Destinations / San Francisco / Tips & Advice / Travel

Five Ways to Make the Most of Wine Country

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This past weekend marked my fourth visit to wine country. My brother’s fiancee wanted to have her bachelorette party somewhere she could go wine tasting. It was a tight race between Santa Barbara and Sonoma, and the Bay Area won.

Sonoma is a surprisingly close getaway to San Francisco, but since I don’t own a car I find it a little more difficult to get up there. I’m also not a wine enthusiast, so I have less desire to go to wine country all the time. I’m more into drinking wine that costs $5 or under, and my theory is that if you open a bottle of wine and it doesn’t taste great, it will be better after you finish your first glass. I know, I’m a classy broad.

Still, wine tasting is crazy fun. You’ll go to a winery and someone will just be so happy to share some alcohol with you. I’m clearly the complete opposite of a wine snob, but Sonoma is always a good time. I’ve gone to wine country with just one other person, and I’ve also done it as a group. Whether you’re going on a date or planning on getting seriously tipsy with friends, here are five tips for making the most out of your wine country excursion:

1. Assign (or hire) a designated driver.

This one really doesn’t need any explanation. Drunk driving destroys lives, so do not risk getting a DUI, injuring or killing someone else, or yourself, just so you can try some wine.

The best choice is to see if you have a friend who can play chauffeur for the day. In exchange offer to buy them a few bottles of wine (for consumption later, of course) and some dinner. A husband of one of the gals offered to drive us around Saturday, so we were able to drink and not have a care in the world. He also went home with a very nice, peppery Zin for his troubles. That said, even if we did have to pay a driver and split the cost, it would have been more than worth it for the peace of mind.

Sonoma vineyard

2. Buy a Passport.

I can’t speak for other areas dense with wineries, but Sonoma and Napa both have what are called “Passports.” They’re valid for a calendar year at a number of wineries, and it gets you and one guest free tastings and discounts on wines. I’d never used one before this trip, but it’s completely worth it, especially if you live close and might return in the near future. A lot of places charge $10 per person for tastings, and that adds up pretty quickly. A Passport costs $50-$60, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a deal on Groupon or Living Social for half off.

Without it, a lot of wineries will waive the tasting fee if you purchase a bottle. Also, if you come in with a large group of people they might cut you a deal. And there are still some wineries that offer free tastings (more in Sonoma than Napa). You’ll have a great time whether you have the Passport or not, but having experienced wine country both ways, I recommend purchasing one.

3. Figure out the wineries you’re interested in beforehand.

This sounds like a silly suggestion, but I definitely have driven into wine country just expecting wineries to pop out of nowhere. And yes, they sort of do, but you still have to have a vague idea of where you’re going. I’ve actually made the mistake of going there blindly and typing in “winery” into Google Maps. Yup.

While there are wineries out the wazoo in wine country–obvi–they’re not all on one main strip. The night before you go, take twenty minutes, use the interwebz, and make a note of the wineries you like. Even a list of just three is a great start. You can always head to those and then ask the person pouring your wine what he or she suggests for a next stop. You’ll make much better use of your time this way, and this is much easier for your designated driver!

At the Korbel Vineyard!

4. Pack snacks.

Day drinking is fun! You start at 11am, and then suddenly it’s 2pm and you’re completely sloshed. Just remember some actual food in between all the boozey fun.

The maid of honor provided lots of snacks for us to munch on as we were whisked around Sonoma in the SUV rental. Those salty, carb-filled snacks saved me from getting tragic dot com drunk. In between each stop I was snacking on something, which kept my energy up.

Snacking all day also kept us full enough to not need to stop anywhere for lunch, which would have stolen a couple hours of our time. Not to mention, restaurants in wine country (at least in Northern California) are hella pricey. I went once and the person I was with paid about $50 for a cheese plate. I love cheese. But $50 is a lot for cheese. I seriously would have been just as happy with string cheese. So, for the bachelorette party, we cut out a fancy lunch and saved ourselves valuable time and dollah billz.

5. Drink lots of water.

On that note, also remember to hydrate with something other than alcohol.

We stopped by 6+ wineries, and each place poured at least 4 wines per tasting. Or more? Honestly, I don’t remember. But it was a lot.

I’m generally a bit of a lightweight when it comes to drinking, so I knew I had to be careful. However, even if you can hold booze as well all the other ladies did (seriously, they drank me under the table), drink water liberally. Pack some water bottles for the car ride, and ask for some to go with every tasting. You’ll probably pee about 20 times–I’m pretty sure I did–but nothing kills a wine country trip quicker than a 4pm hangover.

Where have you gone wine tasting before, or where would you like to in the future? What suggestions do you have for all the wine-o’s out there?

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