If you love wine, you must visit California’s wine country. Take a couple of days to relax, enjoy the beautiful countryside, and just drink wine!
Everyone always wants to know what the best time is to visit. It really depends on what experience you are looking for. Most people want to come for harvest. So mid-September through October, Sonoma and Napa are full of tourists. Obviously, harvest is a fun time to go – you see colorful foliage, witness bunches of ripe grapes on the vines, there’s more activity on the vineyard grounds, and the weather is nicer. If you are okay with crowds, it’s a beautiful time to go. I, on the other hand, try to avoid crowds, so we visited during the quiet off-season.
I was able to visit Sonoma a few years ago in February. The weather was rainy and unpredictable, but the 50 degree weather was far better than the single digit temps at home in Chicago. The wineries weren’t quiet, but they also weren’t packed. You have to be leary about tasting rooms that are empty because you don’t know how fresh the wines are or when they were uncorked.
Most wineries are open around 10 or 11am and close by 6pm. I’d recommend taking a wine tour for a day. My husband and I took a Platypus Wine Tour. This company usually decides which wineries to go to based on the people’s preferences on the bus – whether more white or red wines are liked. Cheese, crackers, and water were served on the plush bus, and we also got a quick lesson in wine tasting, wine terminology, the wine making process. Our tour took us to 4 wineries and after the second, we had a picnic lunch on the winery grounds. The bus tour prepares the food ahead of time and sets it up outside. Platypus Tours even accommodated me with a vegetarian lunch, as we let them know ahead of time. It was just really nice to be able to relax and let someone else do the driving and plan the day. If a bus tour isn’t your thing, you can also hire a limo service or join a bicycle touring group to see local vineyards and wineries.
When in Sonoma and the surrounding area, be sure to visit a winery with a wine cave. When else can you climb underground into a cool, humid tunnel that holds barrels and barrels of wine?
But even if wine isn’t your thing, there is plenty to do in and around the surrounding area.
- Try a mud bath – In Calistoga, you can take a hot bath in volcanic ash, peat moss, and hot spring water, while floating just under the soft surface of the bath.
- Food! – Indulge in the fine cuisine all around Sonoma and Napa Counties. Many places have olive oil tastings, speciality vinegar, and unique cheese as well. I have to mention here that Sonoma and Napa are also vegetarian friendly.
- Find a park – Sonoma County has over 50 regional and 11 state parks. You can even see Redwoods! They’re only about an hour away from Sonoma at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
- Visit the Pacific Ocean – Dip your toes in the cool water after a one hour car ride.
- Like recreation? – Try golf, zip lining, or a hot air balloon ride over wine country. There are numerous outdoor activities around.
- Attend a festival, farmer’s market, or local event – There’s always something going on in the area.
- Spoil yourself at the spa – Sonoma and Napa County have plenty of relaxing day spas and luxurious spa resorts to choose from.
- Shop – Most wineries have gift shops and the area has plenty of small boutique shops as well. Sonoma Plaza and Oxbow Public Market in Napa are my favorites.
Lastly, if you plan on brining wine home on the plane after your vacation, you need to have a plan. The laws regarding wine shipments are complex. Here are some things you can do to get those bottles home safely:
- Buy a wineskin to protect your bottles during transit. Be sure to put the bottle(s) in checked luggage, and not in your carry-on.
- Find a local shipping store. Pay to have them pack your bottles and ship them home.
- Fly the wine home as checked luggage. Visit a local shipping store and have them pack your wine up, but check the box in at the airport. Checked baggage fees may apply. It might be more cost-effective to simply ship the box home, if baggage fees are costly.
- Ask a winery for help. This is what I did when I was in Sonoma. A very friendly winery helped us out with a box and styrofoam for a case of wine. Since many wineries have wine clubs and ship wines nationally, they usually have what you’d need to ship. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Be sure not to purchase any wines you can buy at home. Save yourself the hassle of shipping and/or traveling with wine if the wine you want to purchase is distributed nationally.
For more tips on shipping home wine, click here.
Enjoy your time in wine country! Cheers!