Why a trip to Lodi really ought to be in your future

If you want strange looks at a cocktail party, tell people you’re planning a trip to Lodi, California.  The “why-on-earth-would-you-ever-go-there?” look tells you two things: either they’ve never heard of the place, or (among wine folks) they consider Lodi something of a backwater.

We received a number of those looks from the folks in Sonoma on our fall California trip, which just wrapped up.  This year we decided to give Lodi a shot, along with a couple days on the well-traveled roads of Sonoma (our favorite wine region ever!).Harney Lane's Winery Dog

A hidden gem of a wine region, Lodi has  been on our radar for quite some time.  But even though Napa Valley legend Robert Mondavi got his start here, Lodi has remained largely off the tourist circuit.  Until just a few years ago there were only a handful of tasting rooms – not really enough to make a day of it.   Today there are over 60 with new ones opening nearly every month.   Let’s keep it our secret though, because Lodi’s obscurity makes is a great destination for the Dirt Cheap wine traveler!

Charming, clean, and very green (drought? What drought??) Lodi seems a world away despite being a mere hour-ish from Napa.   Best known for its old vine zinfandels – some of the oldest zin vines in the world – you’ll also find some exceptional tempranillo, syrah, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.

Gone is the pretense you might find in other wine regions.  Laid-back is the name of the game here, in the tasting room especially, where you shouldn’t be surprised if the owner excuses himself to punch down a tank of fermenting grapes.  And since Lodi is a working town as opposed to a tourist town, most of the excellent restaurants and cafes in the region are priced to fit a working man’s budget without sacrificing quality.

In the tasting rooms we’re thrilled to report that tasting fees are very modest ($5 is the norm), the tasting menus are unusually generous (I don’t think we were ever poured fewer than seven wines) and the fee is nearly always waived with bottle purchase. Bottle prices are equally reasonable, and often a bargain for the quality you’ll experience.

A LOT of wine comes from Lodi and you’ll see several familiar “supermarket” brands represented here (Woodbridge, Delicato, Michael David, Oak Ridge, and Gnekow Family).  They all have tasting rooms, and if you see a tour bus or Limo in Lodi, that’s probably where it”ll be.

Old Vine ZinBut we think you’ll be better served by one of the 50 or so smaller wineries in the region.  The wine quality is impressive, prices are very reasonable, and the tasting rooms are uncrowded and friendly.  And once you’ve worn out the countryside, you can grab dinner downtown and check out some of the storefront tasting rooms – some of which don’t close shop until 9 pm.

The region is compact, so the short drive between tasting rooms will save you a bundle on gas.  The roads are flat, straight and well-marked which makes for easy diving and navigation.  And the lack of tourists means traffic is nearly non-existent.

If you go, be aware that many tasting rooms are only open on weekends (Thursday – Sunday).  Thursday is the slowest day. There are plenty of tasting rooms open earlier in the week, but you may need an appointment for some of the smallest ones.

http://www.lodiwine.com has the most up to date list of tasting rooms.  There are also still a handful that offer free tastings, and naturally we have them up on the Dirt Cheap Wine Country free list.

If you’re visiting the Napa/Sonoma area, Lodi is only about an hour away… just keep going east on Highway 12.  However, if you’d rather stay in the Lodi area there are a few pretty good hotels in the area available for well south of $100/night.

Cheers!

… a few wineries that we thought were well worth the visit…Lodi 3

Klinker Brick (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Macchia (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Jeremy Wine Co. (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Sun

St. Amant (tasting fee: free) Appointment Required

Harney Lane (tasting fee: $5) Open Thurs-Mon

Heritage Oak (tasting fee: $10) Open 7 Days

 

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Bringing Wine Home to the USA

A few weeks ago I posted a guide to the best ways of bringing your wine home after traveling in wine country.  That piece was devoted entirely to domestic (US)  wine travel; however, thanks to some odd and often misunderstood quirks in dealing with customs, a follow up for international travel seems appropriate.SYD Duty Free3

One of the best parts of overseas wine travel is the fact that, often, high-quality wine sells for pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay in the US.  So quite naturally, we often purchase as much as we can.

