Calling all wine lovers: this post is for YOU! Not a huge wine lover, but interested in going wine tasting? This post also is for you! I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a wine expert, but my parents moved to wine country right as I started college and over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about wine tasting. You don’t need to be a massive wine lover or expert in order to go wine tasting. If you have plans to visit the Bay Area, you MUST visit wine country! It is absolutely beautiful, there are lots of quaint towns and it’s a lot of fun visiting wineries. I wanted to break it down and provide you a guide with everything you need to now about wine tasting in wine country! I’ve covered everything from when to go, the cost, how to plan your visit and the age old debate of Sonoma vs. Napa (yes wine country rivalries do exist).
WHEN TO GO
BEST DAYS TO GO
On Mondays and Tuesdays you will have wineries to yourself along with the undivided attention of the people in the tasting room. If you go on Wednesdays and Thursdays, you’ll have more fellow tasters, but it won’t be as crowded as the weekend. During peak season in the summer time, this unfortunately does not hold true.
BEST TIME OF YEAR
“Crush” which is in October is the best time of year to visit wine country. This is after harvest and when everyone sends their grapes to get crushed, the wine makers wield their magic and then it’s ready to ferment in barrels or steel tanks. This is the end of the year’s growing season and the wineries are ready to celebrate that year’s harvest. There are lots of events and celebrations throughout the valley. The added bonus is the days are warm with chilly nights and the colors are changing on the vines all through the valley. It’s truly one of the most beautiful times of year. Summer is great for the weather, but fall is equally as nice, less crowded and the fall crush is a fun time of year!
BUSIEST TIME OF YEAR
Summer is the high season with crowds that follow. It’s still a wonderful time to go, but just know you’ll want to schedule activities earlier in the day to have a better chance of avoiding the crowds.
THE SLOW PERIOD
Wine country winds down after the first of the year and somewhat hibernates in January and February. There’s little action, few people and the landscape is still bear from winter.
Things start to pick up in March at the beginning of spring. Not dead like after the New Year but not as crowded as summer or Crush season.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
DO I NEED A RESERVATION?
If it’s two couples or less, you don’t need them. Reservations are recommended for groups of five or more and necessary for six or more for events like birthday celebrations, bachelorette/bachelor parties etc.
There are some wineries that you are only able to visit by reservation. The nice bonus with choosing a winery that is reservations only is that you are either among a very small group tasting at the winery or you essentially get a private tasting and the whole place to yourself.
HOW SHOULD I SELECT WINERIES TO VISIT?
Think about what’s the most important part of what you want to get out of your wine tasting experience. Do you want to visit a well known winery, are you looking for a more intimate, off the beaten track tasting experience, or looking for beautiful scenery? There are wineries on top of mountains, tasting rooms in caves and those with incredible sweeping valley views.
You can also visit tasting rooms instead of wineries. Are there particular wines you want to taste? Certain wineries are known for particular grapes like Ravenswood which is home to the “No Whimpy Wines” and the best Zinfandels in the Valley.
Thinking about what would make up your ultimate wine country experience is a great way to start. There are a variety of choices for every type of wine adventure in wine country.
HOW MANY WINERIES SHOULD I VISIT IN A DAY?
I’d recommend scheduling no more than two to three tastings a day. You don’t want to feel rushed and you want to be able to remember all the fun you had. Tasting can get pricey, so it’s nice to visit a few and enjoy your time while you’re there as opposed to feeling rushed to try to make it to a long list of wineries.
CAN I BRING FOOD?
Absolutely! It’s nice to take easy finger foods like cheese, crackers, fruit, nuts etc. or even a full picnic. It’s easy to over indulge on an empty stomach. It’s always enjoyable pairing wine with food! Some wineries have food available for purchase but check ahead as most don’t.
If you decide to bring a spread to pair with your tasting, the town of Sonoma has several great delis; Sonoma Cheese Factory on the Plaza, Sonoma Best at the end of 8th Street as you come into town and Carneros Deli at the corner of Hwy 121 & Arnold drive. There are also Sonoma Market and Whole Foods several blocks from the Plaza; both have good deli departments. All of these places make it easy to put together a small, delicious selection of small bites. There are options in Napa as well. Make sure you pick up food before you venture too far out of town to ensure you’re prepped in advance.
WHAT TO WEAR?
I take an extra layer to wear because many tasting rooms are cold. There are no dress codes at wineries but it’s often fun to dress up a little.
HOW MANY WINES DO YOU GET TO TASTE?
It depends on the winery, usually you get four to six pours. Possibly more at wineries where you need an appointment to taste. They start you off with white wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and as they go down the list the wines get darker and more full bodied like Pinot, Merlot, Cabernet. You are also going to be served younger wines before older wines.
Buena Vista Winery (where all these photos were taken) sometimes starts you off with champagne (they own wineries in France where they produce and import their champagne) or their Sonoma sparkling wine.
HOW SHOULD I GET AROUND?
Having a designated driver is a good safety measure. I’d recommend taking a Lyft or Uber so you and your group can enjoy your day without any worries. This way you’ll have safe transportation and can fully enjoy your day. If you have a car, I’d definitely recommend pacing yourself and enjoying food with your wine.
The average price is $25 per person. You can taste from $20 to $50 or more depending on the winery.
COMMON COURTESY FOR TIPPING
You are already paying for the tasting so that you can taste guilt-free. Tipping should be done when you’ve received great service, if you’re with a large group, or if you’re served additional wine beyond the fixed list. For tipping, $5 to $10 is reasonable. Two other ways to show your appreciation without tipping is to buy a bottle of wine or join their wine club as the servers make commissions off of these purchases.
TASTING FOR FREE
Highway 12 is a wine tasting room about a block from the Plaza in downtown Sonoma where it’s free to taste.
SONOMA VS. NAPA
HOW MANY WINERIES ARE THERE IN EACH?
There are 114 wineries in Sonoma Valley. In Napa there are 400 wineries. In all of Sonoma County there are over 600 wineries.
WHICH IS BETTER?
It depends on what you’re looking for. I may be biased but I think Sonoma is more quaint. You drive through neighborhoods or very scenic routes to get to secluded wineries. There are tasting rooms off the Sonoma Plaza that are charming as well. Napa has more wineries, but in my opinion, the landscape isn’t as scenic as Sonoma. In Napa you drive down a road and wineries line the road on both sides. They do have beautiful buildings and landscaping. I personally think Sonoma has a more stunning landscape. You can’t go wrong spending a day in Napa and a day in Sonoma. You could visit a winery from both in one day, they’re only about 30 minutes apart.
Wine tasting is a great experience and an absolute must if you’re in the Bay Area and wine country!
What other questions do you have about wine tasting that I haven’t covered? Leave them in a comment below! Do you have any tips that I haven’t covered, I’d love to read them below!