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9 Ideas for Planning a Wine Vacation on a Budget
A great grape escape needn't be cost-prohibitive.
Pair leisurely sips at world-class vineyards with wallet-friendly prices.
Napa Valley. Tuscany. Bordeaux. If you consider yourself a red, white or rosé wine connoisseur, you've certainly heard of these popular wine regions. But so has every other oenophile with an appreciation for top-tier vintages and idyllic settings, making finding a place to eat, sleep and sip on a budget challenging. Luckily, there are simple ways to leverage value without compromising on memorable tastings and inspiring vineyard views. That's why we've rounded up pro strategies for pairing celebrated wines and spectacular scenery with bargain-friendly prices while also scouring the globe for still-undiscovered and surprisingly affordable wine regions.
Branch out and visit lesser-known destinations across the country.
While Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley lure wine lovers with their primo cabernet varieties, legendary tasting rooms and Michelin-starred restaurants, there are plenty of under-the-radar domestic regions that beckon to curious wine seekers. "The Hood River region of Oregon is close to home and offers something for everyone: great wine, cider and beer, locally sourced food and fun outdoor activities," says Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Best of all: "None of it requires a huge bankroll to enjoy," she says. She also highlights underappreciated winemaking states such as Texas, Colorado and Michigan as worthwhile destinations for budget-conscious wine enthusiasts. "Wine is made in all corners of the world now," Kostrzewa explains.
Consider off-the-beaten-path places.
Forgo expensive destinations like Napa and venture to tucked-away places near the heart of California wine country, like Paso Robles, which is conveniently located off the Pacific Coast Highway and boasts fewer crowds and lower rates, says Alison Napjus, senior editor and tasting director at Wine Spectator magazine. In Paso Robles, you'll find thriving wine communities and a more authentic experience, with informal settings and lesser-visited wineries featuring acclaimed cabernet sauvignon varieties and plenty of rustic charm, she adds. Even better, hotel site goSeek.com shows prices for three-star hotels in Paso Robles for under $150 a night in September – peak harvest season. If your heart is set on Italy, Napjus suggests visiting lesser-trodden places such as Umbria or Puglia for lovely beaches, a beautiful countryside and better prices than tourist-heavy destinations like Montepulciano.
Plan a trip during the off-season.
If you're itching to savor Northern California's complex cabernets and dry chardonnays, "consider visiting in the down season, rather than battling other travelers in the peak summer months – when the prices are highest," Kostrzewa says. "Touring California in the fall during harvest gives you a front seat to one of the most exciting seasons in wine country, and in winter, the slower pace and smaller crowds means you’ll be rubbing elbows with locals and winemakers rather than fighting for a spot at the tasting bar," she says. Plus, prices typically drop at these times, she adds. Prices at top resorts and inns in and around Napa can dip up to 40 percent from November to April, and there are plenty of seasonal discounts available. Another easy way to save: Visit in spring, when you can still spot leaves on the vines without paying a high price, Napjus says.
Do your homework.
Before you embark on a California wine country retreat, conduct some prior research to pinpoint wineries that don't impose a tasting fee, which can cost anywhere between $20 and $50, depending on the tasting room. While in Napa, you'll typically pay for a visit and a tasting, but in smaller regions you may have tasting fees waived if you purchase a bottle, Kostrzewa says. To optimize value, also consider enjoying some al fresco meals by purchasing ingredients from local farm stands and markets, she says. That way, "you’re not booking expensive restaurants every night," Kostrzewa explains. And if you do want to enjoy a few meals out on the town, consider skipping upscale dining venues in lieu of crowd-pleasing, cost-effective restaurants, such as Norman Rose Tavern and Kitchen Door – both located in Napa.
Eat, sip and stay like a local.
Forget kitschy tours and tastings. For a more authentic experience, "try to engage the locals once you are there, if you can," Kostrzewa says. Locals can help you tap into secret gems and underrated ways to cut costs, she adds. "Talk to the locals behind the tasting room bar or at the local coffee shop … sometimes those [local] recommendations are the most memorable experiences of the trip," she explains. And ditch an upscale hotel for a guest house or a bed-and-breakfast to save money without compromising on quality experiences. "You needn’t always go for the most luxurious hotel in these areas to experience the best of the region," she explains.
Skip weekends and holidays and seek out discounts.
To dodge steep crowds and prices, "avoid going on weekends and holidays," Napjus says. On Saturdays, you'll likely encounter swarms of fellow grape-seekers jockeying for a place at the bar. You can also often score more reasonable rates if you plan a midweek trip. Be sure to search for packages and tours to land deep discounts. With the Winery Finder app, for example, you can find current discounts and deals on tastings in Napa Valley and Sonoma, book reservations and purchase wines with a few taps on your touchscreen. And with the Taste Napa Downtown card, you can slash 50 percent off tastings at 24 wineries in the area.
Consider staying in an agriturismo or renting a house.
While trimming accommodation costs in notoriously expensive European wine destinations in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy can be an obstacle, you can maximize savings without compromising on high-quality experiences by renting a villa or an apartment, Napjus says. In Italy's Piedmont region, for instance, you can slip away to an agriturismo – an affordable farm stay – that lacks bells and whistles, but offers easy access to top-notch wineries. Check out the venerable agriturismo.it website for up-to-date listings and special promotions. Regardless of where you're headed, if you're planning a trip with a large group for six nights or longer, consider renting a house, rather than staying in a hotel, for the best price point.
Pack your own lunch.
Maximize savings by bringing along your own snacks, Napjus explains. In many places, "you can pack your own lunch or buy some cheeses and salumi," she explains. Opting to carry your own picnic supplies is an easy way to reduce your expenses while still enjoying the surrounding scenery at beautiful vineyards in California wine country. Even preparing a few meals and splurging for a couple of memorable dining experiences for less than $20 per person in Napa and Sonoma at popular eateries such as Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin' BBQ and El Molino Central can translate to significant savings.
There are wineries in every state, Napjus says. Rather than jetting off to a far-flung, little-known wine region, if you're just getting into wine, consider checking out the diverse destinations in your own backyard. Start by hitting the road and making a pilgrimage to a winery near your hometown to dodge sky-high hotel costs near popular vineyards, she says. From New York's Finger Lakes region to the 50-plus wineries in the Texas Hill Country to Oregon's Willamette Valley, there are versatile wine destinations across the country that won't leave a dent in your wallet. An easy way to pinpoint the best wineries in your neck of the woods: Relying on handy tools like Foursquare. With Foursquare, you can simply punch in a few details about the type of winery you're looking for and your desired location, and then you can review top-rated options based on your filtered search.
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