Napa on a Budget
Do Napa in a Day.. on a budget!
A Short History of Napa
Napa has a long history but here's a short version. It was 1839 when the first grapes were planted and in 1861 Charles Krug opened Napa's first commercial winery and sparked the first wave. By 1899 there were over 140 wineries. Success wasn't guaranteed and disease and prohibition sent Napa into a tailspin. It wasn't until 1933 when prohibition was repealed that wineries like Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis M. Martini and Mondavi brought Napa back from the dead.
People today take wine for granted but that wasn't always the case. Prior to 1976 most Americans drank beer or cocktails. Wine was fancy, extravagant, and too confusing. But that changed with the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgement of Paris and documented loosely in the movie Bottle Shock. The French ruled the wine world back then and thought it clever to put their wines against Napa, highly confident they would naturally win. They didn't and Napa soon exploded - and the wine industry in the US as we know it today was born.
The 80’s and 90’s were a grand time in Napa where the roads were open and the wines poured freely - literally free! That’s all changed. Today Wine Tasting in Napa is easily $25 per person with many of the big names charging $40 or even $50 per person to taste at the bar. No more popping into a winery for a quick taste, not when it’s this expensive. So planning ahead is key, from where you stay, where you taste, and where you eat. But Napa on a Budget can be done - with careful planning.
Budget Hotels in Napa Valley?
Napa hotel rates can sky rocket during peak tourist time, meaning the Summer to Fall when the grapes are harvested and crushed. If you are on a budget you need to forget about coming during peak months and come instead in Spring or late Fall when the crowds are gone. Oh sure, you won’t get that wonderful scent of ripe grapes in the air but you also won’t get the massive hotel rates, sometimes double or even triple what you would pay in off season. And you also won’t get the crowds in the wineries, which is good enough for me.
Start your search in Downtown Napa. You’ll find better rates there as well as great restaurants nearby. And that’s a good tip - you want your hotel surrounded by good restaurants as there really is nothing worse than wine tasting all day and then having to get back into your car to drive to dinner, even if it is only 20 minutes away. You won’t want to do it. Really. You won’t. So Downtown is a good place to start. You can see all of my top picks for Downtown Napa hotels here.
Calistoga is also home to some of Napa’s more affordable hotels, though the food scene isn’t quite as robust. And if you must stretch your budget you can move your search outside of Napa to American Canyon or Fairfield - but when you do just know that you are no longer in “wine country”. Still, save the bucks and buy a few nice bottles to take home as your consolation.
TIP: My friend Jamie rents out a downstairs bedroom as an AirBnB. If you want a fresh, new, and friendly place to email me and I'll put you in touch with her. She also can drive you around if yo want to taste without worry of drinking and driving.
One big mistake that people make is to book hotels online without doing a google map search to verify their location. Sure, you will find cheaper hotels in places like Santa Rosa or beyond but the drive to Napa will be very painful, especially at the end of the day when you’re all tired and just want to crash out at the pool.
Where to Wine Taste in Napa… on a Budget
As soon as you tell people you are going to Napa you’re going to be bombarded with advice on wineries you must visit from friends, family, co-workers, even strangers who overhear you. My advice? Ignore them. That’s because nearly every winery in Napa will give you great wine and a fun experience. I mean, how can you not have fun sipping wine all day? But you need to be strategic in picking wineries as most people only visit four or five in a day and you’re on a budget, remember?
So start your search by selecting ONLY wineries that offer discounts. That’s right, even though Napa only second in popularity to Disneyland in California you can still find wineries who are willing to give you two for one tastings - if you have a discount pass of some kind. Over the years I’ve worked with every discounter in Napa and today the best one is the Priority Wine Pass. It’s $39.99 but you only need one pass for every two people and will get two for one’s, saving you $25 to $50 at each winery stop. That’s a good deal. And yes, while I do get a few bucks if you buy one (like I get paid if you click an ad), I would never recommend it if I didn’t think it was the absolute best way to get discounts and save money in Napa and Sonoma.
Not sure? OK, just email me and I’m happy to answer any questions and if you get the pass I’ll even help you pick your wineries and give you free, unbiased advice.
How to Get the FREE $10 Off Promo Code for Sterling Vineyards
If you read this far I congratulate you! I also want to give you the FREE promotion code for ten bucks off for the Sterling Tram and Tasting. No gimmicks, no catches, just email me and I’ll send it your way. Really, I’m a nice guy. This is free!
Now Back to Picking Wineries…
So if you have the Wine Pass you should start there and try to plan out your entire trip with wineries that offer discounts. OK, this also means that some wineries might not make the cut. Castello di Amorosa, for example, has NO DISCOUNTS anywhere for their basic tasting or tours. Robert Mondavi? No. Domaine Chandon, Cakebread Vineyards, Stag’s Leap? No, No, No. Oh heck, you think. What good is the pass?
