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Wine Tasting on the Cheap
By Tina Caputo
Aug 4, 2009
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On my commute to work the other day, a local radio station challenged listeners to call in with tips for fun free/cheap things to do in the Bay Area.  Some suggested strolls through parks, free outdoor movie nights in town squares and hikes in scenic state parks.  But what about wine tasting? I grabbed my phone and dialed the station, but alas, the line was busy.  After repeated attempts, I gave up, and to my surprise, nobody suggested a day of wine tasting. 

Now I know that most people don’t think of winery-hopping as a cheap day out, but that depends on your goal.  No, you won’t be going home with a trunk full of wine, but you can still have a great time sampling wine and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. 

Explore Lesser-Known Regions

There are still plenty of wineries across the U.S. that offer free (or nearly-free) tastings, and many are well worth a visit.  Your best bet in finding them is to venture outside well-traveled wine regions like the Napa Valley to places like California’s Amador County, Anderson Valley, Calaveras County and Lodi.  (Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga is a notable Napa Valley exception in the “free” category.)

Wineries will often post their tasting fees on their websites, so it pays to do a little research before you hit the road.  And if you really want to visit a particular winery that charges a higher-end tasting fee, share a tasting with a friend.  Most wineries won’t mind a bit.

Here’s another economic benefit to veering off the well-beaten wine path: Wine prices tend to be lower in regions that don’t have a lot of marketing hype behind them. 

Taste Now, Buy Later

Sure, wineries would love for every single visitor to buy one or more bottles after tasting, but it’s not a requirement.  If you can’t afford to stock up right now, make a shopping list for when you’re feeling a little more flush. 

Check the Calendar

To get more bang for your tasting buck, plan your visit on a day when a winery or region is hosting an open-house event.  For as little as $10--and often for no extra charge--you can partake of music, art shows and food pairings at local wineries.  Regional associations also host “wine trail” weekends throughout the year that allow tasters to visit a dozen or more wineries for a minimal fee. 

Pick a Picnic Wine

What could be better than enjoying a freshly baked baguette, a hunk of great cheese and a bottle of chilled wine in a beautiful vineyard setting? Not only does it feel indulgent, it’s also extremely affordable.  Make it your tasting mission to find the perfect wine for your cheese-and-bread spread, then enjoy it in style in the winery’s picnic area.  (Note: It’s not cool to drink Winery A’s wine in Winery B’s picnic area.)  For less than 10 bucks per person, plus a bit more for food, four friends can share an excellent bottle of wine among the vines.  (Bonus: Tasting fees are often waived with the purchase of a bottle of wine.)

Some regional association websites, like that of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, include handy listings of wineries that offer picnic areas.

A few of my favorite winery picnic sites in Sonoma County (my home turf) include:

-- Preston Vineyards, Healdsburg: I love the rustic, low-key atmosphere of this tucked-away Dry Creek winery, with its rambling organic garden, bocce court and no-tour-buses policy.  Along with delicious Rhône-style wines, the relaxed tasting room sells the estate’s excellent olive oil, organic veggies and vintner Lou Preston’s homemade bread.  On Sundays, you can buy a 3L jug of the winery’s Guadagni red for $32.  And the daily tasting fee is only $5--refundable with any wine purchase.  

-- Lambert Bridge Winery, Healdsburg: Also in the Dry Creek area, the winery features a lovely Mediterranean-style garden surrounded by redwoods and vineyards.  Umbrella-shaded teak dining tables provide a picnic setting with wine-country elegance.  Pick up sandwiches at the nearby Dry Creek General Store on the way over, or pre-order a box lunch from the winery. 

-- Seghesio Family Vineyards, Healdsburg: Two things drew me to Seghesio’s pretty picnic site: its bocce courts, and the winery’s “dogs- welcome” policy.  Have a relaxed lunch--washed down with yummy Seghesio Zinfandel--at a picnic table under a shady tree, then play a game of bocce under the cork oak. 

-- Bartholomew Park Winery, Sonoma: Set in the heart of a beautiful 400-acre park just off the Sonoma square, the picnic area features bucolic vineyard views and three miles of marked hiking trails behind the winery.

Winery "Stay-cacations"

If you can’t justify the expense of jumping on a plane or getting away for a whole weekend, why not splurge on an extra-special winery experience, complete with a sit-down wine tasting and decadent food pairing?  It might seem pricey by standard tasting-room-fee standards, but not when you compare it to the cost of airfare or a couple nights at a nice B&B.

Following are just a few of the VIP tasting options available at Northern California wineries (call ahead for reservations). 

Bennett Lane Winery, Calistoga: Designed for groups of six to eight, the “Varietals, Fruit & Flavor Custom Blend Experience” ($200 per person) includes local limo transportation, a vineyard tour, private barrel tasting, a guided wine-blending session and a cheese tasting. 

Chalk Hill Winery, Healdsburg: Following an educational stroll through the winery’s organic garden and vineyards, the Culinary Tour ($75) leads you to a hilltop conservatory with panoramic views of the Chalk Hill Valley.  There, you’ll forget all about the tasting-room masses as you nibble your way through an elegant three-course tasting menu.

J Vineyards & Winery, Healdsburg: J’s “Bubble Room” experience ($60) includes a sit-down tasting in a swanky private lounge.  The tasting pairs limited-release wines with indulgent eats like pan-seared local lamb and panko-crusted tiger prawns.

Kuleto Estate Winery, St.  Helena: A visit ($35) to San Francisco restaurateur/designer Pat Kuleto’s breathtaking mountaintop estate feels like a mini Tuscan vacation.  It includes a stroll through the vineyards and a winery tour, along with samples of winemaker Dave Lattin’s delicious wines (don’t miss the Cabernet, Zinfandel and Rosato) paired with artisan cheeses.  Then, relax on the outdoor patio and pretend you’re in Italy.

Kunde Estate, Kenwood: Sustainably farmed, small-lot wines take center stage in Kunde’s Kinneybrook Room, a private salon overlooking the vineyards, decked out with alabaster chandeliers and luxurious leather sofas.  The sit-down tasting ($20) includes samples of Kunde’s top-tier “Grand Estate” wines, served with artisan cheeses and chocolates. 

Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room, Kenwood: This bistro-like tasting room is all about food and wine pairing.  Take a seat at a stylishly set table, where for $35 you’ll be treated to seven single-vineyard reserve wines paired with seven substantial gourmet appetizers (espresso-marinated lamb tenderloin with red currant-pumpkin seed pesto, anyone?). 

Despite the state of the economy--and the possibly sad state of your personal finances--you can still afford a delicious day among the vines.