Guide to free and cheap wine tasting in & near Napa Valley
Napa Valley wine country is synonymous with great wine. Even folks that aren’t wine drinkers know it’s the go-to destination in the United States. But earning that reputation took time, and not that long ago visitors could taste their way through the valley without ever being asked to open their wallets. Popularity, awards and the times have changed Northern California wine country, but that doesn’t mean you have to blow your budget to drink like a king or queen.
With a bit of planning and the tips below, you can taste some great wine while you live it up on a budget that leaves enough change to grab a few new favorite bottles for the trip home.
Flying into the Napa Valley area
Wine Country is served by numerous airports including:
- Oakland International Airport
- Sacramento International Airport
- San Francisco International
All are about an hour and a half’s drive away, but San Francisco will typically have more flight options.
Sonoma County Airport is located in wine country – you can see vineyards as the plane approaches the runway to land, but the airport is very small with just one carrier, Alaska Airlines, so flights are limited.
In the days of airline cuts, these flights standout for what I’ll call their hospitality. Along with still offering snacks, travelers 21 years and older can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine or microbrew.
Getting to Napa Valley
Renting a car at the airport is probably the least expensive, and most direct way to get to Napa Valley, but if you prefer to have a designated driver during your stay, there many limousine companies that can pick you up from the airport and can also take you on wine tours. Many companies are happy to set up a package that will cover all your needs while you’re in town. What works best for you will depend on your budget.
The cheapest, but most time consuming trip to wine country is by train, ferry and bus. From San Francisco International or Oakland International Airport, travelers can take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the San Francisco Embarcadero Station. From there it’s a short walk to the Ferry Building. Hop a ferry to Vallejo and once there VINE bus route #10 goes to downtown Napa.
Napa Valley Wine Train
There’s definitely some schlepping to save some cash, but stops at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Downtown Napa are popular perks and all you need is one day’s advance notice to add the Napa Valley Wine Train to your car-free itinerary. The step-by-step instructions are clear and easy to follow, but a great deal more work than jumping in a rental car.
The Wine Train steams through acres of grape vines in a short amount of time. Guests enjoy lunch or dinner, with wine of course, while they roll through the vineyards and wineries of Napa Valley. The trip runs 36 miles from Napa to St. Helena and back and takes about three hours.
Where to stay in or near Napa Valley
Downtown (in the city of) Napa is a good home base for folks tasting in Napa Valley. One side of downtown to the next is an easy walk. The food scene is exploding with tasty options for all budgets and there are a good two dozen or so great B & B’s (with and without doilies) to get a good night’s rest.
When exploring wineries in neighboring Sonoma County, quaint Calistoga is worth thinking about. A stay at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort or Calistoga Spa Hot Springs comes with the perk of soaking in Calistoga’s famous hot springs, something that can cost you a bundle at popular area spas.
If you’re more the city type, nearby Santa Rosa has an assortment of options, from well-known chains to lesser known properties like the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa. Think the charm and feel of a 1950s resort with modern amenities. The pool area is a fun place to take a break on a sunny afternoon and the health club gives you a chance to burn off some of those extra wine calories.
Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card
It’s not free, but I think the Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card falls into the bargain wine tasting category. For $30, you can sample wine at 12 tasting rooms and wine bars in Napa. You don’t have to hit them all in one visit; the card is good for the year and it’s transferable.
Finding free and cheap wine tasting in Napa Valley and nearby Sonoma
Some travelers are the organized type, others prefer to do things more on the fly. Each style has its benefits, but a little planning before you go, will save you more than a little money when you arrive. Itineraries should have room to enjoy unexpected fun finds, but when you’re hunting for free and cheap wine tasting, having a touring and tasting game plan is a must.