Well think of it this way. If you went to a very fancy restaurant and they said “the crab legs are two for one but the lobster is full priced” would you complain? Or would you just get the crab legs and be happy? That’s how you have to look at discounts in Napa. So Mondavi is full priced. So what? Skip it. Do Beringer instead which is two for one. Modavi - $30 per person. Beringer - $25 for two people. Hmmm, I pick Beringer.
Of course if you MUST see the castle or whatever then for sure do it. But make sure the rest of your winery picks are two for one’s if you want to stay on budget.
Start by clicking that button above. That’s the always-up-to-date list of Napa wineries with discounts.
If you want a quick One Day Agenda to Napa on a Budget Wineries here is where I would go if I wanted to max out the saving with my Priority Wine Pass.
STOP 1: Sterling Vineyards: Use the two for one to get $35 off and ride the tram to the top of the mountain to taste. You want to do this early, like 10:00 AM early, before the crowds show up.
STOP 2: Beringer Vineyards: It’s just too pretty to pass up and it’s also on the pass, two for one. Save $25 per couple. See how this works? You paid $39.99 for the pass but already save $60.
STOP 3: V. Sattui: I know you missed the castle on my budget trip but did you know the same people own V. Sattui and the buildings are both made of stone and if you squint V. Sattui sort of looks like a castle? Maybe drink some wine, two for one, and then squint. And guess what? You can do a picnic here and save money on a fancy lunch since they have a full deli onsite.
STOP 4: Grgich Hills: M-F you get two for one, save $25. I really like Grigh Hills. First, their wines are insanely good. Second, the tasting experience so old school, along with their tasting room which is a throwback to the 90’s before the birth of the mega wineries.
STOP 5: Swanson Vineyards: I love this one, a true hidden gem. You’ll need reservations but don’t let that sway you. The tasting room is unlike anything you have ever seen, a whimsical room co-designed by the late Kate Spade. And the patio is like something out of the French countryside. You must do this one, a stop away from the crowds and two for one on the Wine Pass - save $40. Yes, that means $20 per person, a tremendous deal.
So if you did these wineries without the Wine Pass you would spend $290 for two people for tasting fees. With the Wine Pass you get half off that price - add in the cost of the pass and you are still over $100 ahead. And since the pass is good for a year you can use it again and again. Do I sound like a broken record? Can you tell I love the Wine Pass?
CHEAP LUNCH IN NAPA: Remember how I told you to go to Oxbow Public Market for breakfast? Another reason why I love Oxbow as my first stop is for their cheap lunch supplies. Don't get all fancy, a baguette, some cheese, and perhaps some deli meats is all you need for a great Napa picnic. Don't forget the waters!
That’s Great but How About Some Free Wine?
THE LAST FREE TASTING IN NAPA? Sutter Home Winery, the folks who brought you White Zinfandel so many years ago, is perhaps the last free tasting left in Napa. The gardens are beautiful and the wine is free so give it a go if you want to really stretch your budget? OK, yes, it's not going to blow your socks off but free wine is free wine. I tried it. I did! And yes, the gardens are beautiful :-) (Photo by The Napa Wine Project.)
Also, if you are a wine buyer (meaning you are coming to Napa specifically to buy wine and you are ready to shell out $50 or more per bottle) then you have a hand full of Aces when it comes to getting free wine in Napa. You should reach out to me as I can tell you which wineries will waive their fees for you and roll out the red carpet like you’re coming back to Vegas with a new credit card. But then again, if you’re going to spend $600 or more on a case of wine perhaps it’s no longer Napa on a Budget!
Dining in Napa on a Budget
Dining in Napa doesn’t have to be expensive - but it usually is. Unless you follow my advice!
BREAKFAST: The most important meal of the day needs to start at Model Bakery where you can get delicious homemade buttery English Muffins. More buttery than a tub of popcorn, so delicious that Oprah herself has raved about them.
LUNCH: Thomas Keller is the famous chef behind The French Laundry, the restaurant that will set you back $1,000 for two for dinner. That’s not Napa on Budget! But you can get his famous fried chicken most of the year at Addendum, a small hidden food shack behind his Ad Hoc restaurant.
PICNICS: Packing some bread, cheese and meats is a good way to have a Napa experience without breaking the bank. Know that most wineries don’t allow picnics - but these do. I update this list frequently and it’s the most complete, most accurate list on the internet for wineries that allow picnics.
DINNER: If you can show restraint you can actually dine at Bouchon for a reasonable price by ordering their Croq Madame, a fancy pants ham and cheese sandwich which should pretty much blow your head off with its deliciousness. But it’s also hard to beat the Happy Hour at The Bounty Hunter where $7 gets you smoked ribs and cole slaw and $12 gets you a BBQ sampler - and I’m talking great BBQ. And of course there’s always Gott’s Refresher for incredible gourmet burgers under $15.