Archive for June, 2014

Tasting Room Closeouts – Are They Really a Deal?

Tasting Sheet

If you’re like me, you love a good bargain; and bargains abound in wine country tasting rooms. But are those “deals” really a deal – who’s getting the last laugh? Turns out, you are.

Savvy wine buyers know to be wary of wine shop closeout bins. Like a yard sale, there can often be some real finds there for the person who knows what they’re looking at, but just as often you’re looking at junk. They’re taking a loss and dumping the slow sellers regardless of reason. In the tasting room, however the economics in play are quite different.

When a winery brings their wine to market they have a couple of options (I’m ignoring the bulk market for now.)

  •  Sell direct to the customer (through tasting rooms, wine clubs, online where legal.)
  •  –  Low sales volume, but the winery keeps 100% of the revenue.
  • Sell through the (inter)national distribution network (ie. the “three-tier system.”)
  • –  Massive sales volume, but only about 30% of the retail price goes back to the winery.

See our post on June 22 for more detail on how wine pricing works. It’s really helpful!

When a tasting room puts something on closeout, even a huge one – say 50% – they’re rarely losing money.

But is the wine any good? Believe it or not, probably so. In my experience, when a tasting room is running a closeout, it’s usually to make room for the next vintage of that particular wine. These wines were either never put into distribution (if the winery distributes), or there wasn’t sufficient quantity remaining to attract the interest of a distributor. It’s probably on the tasting menu and if not, they often have a bottle open behind the counter if you ask. I’m only leery if they absolutely refuse to let you taste it.

Think of it this way – the tasting room is the public face of the winery, and most of them (if they’re well run and actually make good wine) won’t knowingly sell junk in there. There are too many other ways in this business for wineries to get rid of lousy wine and still make a buck.

So feel free to gobble up those tasting room closeouts, knowing that you’re getting a decent bottle of juice, saving some coin, and making the winery happy.

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Breaking Down The Cost of a Bottle of Wine


Breaking Down The Cost of a Bottle of Wine

I found this article earlier in the week and thought it would serve as a great intro to a piece we’ll have out later in the week on tasting room wine discounts.  In case you’ve ever wondered how much a winery gets paid for that $15 bottle of Malbec you just bought, why restaurant wine prices are so outrageous, or how, exactly, Trader Joe’s can afford to sell wine for $3-a-bottle,  I think you’ll find this a fascinating read.  Have a great rest of the weekend!  

And thanks so much for stopping by!  Our first week “live” generated a surprising amount of traffic.  Thanks again for taking the time to check us out!  We appreciate all of you.

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How to save a few bucks on your next rental car

The art of getting a deal on a rental car is complex enough that I figured it warranted its own blog post.

For the wine country traveler looking to save a buck, renting a car can be maddening.  Over the past few years rental car companies have been steadily raising their rates; gone are the $16-a-day Thrifty specials.  Fortunately, there are still a few tricks of the trade you can employ to save a bundle.

ImageAt Dirt Cheap Wine Country, we’re able to reliably get our cars down to half of what  Kayak, Orbitz, and  Expedia are quoting, and we can often beat Priceline!

A few general considerations before we get started:
  • Loyalty Programs will save you from waiting in a long line at the rental counter, and put you on the list for members-only coupons.  They’re also the ticket to free upgrades, so it’s worth the time to sign up.
  • Car Size: book the smallest car you think you can get away with.  Gas is expensive, rural wine country roads can be narrow and winding, and winery parking lots are often a tight squeeze. Be aware that cases of wine rapidly fill up trunk and back seat space, so consider a mid or full-size car if you plan on buying a lot of wine.
  • Car Color: the lighter the better.  Dark cars absorb more heat, which puts your wine at extra risk of cooking.  If you’re pre-assigned a dark colored car, a polite request to change to something lighter is rarely denied, especially if you’ve already spotted something on the lot and can given them the parking stall number of the car you’d prefer.
  • Discount car companies: Stick with one of the “majors” (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty).  The regional guys often have lower rates, but their reputations can be less than stellar and their locations are airport-only.  You’ll be doing a lot of driving in remote areas, so you want a company that will work with you if you get into a jam and has a neighborhood location nearby.

Here are some of our best tricks:

Associations and Employers

     The first (and easiest!) step to securing a cheaper rate is to see who you’re already affiliated with.
  • USAA, AAA, and Costco are known for having some of the most generous discounts, sometimes as much as 30%.  Often, additional driver fees are also waived.
  • Government employees and contractors, even on leisure, are often eligible for Government rates.
  • If you work for a large corporation, odds are your corporate travel department has pre-negotiated rates, and they are nearly always valid for personal travel. (You may have to ask your HR department for the rate code).
  • Airline, Hotel, and Credit Card programs also often offer aggressive discounts to their members.


     Rental car coupons are nearly always digital.  Often they are listed on the rental car comapnies’ web sites (or, for AAA/USAA/Cosctco members, through their respective travel portals.)  More obscure coupons can also be found on Internet message forums such as and and are e-mailed to loyalty program members.  Old-fashioned paper coupons are also printed in the nationally-distributed Entertainment Books. is another particularly useful coupon finder.  Most coupons rotate out on a quarterly basis.

     It is often possible to “stack” coupons on top of association/employer discounts, allowing you to receive a double discount!  While most rental car sites are pretty straightforward, some have multiple boxes in which to enter a discount code; you may have to do some finagling to get the appropriate code into the correct code box.