But most of us only have two option for getting that wine home: ship it or bring it with you on the plane as luggage. However, international shipping is complicated and often prohibitively expensive.  And since international cargo is x-rayed, FedEx and UPS have been known to periodically confiscate shipments.  Therefore, most people opt to haul a case or two on the plane.

Contrary to popular conception, bringing wine into the USA as luggage is incredibly simple, cheap, and remarkably painless.

Here are the basics: for personal use, US Customs allows 1 liter (translated: 1.3 bottles) of wine per person tax and duty free. Beyond that, you’ll have declare your stash and pay duties and taxes. Exactly how much you’ll pay is something of a crapshoot, but most people report paying less than $20 per case. Trust me, that’s a bargain. And most airlines allow for a free checked bag (or two) on international flights which helps further defray costs. Of course, the airlines will be glad to haul as many cases of wine as you like so long as you pay the baggage fees.

If that all sounds too simple, well, you’re right. There’s a catch or two.

If you’re hauling more than a couple of cases with you, Customs may try and argue that you’ve exceeded what they deem a “reasonable” quantity for personal consumption. This seems to be at the discretion of the individual officer, but so long as you don’t have more than two or three cases the risk of this happening is very low.

When it comes to alcohol, US Customs is also tasked with enforcing any STATE laws applicable in the state where you first enter the US. So if you clear customs in a state where wine transport is restricted, you may be in for a nasty surprise. While in theory those restrictions are only supposed to apply to residents of that state, Customs often enforces them on everyone and warns travelers as much in two publications.

Requirements For Importing Alcohol for Personal UseAirplane At Gate

Can I bring (carry in my baggage) back alcohol for my personal use or as a gift?

If that sounds complicated, here’s a scenario on how this could play out. Let’s say you live in Houston, have been traveling in Europe and have accumulated two cases of wine to bring home.

  •  If you fly Europe > San Francisco > Houston (clearing customs of course in San Francisco) you’ll be subject to California law, which does not place a cap on wine shipments.
  •  However, if you fly Europe > Memphis > Houston (where you’ll clear customs in Memphis) you’ll be subject to Tennessee law. Tennessee restricts wine to 12 bottles per person per month, so Customs would seize your second case.

So the biggest keys to getting your wine home hassle-free are to be reasonable with your quantities and  pay close attention where your return flight enters the United States.

Generally speaking, the big airports along the coast (and Chicago) are wine-friendly and will pose no problem if you book your point-of-entry connection through one of them.  Be careful if you’re offered an international connection through an airline hub in a state with very restrictive wine laws (Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and Utah come to mind).

Happy travels!

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Special “Strong Roots” Napa Valley 2-for-1 Tasting Offer Through End of October

If you’ve spent much time with us, you know that we’re often critical of Napa Valley for it’s crazy high prices. That being said, Napa is a must-visit for any wine lover and we highly encourage you to visit at least once.

In light of last month’s earthquake, Dirt Cheap Wine Country along with the rest of our friends in the business, are encouraging folks to make Napa a part of your fall travel plans. We’ll be there in October, and we’d love to see you there as well!

That’s why when we found this deal, we knew we had to pass it along. Several Napa wineries have partnered with VinoVisit.com to offer a special 2-for-1 tasting voucher. The “Strong Roots” voucher is valid for up to four people at over 35 participating wineries through October 31.

You can get yours at http://www.vinovisit.com/strong-roots/

While a few of the wineries on the list already offer 2-for-1 deals, most don’t which makes this a great offer in a region where deals are becoming few and far between. Plus, you only have to carry one coupon versus a handful.

So go show your support for Napa, and we’ll see you there!

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A Backdoor Way To Get The Flights You Really Want – But It’s A Gamble!

How often has this happened to you?  You finally get around to booking flights for your next trip, but the only flights available (that you can afford) are the the ones that nobody really wants.  You know – the crazy red-eyes with the four-hour connections? It’s no secret that the most ideal flights are nearly always the most expensive.Airplane At Gate

But if you’re a bit of a gambler, there is a backdoor way to get the flights you really want at the price you’re willing to pay.  And the airline coughs up the difference.  It doesn’t work every time, but it does work more often than you might imagine.

