Why You Should Tour Wine Country in the Off Season

by  Kristine Hansen | Feb 6, 2015
Napa Valley
Napa Valley / erperlstrom/iStock

My favorite time of year to visit Napa and Sonoma are the months of January, February and March. It’s not uncommon to be the only one in the tasting room (hello, library and reserve pours!) or be invited to the cellar or winemaking facility to meet the winemaker. Why? Though the weather -- between the 50s and 70s during the day, down to the 40s at night -- is considered quite warm for much of the country, Bay Area residents consider it too chilly to visit tasting rooms. Within this window, the golden hue of mustard cover crops in the vineyards from late January through March, and greener grass in March as rainy season begins, makes for fantastically picturesque drives. And it's all in all cheaper, too. Airfares are lower than in summer months -- from JFK to SFO, the major airports serving Napa and Sonoma aside from Oakland, round-trip fares can run as low as $365 over a long weekend; from LAX, it's just $44 round-trip.

The same goes for wine regions in other parts of the U.S. Out in the Finger Lakes or Long Island, for example, January and February especially offer some of the best hotel rates of the year -- while lower flight demand always means cheaper airfare. It's a no-brainer as far as we're concerned, but here are a few extra tips for maximizing the experience:

1. Keep an eye out for seasonal hotel deals.
Like we said, during the winter months, you can score a steep discounts at hotels. Using Napa and Sonoma again as an example, the quaint English Tea Garden Inn in Cloverdale is offering 50 percent off the second night through March 30, with first night starting rates from $225. Similarly, Fern Grove Cottages in Guerneville gives you the third night free, with rates between $99 and $289, through February 28. At the luxe Harborfront Inn on Long Island's North Fork, there are plenty of weekday rates starting from $209 and weekend rates for just $10 more in February -- again roughly half of what you can expect to pay in summer.

2. Build your trip around weekdays for further benefits.
For even more quiet and savings on your wine country vacation, choose to travel on a few weekdays, even if the trip extends into the weekend. Relatively speaking, winter weekends are more populated than weekdays by locals who are off work, just like any time of the year. Just note that wineries may only be open on certain days, like Thursday through Sunday. As with all travel in the off-season, it's always a good idea to call ahead to double check operating hours anyway.

3. Sip other liquids.
Wine regions are recognizing that sometimes, it's not all about the grapes. You can often find plenty of craft beer, cider, and liquers and oils in wine country. New York's Finger Lakes region has its own beer trail, and a distillery that's won awards for its gin and bourbon is starting to get some attention for their cassis liquer (made with blackcurrant). In downtown Napa, Napa Valley Distillery and The Olive Press offer free tastings for cocktail bitters, shrubs, and syrups and for olive oil. And over in the Northwest, Walla Walla, Washington's premier wine region, brandy made from local wine is taking center stage.

4. Dine on fresh and healthy local fare.
We all love comfort food in colder months, but that's not typically great for the arteries or the gut. Luckily, it turns out that later winter and early spring yields fantastic locally sourced cuisine -- after all, those farmlands are aplenty. Fresh root vegetables and winter fruit are front-and-center at Peller Estate Winery's award-winning restaurant (think: vegetable strudel, pear chutney, and sweet potato puree) in Ontario's wine country. Meyer lemons, Dungeness crab, ramps, and fiddlehead ferns are folded into Northern California restaurants like the hip Diavola or Spoon Bar, with “Top Chef” finalist Louis Maldonado at the helm.

5. Experience major wine events.
You'll have to check each area's calendars, but wine regions typically host some great events to get more visitors in during the off-season. Locals flock to Northern Sonoma in March, for example, for two weekends of barrel tasting: March 6-8 and March 13-15. This 37th annual event is when wineries reveal what will be the 2015 vintage -- and where attendees can pick up sandwiches, fresh fruit, and artisan fromage at chic farmstand delis ($40 in advance). The Finger Lakes has its Chocolate & Wine Weekend on February 20-22, and while the Wine & Cheese Weekend is technically in April, it's worth a mention as one of the most popular events of the year in the region.

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