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Travelzoo Experience: Napa and Sonoma

One of the most coveted perks at Travelzoo is the Travelzoo Experience, in which Deal Experts and other employees take advantage of the same travel, entertainment and local deals we publish to our subscribers and report back on their experience.

Our house is stocked with wine for a while: we returned from a few great days in Napa and Sonoma with 21 bottles. That’s 21 bottles that will remind us with every corkage of the time we spent there, the tours and the tastings. The California Wine Country area is so beautiful and offers so many choices. Where to taste? Where to eat? Where to stay? If there’s one thing we took away from this Travelzoo Experience, it’s that recommendations from friends, and advance planning, really make the difference.

We booked our flights and started planning our fall trip in July, inspired by an incredible $272 roundtrip fare on Virgin America from Chicago to San Francisco that Travelzoo promoted with a Newsflash. We thought, what could be a better time to go to Wine Country than in September, crush season? Duh. We aren’t the only people with that idea. We also were a bit limited in when we could travel; my in-laws graciously agreed to care for our two young kids while we took the trip. So with the flights booked, the next challenge became where to stay.

California Wine Country is brimming with options: family owned B&Bs, 4- and 5-star hotels and resorts, all of the standard hotel chains, and vacation home rentals. We were floored to find that by summer, many hotel options were already sold out over our travel dates – even midweek. Even worse, many of the options that weren’t sold out were incredibly high priced. Think: major hotel chains for $300 or more per night, and 4-star resorts for $600-$700 per night. I’m a little spoiled; I work at Travelzoo, where we often promote 4-star hotel deals for $99-$199 per night. So the notion of spending that kind of money on the hotel stay alone just didn’t sit well with me.

Searching Travelzoo, review sites, OTAs like Expedia and Travelocity, and even Google, I decided on a B&B owned by a husband and wife that received solid reviews online and was in the Napa area less than 15 minutes from Yountville, where we hoped to dine both nights. Online reviewers were right; this B&B met our needs. The location, breakfast and room were great for a couples getaway. And we didn’t break the bank on the room alone.

As for restaurants and wineries, again, options are plentiful. My recommendation is to ask friends and colleagues where they’ve been in California wine country and where they would go again. Colleagues and friends gave us great recommendations. Then we followed up to make recommendations well in advance, knowing that if hotels are full, chances are restaurants and wineries will be too. We reached out to the wineries directly and made restaurant reservations through the restaurant’s website or Opentable. We were able to get all of the reservations we hoped for and no place felt so overrun with guests; we received excellent customer service everywhere we went.

I admit I tried to get a dinner reservation at the famed French Laundry. Supposedly reservations open two months to the day in advance. I tried that -- calling and going online on that day. No luck. But for what we would have paid for that experience, we likely ate both nights, and at two fantastic restaurants. I’d go back to Bottega (by Michael Chiarello) and Bistro Jeanty in Yountville in a heartbeat.

I ate four heirloom tomato salads on our trip; September is the season, and I can still taste how juicy and hearty those tomatoes were. Some salads were strictly tomatoes and vinaigrette; others were accompanied by amazing cheeses like burratta and herbs. It’s easy to “go local” when the local produce is that phenomenal.

So how did we spend our days? Tasting, tasting and more tasting. In all, we lifted a glass at V. Sattui, Duckhorn, James Cole, Garden Creek, Cline, J Vineyards and Silver Oak. We kept it in moderation of course to ensure we could get through four or so tastings each day. By the end of the second day, yes, I was ready for a break. It goes to show you that it’s possible to take in a bit of Napa and Sonoma over a weekend, but if you don’t want to go overboard with tastings and tours, spreading it out over a few more days allows more time for relaxing, shopping and sightseeing.

The scenery in wine country is beautiful. Towns like St. Helena, Healdsburg and Yountville are worth exploring on foot. And at certain times of year, such as September, traffic is quite congested. It took us quite a while to get from point A to point B due to traffic alone, not to mention the long and winding roads to many wineries. Mapping services on our phones came in extra handy, though I caution not to trust them completely when driving off the beaten path. We were 15 minutes late to a tasting because the mapping services just don’t have this vineyard in the right place; the farmer confirmed the confusion others have had as well. So it’s good to confirm directions to a winery when making a reservation.

We did see people willing to bike between wineries, and there are plenty of tour buses and private car services willing to do the driving for you. We also hear the wine and dinner train is another way to take in many tastings, all from the confines of a train. It’s all about personal preference and whether you can keep the tastings to nothing but a tasting when driving yourself between wineries.

Our most memorable experiences were the unique, behind the scenes tours. At V. Sattui, we had access to the cellar club and took in two barrel tastings. At J. Vineyards, we tasted grapes straight from the vines and saw grapes in huge bins waiting to be crushed. And at Garden Creek, we spent a wonderful 90 minutes with the farmer’s wife. Yes, just she and us. Their family story made the wine taste even more amazing.

We passed by countless other winery options along the way; there’s something for everyone in wine country, no matter your preferences for red or white, varietal, or price. We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Italy, France and California wine country. California definitely doesn’t pale in comparison to the competition; the views, wine and food are well worth the trip to Napa and Sonoma. Just do a little research on the time of year you’re going, and make sure that there’s a place to lay your head at night without taking out a second mortgage.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Chicago
Monday, December 16, 2013
See more Tips from
Angela Shannon