The key is to book early.  Travel pros (or their travel managers) are in the habit of what they call “harvesting” their reservations – that is, periodically checking on them for changes.  Seasoned travelers know that when they book flights months in advance, the schedule they booked is rarely the schedule they’ll actually fly.

This is because most airlines publish a “best guess” schedule about a year in advance of a given travel date.  That schedule is continually tweaked up until just a few weeks prior to your flight.   Typically the changes are minor – a few minutes here or there – maybe a flight number change – and usually their computer systems automatically rebook you onto new flights as the schedules are updated.

On occasion, however, something big happens behind the scenes:  maybe demand forecast was way off, an aircraft type was retired, or an airport began major construction.  These things will result in a major schedule change. (I’ve found that weekends and holidays are particularly vulnerable to schedule changes.)

Rather than get upset, you can use this to your advantage!  Because what the airlines don’t tell you is that if ANY of the flights in your itinerary are changed by more than 90 minutes (or 2 hours on some airlines) or a nonstop flight suddenly picks up a connection, you have the right to reject the new itinerary and your ticket becomes fully refundable… or FULLY REBOOKABLE.

That’s right – you get a one-time shot to rebook on whatever flights you want.  And the airline eats any price difference.

Plane TicketSome airlines will alert you to schedule changes by email, others  will simply throw up a warning message next time you log into your account.   An extreme schedule change will often prompt the airline to give you a call.

Web sites can be quirky, so in the event you qualify for a rebooking, I recommend doing it over the phone (telephone reservation fees are also waived).  If you call to rebook, there are a few general rules to play by:

– First, be exceedingly polite. This will go father than you imagine!
– Your origin and destination airports must remain the same.  Exceptions are made for cities with multiple airports (ie. New York, LA, Dallas) or certain Caribbean islands with multiple airports.
– You can re-route through another hub if you’d like.
– You can’t switch airlines, although in extreme circumstances supervisors and travel agents can override this.
– Within reason (a day or two) you can usually change dates.
– Any flight with enough open seats in the cabin you originally booked are fair game.

So if you’re debating whether to book your flights sooner or later, in my opinion this is a great reason to book sooner. My strategy is to book flights that I can afford with flight times I can live with if I have to keep them and then stay on top of my reservations with an eagle-eye for any changes.

While I have had success with this on American, Delta, and United, no such guarantees are offered on Allegiant or Spirit.  How Southwest handles these is a mystery.

Good luck, and happy travels!

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The Hidden Cost of Prepaid Accommodations (and why I avoid them!)

Many Napa hotels guests had a rude awakening Sunday morning as the region was rattled by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake. While it sounds like there was a happy ending for most, it serves as a great reminder of why it’s wise to avoid prepaid reservations.

Fueled by the “name-your-own-price” success of Priceline.com, prepaid accommodations have exploded in popularity. Today when you go to book a hotel or rental car, a prepaid option often appears, offering a discounted rate if you agree to “pay now.” While the savings are tempting, these “deals” can cost you in the long run.

A perusal of travel discussion sites quickly reveals that many travelers are unaware that prepaid reservations are set in stone and cannot be modified. If you’re like me and book your travel well in advance, this lack of flexibility can spell Prepay Car Rentaldisaster in a hurry.

Ordinarily when you book a hotel or rental car, you pay at the conclusion of of your trip. This allows you to work out any glitches before the company takes payment. However, when you prepay, no such opportunity exists. In fact, prepay customers are often given the worst hotel room on the property and the rattiest rental car on the lot. Even though that sort of treatment is officially against policy, anyone who has worked in the travel business can attest that is does happen.

Another hangup exists with the airlines. The airlines are constantly tinkering with their schedules, so the possibility always exists that travel on your original dates becomes impossible. If this happens, you could find yourself holding reservations that you’ve paid for but cannot use. Even a change of several hours could lead to your rental car being given away, a real headache should the agency be running short of vehicles.

A similar situation exists in the event of bad weather (or earthquakes!) Should your flight be cancelled or diverted, your prepaid reservation becomes an expensive piece of paper… and your replacement accommodations could cost you a small fortune.

