The words "wine country" and "cheap" don't often show up in the same sentence, unless the line reads something like, "Don't expect to find anything cheap in the wine country." Most travel articles on Napa and Sonoma read like scripts for "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," with descriptions of luxurious hotels, sumptuous meals at four-star restaurants and extravagant champagne balloon rides over the vineyards.
Nice for those who can afford that sort of thing, but what about the rest of us working-class slobs? Does that mean we should restrict our getaways to towns where Motel 6 is considered a luxury resort and Taco Bell reigns supreme?
Being semi-broke myself, I've made it my mission in life to seek out the best deals wherever I go -- and the wine country is no exception. In fact, when I first moved to San Francisco with about 12 cents to my name, exploring Napa and Sonoma was my favorite cheap thing to do on weekends. Yeah, I said cheap. The trick is knowing where to go.
Before I reveal my bargain wine country secrets, it's important to define the word "cheap." A guy I work with thinks that dinner at $50 a head is cheap. In my world, a $50 dinner had better include sex. But it's also important to keep in mind what the wine country experience is all about: fabulous wine and incredible food among some of the world's most beautiful vineyards. You can't do it right on 10 bucks a day, but you can do it for less than most people think.
Wine tasting is one of California's cheapest luxuries. Although some wineries will charge you a few bucks to sample their wares, others that offer their tasty juice for free are just as easy to find.
Due to Napa's popularity as a tourist trap, er, destination, wineries will usually charge anywhere from $3 to $7.50 for tasting. If "free" is more in your price range, check out the following Napa Valley wineries, which won't charge you a cent:
Rabbit Ridge Vineyards, Healdsburg
Where to Eat
With all the focus on "living well" in wine country, it's no surprise that some of the freshest, most delicious vittles on the planet can be found in Napa and Sonoma. Also some of the most expensive. But that doesn't mean you have to eat at the drive-thru to stay within your pathetic budget. Finding wonderful food at decent prices isn't an impossible dream -- it just takes a little research. Luckily, I've already done it for you.
Dean & Deluca
607 South St. Helena Highway, St. Helena 707/967-9980
In wine country, picnics are a way of life. They're also a great way to save some cash on lunch. A nice hunk of cheese, a crusty baguette and a bottle of wine will probably cost you less than a fast food lunch -- plus you get to eat in the warm sunshine surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills and vineyards. The newly opened Dean & Deluca store is just the place to assemble your gourmet picnic. It has an excellent selection of cheeses and freshly baked breads, along with an enticing array of olives, pastries and wine. For $4.95 you can get a ham and gruyere or fontina and pepper sandwich on foccacia bread. For instant gratification, take your deli delights across the street to the V. Sattui picnic grounds and start eatin'!
Hydro Bar & Grill
1403 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga 707/942-9777
Owned by the same folks who run the All Seasons Cafe across the street, the Hydro Bar & Grill is one of the few restaurants in town that stays open later than 10 pm. The menu is made up of American bistro fare, including burgers, pastas, fish dishes and a tempting lasagna with goat cheese, spinach, carmelized onions and mushrooms. Entree prices range from $6.95 to $13.95.
1180 Rutheford Road, Rutherford 707/963-1792
Located next door to Beaulieu Vineyards, Rutherford Grill has a warm hunting-lodge feel, minus the mounted buck heads on the wall. The attractive wood-paneled dining room is filled with an inviting, homey smell, as dozens of chickens roast in the restaurant's wood-burning oven. The chicken goes for $11.95 with mashed potatoes, which is pretty cheap when you consider the excellent quality of the food, the generous (read: huge) portions and the pleasant, unpretentious atmosphere. Most other entrees are in the $10-$12 range and there's a good selection of wines for less than $20 a bottle.
1020 Main Street, St. Helena 707/967-9999
If dinner at St. Helena's famed Tra Vigne is out of your price range, Tomatina may be the next best thing. After all, they share the same executive chef. Frequented by a loyal crowd of St. Helena locals, Tomatina features simple-but-delicious Mediterranean food in a casual atmosphere. Once you step up to the counter and make your selection from Tomatina's menu of thin-crust pizzas, pastas, salads and home-made breads, a server will bring the food out to your table. There's seating both inside the cafe and in the tree-filled courtyard outside. Entree prices range from $8 to $12.
