Dirt Cheap Wine Country 101

Planning a wine country vacation but don’t want to break the bank?  Here are some basics on how to “do” Wine Country Dirt Cheap  and save your cash for what you really came for – the wine!

When to visit

Like many other travel destinations, your choice of dates can make for either an awesome or miserable time in wine country.  During peak times traffic comes to a standstill, tasting rooms are packed, restaurants are inaccessible without a reservation, and even cheap hotels charge exorbitant rates.  However, unlike other travel destinations, wine country is still pleasant during off-peak times.

You’ll want two, maybe three days to explore most regions.  That may seem short, but in my experience, after more than three days everything runs together and you end up buying a bunch of wine you regret later.   If you want a longer trip,  break it up in the middle by spending a day or two doing something non wine- related.  Most wine regions offer plenty of non-wine activities, especially if you’re the outdoor type.

The ideal time to visit most regions is mid-week (Tues, Wed, Thurs) during the spring or fall.  Fall is especially tempting because: (a) it’s harvest season, and (b) it’s a slow travel season in general so airfare and hotels are very reasonable.  Even though many travel guides recommend against the fall due to anticipated harvest crowds, after ten years we’ve never had a problem so ignore them.

Quite possibly the worst time to visit most regions is during the summer, especially summer and holiday weekends.  Summer and holiday weekends are considered peak season, and everything is overcrowded.

Winter can be a great time to visit many of the warm-climate regions, but travel can become difficult in the California mountains and parts of Washington and Oregon.

Also be aware that most wine regions have festival weekends scattered throughout the year.  These can be a very fun time to visit, but they can also be expensive and crowded.  Check local calendars for these.

Where to visit

Sonoma is our favorite Dirt Cheap wine destination.  Many wineries in Sonoma still don’t charge tasting fees. Of the ones that do, many have coupons.  It’s actually possible to do an entire Sonoma trip without paying a single tasting fee!

Just a short drive from Sacramento Lodi is also a bargain-hunter’s paradise.  You’ll rarely pay more than $5 for a tasting, and flights into Sacramento can be very inexpensive.

Washington state is also very generous.  Off the beaten path for many wine travelers, Washington’s wineries offer friendly people, reasonably priced wine, and, often, free tastings.

Most of the small, lesser-known wine regions in California are also very reasonable for the Dirt Cheap wine traveler.

Unfortunately, Napa Valley, the Oregon wine country, and California’s central coast are on the DCWC hit list.  Tasting fees in excess of $15 are not uncommon in those regions, and bargain opportunities are few and far between.

Hotels

Everybody wants to step out directly into a vineyard from their hotel room.  But in the Napa, Sonoma and Temecula regions in particular, there was no real market for hotels before wine became big business.    As a result, many of the hotels in wine country are purely tourist hotels with big markups.

However, if you choose a hotel that’s just outside of the wine region you’re visiting, sometimes as little as ten miles away, prices fall off the cliff – often by as much as 50%.

Here are some of our favorite alternative regions and sample pricing.

  • Searching Weekend of April 18, 2014
  • *** Hotel (Hampton Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn Express, etc.)
  • Courtesy of Kayak.com

Napa Valley Area – Napa: $120    Fairfield:$60
Sonoma County – Sonoma North: (Healdsburg): $150      (Santa Rosa) $80
                                     Sonoma South (Sonoma): $120     (Petaluma/Novato)  $75
California Central Coast – Paso Robles: $170       San Luis Obispo: $140
Wilammette Valley Oregon: Most hotels in area comparably priced
Lodi, California: Most hotels in area comparably priced
Walla Walla, Washington: Most hotels in area comparably priced
Temecula Area – Temecula: $130    Corona/San Marcos: $90

Transportation

While they may seem quaint (and a good way to avoid a DUI,) skip the cliche limo and bus tours.  They’re expensive and unless you’re hell-bent on visiting every winery in Napa Valley, you’ll have no problem pacing yourself to avoid intoxication.

Unfortunately, for the Dirt Cheap traveler, renting a car can be maddening.  Especially if you haven’t rented in a few years. The cars are never as cheap as you think they ought to be, especially at the major California airports (gone are the $16-a-day Thrifty specials).

Fortunately over the years we’ve learned a few tricks that have saved us a bundle.   It’s not uncommon to get down to half of what  Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia, and the like are quoting… for the same exact car!
Because renting a car can be so complex, we’ve put together an entire car rental guide.

Food

 Wine country restaurants get lots of great press, and for good reason.  Anyone who’s lived on the west coast will tell you that the food there IS better!  While there are many world-class, can’t-miss restaurants in wine country, the truth is that they are more hit-and-miss than you’d care to think.  And even a mediocre deli will set you back $15/person for lunch.

 The real deal is in the local supermarkets, where some of the deli departments offer up incredible creations at a fraction of restaurant prices.  Since many wineries offer free picnic areas, and most regions also have a great selection of local and state parks, it’s easy (and cheap!)  to grab a cooler, stock up at the grocery, and brown-bag it.

One caution – many “free” winery picnic areas are by reservation only and require a bottle of wine to be purchased.  Check with the winery before you go.

Tasting Fees

Most wineries charge between $5 and $15 per person for wine tastings, which can add up in a hurry.  In most regions there are still a handful of freebies, and we’ll have a list up very soon.  Of those that charge, most will refund the fee if you purchase a bottle or two.

Fortunately, tasting coupons abound.  Local Wally’s, WineCountry.com, and WineCountryThisWeek.com are three of the best coupon compendiums.  Groupon is also a good place to find deals, especially in smaller inland wine regions of the US.

Splitting tastings is another way to effectively get a 2-for-1 tasting.  So long as you don’t mind sharing germs, the wineries won’t mind letting you share.  Sometimes, they’ll even “compensate” with a larger pour.

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