I’ve always felt that the small premium you incur to “pay later” at a hotel or rental car counter is worth the added flexibility, and I have experienced enough travel hiccups over the years to prove my hypothesis. One particular experience with a New York hotel stands out. When my flight into New York was cancelled due to thunderstorms, the hotel manager literally told me “tough luck” and hung up the phone sticking me with the bill for a hotel room I never stayed in.

In the Napa, it looks like most of the hotels did a marvelous job of of taking care of their guests and providing alternate accommodations at other area hotels. But it’s important to realize that when it comes to pre-paid bookings, hotels and rental car companies are under no obligation to be so generous, and unfortunately, many aren’t.

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Getting Your Wine Home Without Spending A Fortune

Updated for 2019

I love a bargain. So for me, every trip is a treasure hunt for really good wine, at really good prices, that I can’t find at home. But a few years ago I received an expensive surprise.

After an amazing week in Sonoma I dropped our group off at the San Francisco Airport so they could check in for our return flight while I returned the rental car. Just as I got back to the terminal my phone rang. The airline (AirTran [now a part of Southwest]… yes, I’m bitter) refused to accept our wine as luggage. Six cases!… all professionally packaged in accordance with the airline’s published rules…  It was a non-negotiable local policy enacted by the airline’s local manager, and we had assumed that after ten years of hassle-free wine shipping with other airlines that this one would be no different.

The Wine Check - a popular luggage-style wine shipper

The Wine Check – a popular luggage-style wine shipper

At the time I worked for a large cargo airline, so I was able to pull some strings and got another airline to accept the wine as cargo. But several hundred dollars later a lesson was learned the hard way: hauling wine home can be an expensive proposition if you don’t have a plan. Wine transportation is heavily regulated – you can’t just drop it off at the local FedEx or UPS office (update: there are a few franchised UPS stores that now offer wine shipping.)

When it comes to wine, travelers generally have four shipping options:

1. Pack it home with you as luggage
2. Have the winery ship home for you
3. Drop it off at a wine shipping outlet
4. Pay a company to gather it for you and ship at your convenience

They all have their plusses and minuses and your choices may be further limited depending on which state you live in. Regardless of which you choose, understanding your options can save you a fortune.

The airlines.

I’m often surprised at how many people, even in the wine industry, don’t know that wine can be checked as luggage. It’s

Most "approved" wine shippers have fiber or styrofoam bottle inserts

Most “approved” wine shippers have fiber or styrofoam bottle inserts

usually the cheapest way to get your wine home – especially if you have frequent flyer status or a credit card that offers free checked bags.  And real-time baggage tracking allows you to verify that the wine is traveling with you.  Checking wine also circumvents most state wine shipping laws (see my related post if you’re traveling internationally.)

So long as it’s packaged properly, most airlines accept wine without question, but as we learned, always check policies before you leave. Expect to pay $25-$35 per case and sign a waiver releasing the airline from liability if your wine is damaged.  My strategy is to pack lightly enough to fit all of my clothing into carry-ons, thus saving the checked luggage allowance for wine.

To check your wine you’ll need a shipper of some sort. For a hundred bucks or so you can buy re-usable “wine luggage.” Since I’m cheap, I much prefer the cardboard case shippers with foam or cardboard inserts. Most wineries will sell them to you for $5-$10 and occasionally they’ll even throw one in for free if you buy several bottles (and ask really nicely.)

Whatever you do, DO NOT use the flimsy retail boxes. They are not designed for shipping!  Airline employees have told me stories of wine waterfalls flowing from the baggage compartments of airliners as a result of these boxes.

Getting a winery to ship your wine will usually be the next cheapest option.

This is especially helpful if you:
  •  Didn’t travel by airline.
  •  Bought way too much wine to affordably check as luggage.
  •  Are on an extended trip where hauling your wine for a couple of weeks in the trunk isn’t practical.

Most wineries will gladly ship wine for customers who purchase wine at the winery and wine club members may receive extra shipping privileges. Wineries receive generous shipping discounts

NEVER ship wine in retail cases!

NEVER ship wine in retail cases!

with FedEx and UPS and generally pass those rates along to their customers. Expect to pay $30-$50 per case for ground shipping, double that for air. (Be aware that most wineries will only ship via air during the summer months.)