Pacifico Restaurante Mexicano
1237 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga 707/942-4400
Pacifico Restaurante Mexicano is not your typical burrito and enchilada factory. Instead, the food is derived from the cuisines of exotic Mexican locations like Ixtlan, Guadalajara, Santa Cruz and Melaque. The result is anything but standard, with dishes like Tampiquena (grilled sirloin marinated with chiles, onions and tomatoes served with grilled corn and flour tortillas) and Camarones a la Diabla (sauteed prawns in garlic, butter, lime, arbol chiles and tomatoes). Entrees run between $6.50 and $14.
Sonoma Cheese Factory
2 West Spain Street, Sonoma 707/996-1931
If all that Sonoma wine has you hankerin' for a hunk-o-cheese, head for the Sonoma Cheese Factory for a free tasting. This busy cheesery offers self-serve samples of its famous Sonoma Jack cheeses, including inventive varieties like pesto, garlic, vidalia onion and jalapeño. If you're lucky, you'll catch the cheesemakers in action behind the glass wall at the back of the store. Knowing you can't have cheese without bread and other edible accessories, the Sonoma Cheese Factory also sells a variety of deli treats. Take your grub to the grassy plaza across the street for a picnic, where you might be joined by an exotic variety of wild chickens, ducks and other winged creatures.
La Casa Restaurant
121 East Spain Street, Sonoma 707/996-3406
This Mexican restaurant and bar is something of a tradition in Sonoma. The food is standard Mexican fare, along with some unusual dishes like grilled salmon with creamy chipotle chile and caper sauce. Most entrees go for $9.95 or less. If you're looking for a tasting adventure that doesn't involve grapes, head for the bar and get ready for the tequila experience of your life. For $8 you can sample three half-shots from the staggering (literally!) list of 26 tequilas.
Babette's Cafe and Wine Bar
446 East First Street, Sonoma 707/939-8921
This cozy French café is connected to the upscale (translated: pricey) Babette's Restaurant, one of the finest eateries in Sonoma. While entrees are in the $13 - $14 danger zone, sandwiches and appetizers are more reasonably priced (around $6.50). For a feeling of absolute luxury for less than $9, stop in for a generous plate of Babette's incredible house-smoked salmon with blinis, creme fraiche and caviar, served with plenty of delicious country-style bread. Wines are available by the half-glass, so you can keep your tab down without resorting to mineral water.
Basque Boulangerie Café
460 1st Street East, Sonoma 707/935-7687
A great place to stop for lunch between winery visits, the Basque offers some of the cheapest, tastiest sandwiches anywhere. The bread is baked right on the premises, and the fillings are far from PB&J. Would you believe only $3.75 for prosciutto and brie? Or $4 for hot roast pork with balsamic onions? Where else can you get a slice of home-made onion tart for $3.95? The most expensive thing on the entire menu is only $5.95. Somebody pinch me! Both table and diner-style counter seating are available.
139 East Napa Street, Sonoma 707/938-4166
Don't let the cheesy neon sign out front fool you -- Pasta Nostra is not your standard overcooked-spaghetti-and-meatball joint. Located in a little Victorian house off Sonoma's main square, Pasta Nostra is a cozy place with a friendly staff and wonderful smells wafting from the kitchen. All of the pastas are made from scratch, as is the spicy Sicilian sausage. I still dream of their spaghetti with smoky grilled prawns, olive oil and chilis. Dishes range from $7.95 to $14, with most around $10. Wine prices are also very reasonable.
Where to Stay
When I'm traveling, accommodations are the part I care least about. As long as the place is clean and vermin-free, I'm happy. But sometimes my frugality backfires. I once stayed at the biggest dump in Napa because, at $60 a night, it was the cheapest place I could find. I should have beelined out of there as soon as I saw the NO REFUNDS sign on the bulletproof glass separating me from the proprietor, but I figured "how bad could it be?" You should never ask that question. My point: accommodations in the wine country ain't cheap. And when they are, you might want to take a moment to wonder why. To spare you the nightmare I experienced at Motel Squalor, check out this list of decent, clean places for less than $100 a night. (Prices listed are weekend rates.)
Chardonnay Lodge - $65
2640 Jefferson Street, Napa 707/224-0789
No glamour here, just a standard motel in a convenient central Napa location. Twenty motel rooms with air-conditioning, phones and cable TV. Basically, this is a good place to crash after a full day of wine tasting and exploring.
Calistoga Inn - $65
1250 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga 707/942-4101
Here's a place with some character. Located on the second floor of a popular restaurant and brew pub, the Calistoga Inn's 18 rooms are nice-but-basic. If you can live without a TV in your room (gasp!) and don't have a problem with a shared bathroom down the hall, this place is a gem for only $65 a night. The pretty garden in the back of the restaurant is a great place to hang out in the summer and enjoy a freshly brewed beer. Cheap and charming.