Along with providing maps and information on tours and activities, Sonoma County Tourism offers a long list of wineries and tasting rooms that offer complimentary tastings. If you have a Visa Signature card in your wallet, you can enjoy complimentary wine tastings at more than 60 Sonoma wineries. The Sonoma County Vintners website lists all of the wineries that participate in the program. Finding freebies in Napa County is harder to do, but not impossible. It just takes time and wi-fi.
Wineries that offer free tastings tend to be smaller and family owned and sometimes you need to make an appointment. That said, don’t make any assumptions and rule anyone out. The list of names below pour for free or close to free and can jump start your budget-friendly wine country vacation plans.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery
If there’s a mold for what wineries should be like, Francis Ford Coppola Winery breaks it.
There’s a pool, bocce ball courts and Movie Gallery that displays some pretty amazing pieces of Coppola movie memorabilia including several Academy Awards and the original car from Tucker: The Man and His Dreams.
And oh yeah, there’s the wine.
More than 40 of them are made on-site. Visitors can enjoy two complimentary pours of Rosso & Bianco everyday table wines. Options include: Rosso, Bianco Pinot Grigio, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Moscato.
- Address: 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, California
- Phone: 707-857-1462
Korbel Champagne Cellars
Set in Sonoma County’s Russian River Area, complimentary winery tours that conclude with tastings are offered daily at Korbel Champagne Cellars. Come spring, the vineyards compete with Korbel’s gardens for the best view. Complimentary Garden Tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday, May through mid-October. If you don’t have time for a tour, you can just pop into the tasting room for complimentary sips.
Just FYI: Korbel Champagne Cellars is just minutes from Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve. No wine, but amazing coast redwoods, some of which have been growing strong since before the Pilgrims arrival. You can take a quick look or spend some time, but either way it’s an easy walk. The tallest tree in the park, the Parson Jones Tree is just a .1 mile walk from the park entrance. A map of Armstrong Grove can help you plan ahead.
- Address: 13250 River Road, Guerneville, California
- Phone: 707-824-7317
The Mauritson family has been growing grapes in the Dry Creek Valley since 1868. Located right next to the winemaking facility, the tasting room is cozy, but on a sunny day you can’t beat the outside grassy patio area where picnics are welcome.
Visitors can taste five wines for $10 and grab a map for the self-guided vineyard tour.
- Address: 2859 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, California
- Phone: 707-431-0804
Get a history lesson and good wine at Cline Cellars. Located in the Carneros region, the property was once a Miwok Village and the first camp of the Sonoma Mission.
The tasting room is located in an 1850s farmhouse. Visitors can taste five of Cline’s non-reserve wines at no charge. $5 buys a flight
of three reserve wines. Complimentary tours are offered three times a day, at 11:00am, 1:00pm and 3:00pm.
The gardens, including more than 5,000 rose bushes make for a great picnic locale. While you’re there you can also visit the California Missions Museum.
- Address: 24737 Highway 121, Sonoma, California
- Phone: 707-940-4000
A 200-acre ranch, partly planted as a vineyard more than a century ago, Smith-Madrone is a bit off the beaten wine path in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District near St. Helena. The name is a tribute to the brothers who own it and the Madrone tree, the predominant tree on the ranch.
Update 2016: Wine tasting is no longer free, and visitation is by appointment only with an online reservation.
- Address: 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, California
- Phone: 707.963.2283
You can’t beat the downtown Napa location of Mason Cellars. Steps from popular Oxbow Market and an easy walk from pretty much everything in downtown, the tasting room is bright and airy.
UPDATE 2016: Tastings are no longer free at Mason Cellars, and tasting flights start at $10.
The Mason Cellars Winery is open Thursday through Monday, and wine tastings are complimentary.
- Address: 714 First Street, Napa, California
- Phone: 707-255-0658
By Dana Rebmann
Dana is a freelance writer based in Northern California. Weekends spent exploring the San Francisco Bay Area outnumber those at home, but her favorite trips require a passport and typically a destination with warm sand and blue water. You can find her on Twitter @drebmann