By Lauren Sloss
It's no secret that Northern California wine country is a must-visit destination. But expensive tastings, case purchases, and Michelin-starred meals can add up quickly.
Wine country doesn't have to be a blowout of a trip. From free tastings to epic picnic lunches, we've compiled the best of budget-friendly wine country in both Napa Valley and Sonoma County. (Yes, picnic lunches can be epic.)
Obviously, part of the point of going to wine country is to get out into the vineyards to take in the gorgeous scenery and see where the wine-making magic happens. But downtown Napa has a wealth of tasting rooms within town, too. The Downtown Wine Tasting Card gets you tastes at twelve of them, for $25. The tasting rooms might ask for a ten-cent tasting fee, but most will likely let that slide. In addition to being a great deal, no designated driver is required.
When you do get out to the vineyards, coupons can be printed for two-for-one or free tastings at some of the Valley's hot spots, no less. This Napa Tourist Guide has a wealth of coupons available—we recommend checking out Beringer, Rutherford Hill, and Silverado Vineyards for wine, and Domaine Chandon and Mumm for bubbly.
By and large, Sonoma can be considered Napa's more laid-back, less expensive sibling. With a farm-friendly vibe and plenty of tasty wine options, it's definitely worth the visit. Of course, there are plenty of high-end options in both downtown Sonoma and Healdsburg up north, but you'll easily find plenty of wineries worth visiting that haven't given into the pricier approach.
Cline Cellars is a great first stop—delicious wines can be tasted for free (sometimes they'll charge $1 for the specialty varietals, but not always), and the stunning property is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Just down the road, Larson Family Winery will pour a wide selection of wines for $5, a fee that's waived should you buy a bottle. Homewood Winery has the same deal ($5, waived if you buy a bottle), and embodies rustic Sonoma charm at its best.
That Epic Picnic
One of the best things about wine country is the number of stellar spots to stock up for a picnic. If you're in town on a Saturday, stop by the Napa Farmers' Market (until noon) for the best produce around, just next door to the Oxbow Public Market. In addition to having a number of places worthy of a casual sit-down meal (Gott's Roadside, Fatted Calf, pictured), you can buy delicious artisanal products to-go.
Another well-known picnic stop is the Oakville Grocery, thanks to their delicious sandwiches, prepared foods, and selection of bread, cheese, and charcuterie; Sunshine Market in downtown St. Helena is a worthy contender as well. Enjoy your bounty at Rutherford—the winery is in a gorgeous spot, and welcomes picnickers.
The Carneros Deli, at the intersection of Highways 121 and 116, makes a mean sandwich, and is a stone's throw away from some of the most picnic-friendly wineries. The Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg produces some lovely baked goods, and the too-cute Moustaches Baked Goods makes cupcakes that are perfect for a picnic dessert.
Cline, Larson, and Homewood are all great places to picnic. Cline has beautiful grassy stretches shaded by willow trees; Larson has picnic tables, bocce courts, and three friendly labs to play with; and Homewood has a gazebo perfect for laying out your spread. Buy a bottle to go with your lunch and laze the afternoon away.
Eating Out: Comfort Food & Bar Bites
We already mentioned Gott's Roadside, which is a great spot for a burger and shake, but fresh oysters at Hog Island will up the ante on your evening meal. Head to Tra Vigne for the delicious combo of pizza and wine, as well—the pies are large and fresh, and they don't charge a corkage fee.
Looking for a fancier atmosphere? Goose & Gander in St. Helena was one of the hottest openings of the year, and features a beautiful downstairs bar area with an ample cocktail selection. You can order food at the bar, and with a stellar selection of appetizers (plus a bone marrow burger), you're certain to leave happy and sated.
Slightly off the beaten track, the Union Hotel in Occidental is a family-run establishment that makes delicious, rustic Italian food. Meals are served family style, and the fresh-made beef ravioli will have you going back for seconds (and thirds, and licking your plate). A hearty breakfast is just the thing after a day spent wine tasting, so book it to The Freemont Diner (on Highway 116) for amazing egg dishes and Southern classics like chicken and waffles, or biscuits and gravy.
Class it up with cocktails and bar bites at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. The lengthy cocktail menu is a great match for a long list of snacks, 'mid-courses,' and fresh raw fish.
Both Napa and Sonoma have plenty of options for bike rentals, a great way to enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery. Sonoma has a number of great breweries, a must for beer lovers, and the Calistoga Hot Springs in Napa is an amazing place to relax (the pools are open until 9 pm; enjoy an evening dip for $15 after 7 pm).