be seen as premium attractions – and priced accordingly.  (See Tom Wark’s particularly astute rant.)

Nonetheless, I think Oregon should definitely be on your wine trip radar.

The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, and the wines are outstanding.  So here are a few tips to take the sting out of your Oregon adventure.

For starters, the region has not been built up as a mega-luxury destination like Napa.  This means you won’t destroy your budget on basics such as lodging and transportation.  Resorts do exist if that’s your thing, but I’d rather take advantage of the regions’ proximity to Portland and find an inexpensive hotel in the city to use as a base camp.  The drive is reasonable enough to make it worth your while.  However if you’d rather stay closer to the action, especially if you’re exploring the southern valley, hotels in the Willamette valley are more reasonable than you’d expect.

Secondly, plan carefully.  Good maps are tough to come by, cell phones can be unreliable in the mountains. While many wine regions feature a “main drag” through the region with WintersHillVineyard-610x365the best wineries lined up like dominoes,  Willamette wineries are scattered about on poorly marked side roads. Though directional signs are plentiful, you’ll still appreciate your GPS in this region.  So save yourself a fortune in time (and gas) from unnecessary driving by spending some quality time with a map.  Willamette Valley Wine is a fantastic tool to get you started.  Also check out the Prince of Pinot’s writeup on the area.

Thirdly, the really expensive stuff is largely concentrated in the northern half of the region.  Head further south and you’ll often encounter more deals and fewer crowds.

Be warned that the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends are HUGE festival weekends in the valley.  While almost all of the wineries will be open that weekend, the crowds and traffic will be very unpleasant.

Tasting Room Deals

Tasting fees in Willamette generally run in the $10-$15 range with a few $5 holdouts remaining.  The scant few free tastings available in the region are listed on my free tasting room guide.   As I mentioned before, getting around tasting room fees in Oregon can be a challenge, but there are a few deals you can take advantage of:

  • “Oregon Wines Fly Free.”  Still THE best deal running in Oregon.  The catch is that you must fly into Oregon on Alaska Airlines AND be a member of Alaska’s frequent flier program. Your boarding pass (and frequent flier card) are the ticket to free tastings at over 300 wineries in Oregon and Washington.  It also waives the checked baggage fee for one case of wine per person.  The deal is ongoing and membership in Alaska’s “Mileage Plan” is free.
  • Oregon Wine Passport.  This tasting passport sells for $90, but often goes on sale for $60.  Valid for two people, it gets you free or 2-for-1 tastings at nearly 80 wineries in Oregon for one calendar year.  At $60 it’s a steal!
  • Groupon.  While Willamette tasting room coupons are few and far between, you can often catch some really good ones in the Oregon Wine Tasting Groupon page.
  • Spend $10 Or Less Tasting at These Oregon Wineries – many thanks to the Salem Statesman Journal for this helpful article!

Good luck, and if you’re an experienced Oregon wine traveler with great travel tips, leave them in the comments.  We’ll add them to future revisions of this guide (and give you credit of course!)

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Winery Guest Houses – Are They Worth It?

Hotels are so 2010. Guest houses are the latest trend in wine country lodging – more specifically, winery guest houses. Previously unadvertised and reserved for wine country VIP’s, members of the wine trade and the press, many of these guest houses are now being made available to the general public as wineries search for new sources of revenue.

IMG_0111While never cheap, (rooms rarely go for less than $200/night) in some situations these guest houses may actually be a really good value!  Here’s what you ought to know before you ditch your reservation at the Best Western in favor of your own private wine country cabin.

Winery guest houses (some wineries call them lodges or cottages) are remarkably uniform and there are two preferred setups: either you rent the entire property (your own wine country cabin!) or the house has been sub-divided into smaller rooms or suites that rent individually.

Along with the amenities you’d expect in a normal hotel room (smoking and pets are nearly always prohibited), you’ll generally find a large patio, full kitchen (hopefully stocked with coffee and snacks) and oftentimes a hot tub, fireplace, outdoor grill and picnic tables. Guests are also typically given VIP treatment at the host winery including special tours, free tastings and often a free bottle of wine or two in the room.  We’re even aware of winery that sends the partial bottles from the tasting room up to the guest house at the end of the day!

Rates vary widely – expect to pay between $200 and $1,000 per night plus a cleaning fee.  A 2-night minimum is pretty standard and the rate may vary based on how many guests you have.   Some guest houses are only open to wine club members and their guests, while most others offer huge discounts (as high as 50%!) to club members. There are often off-season and mid-week discounts available and you may even discover a few extra bennies: I know of one particular winery that credits any wine you purchase from them against the cost of your room!

If it were me, I’d only consider a guest house if I was traveling with a group – say 4-6 people. If you can catch one for under $400 per night, it may prove to be a better value than the 2-3 hotel rooms you’d ordinarily rent for that kind of group.  If you have separate bedrooms there’s still plenty of privacy and if you enjoy cooking you can use the kitchen and grill to save on meals.

Lodge-style guest houses (where you’re only renting one room rather than the whole house) are a pretty poor value in my opinion.  I have found some happy-medium arrangements where the house has been split in half. For instance, rather than renting the whole house, you get the entire upper or lower level.  These setups can be a good deal depending on the layout so it pays to ask.

To date, nobody has put together a central directory of wine country guest houses that we’re aware of. So to see if your favorite winery offers one you’ll need to check their web site. It’s usually found in the “visit us” or “wine club” sections.  If it’s club-only, you may have to dig thorough your paper club newsletters for the info. If all else fails, a phone call to the tasting room might turn up an unadvertised room as some guest houses are still kept private. If the winery doesn’t have any official guests in town, they may be glad to let you stay with them!

As much as I hate spending unnecessary money, I’m really a big fan of guest houses – if the price is right.  They’re a bit of a luxury, but a low-key and unpretentious one, and they can be a good value under certain circumstances.  You’ll almost always come away from a guest house visit with great stories, a few new friends, and the feeling that you had a more genuine wine country experience.

 

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