Tips for Planning a California Wine Country Trip

Wondering how to plan the perfect trip to Napa and Sonoma? It is exciting, but it can also be daunting, even if you have traveled to this world-famous wine region in the past. Knowing some basic insider tips can turn an average or good trip into an extraordinary trip of a lifetime, one with lifelong memories.

Choose the right time of year to travel to Napa Valley and Sonoma County

Summer and Fall:
Pros – the weather is beautiful, the vines are full, harvest activities are in full swing in September and October

Cons – airfare may be more expensive, it may be pricey and challenging to secure accommodations, tasting appointments and dinner reservations are harder to come by

Winter and Spring:
Pros – there are a lot less tourists, airfare is less expensive, it is easier and less expensive to secure accommodations, tasting appointments and dinner reservations are easier to book, and it is less pricey over all

Cons – the leaves may be off the vines, the weather can be cooler and less sunny, November to March is rainy season

People tasting wine on a hilltop with a vineyard view

Planning Tips for your wine country trip

  • Make reservations in advance for: accommodations, car service, tasting reservations, lunches, dinners, balloon rides, etc.

  • Flying into San Francisco (SFO) is likely less pricey and has more options, but flying directly into wine country’s Santa Rosa (STS) airport is much more convenient and saves drive time to and from SFO.

  • When planning your daily itinerary, select a quadrant (see graphic) and schedule tastings, lunch and maybe dinner in only that quadrant for the day. An exception to this tip would be if you reserve dinner near your accommodations and have time to easily get from the last tasting appointment to the restaurant.

Napa and Sonoma quadrants

Wine Tasting Reservation tips:

  • Limit tasting reservations to three per day. This avoids the stress of rushing from appointment to appointment. Spend more quality time at your tasting appointments and less time in the car.

  • In most cases, plan to spend 1.5 to 2 hours per tasting appointment. Asking the winery for an estimate can be helpful in budgeting time.

  • If you pay full price for a tasting, purchasing wine is your choice. However, if someone arranges a tasting for you and the tasting fee is waived, it is appropriate to make a purchase at minimum equal to, preferably more than, the price of the tasting for each person in your party.

  • If someone arranges for you to receive a special, intimate or one-on-one tasting experience, it is appropriate to purchase at least 3-6 bottles per person. Meeting new wine drinkers this way is the livelihood of the small wine producers and family wineries that we support here at Cellar Angels. Many do not have distribution in retail so this is how people are introduced to their handmade wines.

  • If the person leading your tasting experience is a tasting room worker, it is appropriate to tip them. However, if the person leading the tasting experience is the owner or winemaker, it is appropriate to purchase wine, 3-6+ bottles per person.

People holding wine glasses outside around table

Two example daily itineraries for Wine Country:

        1. If Lunch in between tastings reservations:

          10am – first tasting appointment
          Noon – Lunch
          1:30 – second tasting appointment
          3:30 – third tasting appointment

        2. If one of the tasting reservations includes lunch:

          10am – first tasting appointment
          Noon – second tasting appointment that includes lunch
          2:30 to 3:30 – third tasting appointment

Miscellaneous tips for travel in Napa and Sonoma wine country:

  • Avoid making left turns onto 29 in Napa Valley. The lack of stoplights and constant stream of cars (especially in Summer and Fall) can leave you waiting a long time to make the turn.

  • In Napa Valley, use Silverado trail as much as possible. This is a local secret.

  • Sonoma County is much larger than Napa Valley. Map out distance between tasting appointments to ensure enough travel time is built in.

  • Get a driver if the budget allows.

  • To streamline your day, try to schedule tasting appointments that are combined with lunch.

Wine glasses and glasses on outdoors table overlooking vineyard

What to pack for your wine country trip

  • Wine country is wonderfully casual so no need to bring your fancy clothes unless dining at French Laundry.

  • If the weather forecast is hot and sunny, pack a sun hat and SPF.

  • If cool and rainy weather is expected, pack layers and waterproof shoes.

  • Some tasting appointments could include a vineyard tour, which is a trip highlight. Wear appropriate shoes. In the summer the vineyards are very dusty.

  • Some tasting appointments include a cave tour, which is also a treat, but it is cool, so carry a sweater or wrap.

You are now quipped with information to drink like a Napa and Sonoma local. Go enjoy the part of wine country that is undiscovered and have a trip of a lifetime. 

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