If you’re buying by the case, most wineries make the offer to ship as a standard part of the transaction. Upon request most will hold onto your shipment for a week or two if you won’t be home for a while. If you’re a wine club member they may even bundle it into to your next wine club shipment and you can probably sweet talk them into shipping a mixed case that you’ve compiled from other wineries.

Cost aside, the only downside is that you need to live in a state where the winery is licensed to ship.  Frustratingly, this varies from winery to winery so it may behoove you to check the shipping policies of any wineries you plan to visit.  Usually, this info is readily available on their web site (often hidden in the signup info for their wine club.)

Dropping your wine at a shipping outlet can be a good option if you can find one.

Most wine regions have at least one wine shipping outlet that will work with the public, although some are easier to work with than others. The process is usually as simple as dropping off your wine and filling out some paperwork. Expect to pay $40-$60 per case for ground shipping – add a few dollars if you need them to pack it up for you. (You may be able to save a few bucks by billing the shipping to your own FedEx or UPS account, though some retailers won’t allow this.)

There are three huge pros to using these outfits

1. Everything is packaged professionally and all of the supplies are right there.
2. Easiest way to ship mixed cases of wine from multiple wineries.
3. They often have licenses to ship into states that wineries can’t.

The biggest con is that everything ships immediately – there’s no option to hold back your shipments.  This is important if you still have more traveling to do, if the weather is too hot at home for wine shipping.

We highly recommend Buffalo’s Shipping Post in Napa.  Sonoma County Tourism maintains a good list of wine shippers there.  and Wine Country Pack & Ship in Paso Robles. [Update: August 2018, I’m told that Paso Robles travelers are running into zero options getting wine shipped home.]

Paying a company to gather your wine and ship it at your convenience is the most expensive, but also the most convenient method.

Often these companies will gather your wine purchases for you from wineries and hotels, or you can save a few bucks and drop it off yourself. Your wine is then held in a climate-controlled warehouse until you tell them to ship it. This is a huge pro if you’re traveling in the summer and don’t want to risk heat damage, or if you don’t want to cart your wine around with you. The cons are that they are expensive (between $40 and $150 per case plus $30-$100 a month for storage), and somewhat restricted to how many states they will ship to. The smaller ones also only have agreements with certain hotels and wineries, which may limit the convenience factor.

Two of the more reputable companies are Safe Haven (California Central Coast) and 55-Degrees (Napa/Sonoma).

As always, thanks for stopping by and we welcome your feedback!

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Big Changes Coming at NakedWines.com

A couple days ago I received a phone call from the folks at NakedWines.com.  A victim of their own success, they are closing their Angels program to new members – new applicants will be placed on a waiting list – and they wanted to grandfather me back into the program prior to the mid-August deadline.

According to the representative I spoke with, they had inadvertently angered a number of their most loyal supporters. Most of their wines are produced in relatively small numbers, and with too many Angels in the program their most popular wines were selling out more quickly than they had projected.

In case you’re not familiar with them, NakedWines is a crowd-funded winery… really more of a custom crush.  The crowd funders (known as Angels) pledge $40 a month to NakedWines.  In exchange they get a $40 monthly wine allowance and a 40-60% discount on wine purchases.  The money is passed along as startup capital to a handful of independent winemakers who agree to distribute their wines exclusively through NakesWines.

I’m a fan of these guys and have ordered several wines from them in the past.  Their customer service is consistently outstanding, and their prices are compelling.  We all need a source of inexpensive “everyday” wines to stock the cellar with, and NakedWines has fit the bill on more than one occastion.  By combining their ultra-aggressive promotional offers with free shipping, it’s often possible to pick up a full case for around $100.

Their wines are well-made crowd pleasers.  Nothing terribly complex, but nothing you’re going to take offense at either, which is pretty much what you’re looking for with an every day pop-and-pour.  At full retail I think they’re overpriced, but a fair value with the Angel discout. 

So if you’ve ever been curious to try NakedWines, your window is quickly coming to a close.  The rep couldn’t give me an exact date, but sometime mid-August is the cutoff for new signups. And next time you’re in Napa or Sonoma, swing by one of their tasting rooms. It’s free for Angels and only $10 (unlimited tastings!) for everyone else.

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