     This is a trick that was only recently pointed out to me.  At ultra-major airports such as LAX, some of the larger nearby hotels will have a rental car office inside the hotel.  Their rates may or may not be any cheaper, but since they’re not technically at the airport they usually don’t charger the expensive airport taxes.

     To use this trick,
  1. Book the rental like normal, only  selecting the hotel location rather then the airport location.  (For instance, instead of the Hertz @ LAX airport, you would select the Hertz @ the LAX Hilton.)
  2. Upon arriving at the airport, catch the appropriate hotel shuttle rather then the rental car shuttle and complete the rental at the hotel.
  3. If you’re traveling with several people or lots of luggage, I’d recommend leaving at the airport while you go fetch the car.
  4. Some hotels will even allow you to return the car to the airport for free, while at other locations this will trigger the airport taxes.  Try changing the return location to the airport when you book to see if this applies.

Weekend/Weekly Deals

     Rental car companies are desperate to unload their cars on weekends, so if you’re taking a weekend trip, Hertz and Enterprise both offer weekend specials – usually in the ballpark of $10-$15 per day.  Often the most aggressive coupons and discounts are also applied to weekend and/or weekly rentals.

Local Specials

     These are few and far between, but there are a couple worth noting.

  • If you’re flying into LAX, Hertz offers a flat rate of $45/day.  It’s a Disney special, but all LAX travelers can use it (CDP 2002500)
  • Hertz waives one-way surcharges for Alaska Airlines customers flying into certain Washington airports using CDP 2015337

Foreign Web Sites

     While not a trick for the novice traveler, some people have reported great success using the rental car companies’ own foreign sites (ie. vs. for domestic rental booking.  This works by taking advantage of currency exchange rates as well as specials designed to attract foreign visitors to the US.  Sometimes the rates are cheaper, and since they’re quoted in foreign currency the conversion may work in your favor.  This is especially useful for folks with an overseas address.   Be aware that if you have a US address your reservation MAY be rejected.  Also be aware that some of these rates include insurance for which US residents are not eligible.

AutoSlash offers a terrific service for the Dirt Cheap Traveler (we’re not affiliated, we just love ’em!).  Once you book your reservation, you can plug the details into their web site and it will re-shop your reservation daily..  If the price drops, they’ll send you an e-mail with instructions on how to re-book.  On our last trip, AutoSlash found a promotion that saved us over $30 on a 4-day rental!

If all else fails…

     There’s always and  One very useful strategy is to check Hotwire first, and then go over to Priceline and bid 25% lower than the Hotwire rate.  We use these only as a last resort because
  1. Priceline/Hotwire reservations cannot be canceled or changed.
  2. The other tips outlined above can often yield a comparable rate.

However, there is the occasional trip where they’re the best option.  On a recent trip to Napa, the San Francisco airport was completely sold out of cars.  Priceline came through at $30 a day when, even with the best of discounts, $70 a day was the lowest price to be had anywhere else.

I  hope you find this guide useful.  If you have any other tricks you’ve picked up as you travel, put them in the comments and we’ll include them in the next revision!

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Welcome to Dirt Cheap Wine Country!

Today I’m re-launching the blog as Dirt Cheap Wine Country and I hope that you’ll find it a refreshing departure from the usual wine blogs.  Why the change?

In 2012, wine blogger Tom Wark issued a challenge on his massively popular Fermentation blog – The Top 10 Wine Stories Needing to be Written. One in particular caught my eye:

Dirt Cheap Wine Country It’s a counter intuitive wine country travel story—and probably difficult to write.  But it could provide a fantastic counterpoint to the luxury-oriented wine stories that proliferate. Is there a way to “DO” wine country dirt cheap? From cheap hotels and cheap food to no-cost tasting room?

Indeed, why isn’t anyone telling that story?! There are many who want to live the “wine lifestyle,” and for whom travel to wine country should be the ultimate luxury experience.  It often seems like every wine writer on the planet caters to these aspirational travelers.

There are countless others however, who travel to wine country for one reason and one reason alone: the wine and the connection to the people and places that make it.

They may or may not be budget-conscious, but they come to spend their money on wine, not lifestyle.  They appreciate the quality of a few nights at the Renaissance, but are just as happy at a Best Western.  They would like a nice meal or two, but in a pinch a taco stand will do just fine.  They hope to bring home a few trophy bottles, but will fill the rest of their cases with bargains, or at least reasonably priced daily drinkers.

You see, my friends, as a regular wine country traveler for the past ten years, this is exactly how I travel.  And as my high school english teacher taught me, for every one person with an opinion who chooses to share it, there are countless remaining, silent glad someone spoke up.  I know that’s true because I meet you on every trip: whether you rode into Napa in an RV, were slumming it with us at the Holiday Inn Express, or gnoshing on biscuits and gravy at the Paso Robles diner.  And we compare notes in the tasting rooms of some of the best wineries on the planet.

Until now my fellow budget traveler, aside from a few coupon sites, there’s really nobody talking to us.  And that’s what Dirt Cheap Wine Country is all about.  This is not a coupon site, or a wine review blog – there are plenty of those.  This is how to “do” wine country dirt cheap!  A wine country resource and community for the rest of us.

So welcome to Dirt Cheap Wine Country!  I value your input and comments. Until we meet again in the tasting room – cheers!

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