Bottle up high prices in California's wine country
A trip to wine country can be pricey. Here's how to cut corners without sacrificing the experience.
Share tastings: Most tastings are $5 to $10 each; it adds up, particularly when you're visiting several wineries in a day. Splitting the tasting saves your palate and salvages your sobriety. And, oh, yeah, it's cheaper.
Buy a bottle: Most wineries will comp you for the tasting when you buy their wine. A few (mostly higher-end operations) don't. Though we do not boycott great wineries that charge regardless of whether you buy a bottle, we agree on principle not to buy their wine. There are too many fabulous wineries that do comp you.
Don't be shy: Talking to winery employees (most are friendly; it's in their interest, after all) sometimes nets extra tastings, but even better, it may yield great advice. And ask for recommendations; we have discovered charming, unpretentious wineries that were under the radar: Sunce in Santa Rosa and Casa Nuestra in Saint Helena. Also, if you go at midweek, the tasting rooms are less frenetic, and you'll have more opportunity to chat (and glean).
Shipping wine home: In the past, we've mailed a case home via a shipping service, which cost upward of $50, plus another $10 for the box. A cheaper way: Buy a shipping box (some wineries even give you one if you join their club and/or even buy a couple bottles). Fill it with your faves. On your day of departure, drive the rental car straight to the skycap, and check your case as a piece of luggage. (It cost us $25 on American.) This also ensures your wine won't be stewing in an overheated warehouse. This strategy may be contingent on your using carry-ons -- but we do that anyway.
Stay at chains: Skip the luxury hotels. You're just sleeping, right? During the peak harvest month of September, we booked the Best Western Plus Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg ($100 a night, and it was nice) and Comfort Inn Calistoga ($139 a night, and it was fantastic). Both threw in breakfast too. And while you're scouting for meals, focus on spots with BYOB and low or no corkage fee. (Zagat helped us find them.)