Triple-S-Ranch - $54/cabin for 2 people, $7 per extra person (cabins sleep 1-6. Closed January 1 - March 31
4600 Mountain Home Ranch Road, Calistoga 707/942-6730
The Triple S is the sort of quirky place people fall in love with. The ranch is in a pretty, wooded area near Calistoga, with rustic one-room cabins scattered around the propert
y. The cabins don't have phones or TVs, but who cares when you've got picnic tables, a swimming pool, horseshoes and hiking trails at your disposal? The ranch is also home to a restaurant that makes the best damn onion rings you'll ever eat (and eat... and eat...).
Hillcrest B&B - $70-$90
3225 Lake County Highway, Calistoga 707/942-6334
This casual bed and breakfast is tucked away in a secluded location with a great view. If the scenery isn't enough to entertain you, try the swimming pool, hiking trails, fishing pond or outdoor Jacuzzi. The Hillcrest has six rooms with private baths and balconies. They don't take credit cards, but you can pay with a check.
Nance's Hot Springs - $89
1614 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga 707/942-6211
If you're longing for a Calistoga spa experience without the glamorous price tag, Nance's Hot Springs is the place to go. All of the rooms in this 1923 spa have kitchenettes and cable TV, and guests have free access to the hot mineral pool. Mud baths and massages are also available at reasonable prices -- just ask the locals, who've been going there for years.
Bothe - Napa Valley State Park - $16/site
Highway 29, South of Calistoga 707/942-4575
Camping in the wine country? Why not! This wooded campground is right off Highway 29, allowing you to experience all the glamour of wine tasting and gourmet dining while communing with nature and discovering which Napa red goes best with s'mores. Located in a secluded spot next to Redwood Creek, Bothe-Napa Valley State Park has picnic tables, fire pits, real toilets and showers. A dip in the pool will cost you $3.
Calistoga Ranch Campground - $19/site
Lommel Road, south of Calistoga 707/942-6565
This 167-acre campground in the heart of Calistoga spa country has all the basic features you'd expect: picnic tables, fire grills, flush toilets and showers. If you're eager for a little physical activity after hours of soaking in mud at a nearby spa, the campground offers hiking, swimming, fishing, volleyball and horseshoes. If you'd rather not sleep under the stars, rent a rustic cabin for $49 or a nifty Airstream trailer with kitchen for $89.
El Pueblo Inn - $94/night
496 West Napa Street, Sonoma 707/996-3651
This family-owned motel has been around since the 1950s. You won't find mints on your pillow when it's time to go to bed, but at least the rooms have their own coffee makers. There's also a heated pool on the property, along with a garden for lounging. Good central location.
Geyserville Inn - $79/night
21714 Geyserville Avenue, Geyserville 707/857-4343
Surrounded by vineyards near the town of Geyserville, this place is a good home base for winery touring. Some of the inn's 38 rooms are equipped with balconies, patios and fireplaces. Continental breakfast is included in the price of the room, as are pool and spa privileges. Lake Sonoma is also nearby.
Frampton House - $90/night
489 Powell Avenue, Healdsburg 707/433-5084
Three rooms are available in this comfortable house near Healdsburg's downtown plaza. The neighborhood is residential, the rooms are private, and the views of Geyser Peak are impressive. Guests are encouraged to enjoy the lovely tree-filled yard, swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and ping pong table. A full breakfast is included.
Schoolhouse Canyon Campground - $20/site
River Road, Guerneville 707/869-2311
If you plan on checking out Sonoma County's Russian River wine region, this is a good place to camp. Picnic tables and fire grills are provided, along with flush toilets, showers and piped water. There's also plenty of shade from the redwoods and a beach for swimming and fishing.
Burke's Resort and Canoe Trips - $12-15/site
River Road, Guerneville 707/887-1222
Aside from a prime location near Russian River wineries, this campground offers picnic tables, fire grills, flush toilets and showers. If you've got an afternoon to spare, take advantage of Burke's canoe rentals, which run about $10 per person. Paddling 10 miles down the Russian River with a cooler full of cold drinks and picnic fixin's is a great way to spend a warm summer day. When you reach the end of the line, Burke's will shuttle you back to the campground for free.
Now that I've planned your wine country vacation for you, all you need to do is bust open your piggy bank and start rolling pennies. OK, it's not quite that cheap, but you'd probably spend the same amount of money for a weekend of "fun" at home, hangin' out at some lame karaoke bar and eating gristly chicken fajitas at the local fake Mexican chain restaurant. So what are you waiting for? Get your booty up to the wine country and start livin' the good life!