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 It wasn't until 1933 when prohibition was repealed that wineries like Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis M. Martini and Mondavi brought Napa back from the dead.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.
Saving Money in Napa
Visiting Napa today is expensive. Hotel rooms are hard to get and $300 a night is considered a good deal, even in off season, and wine tasting is on average $25 per person - most people go to 5 wineries a day so a couple can easily spend $250 just on tasting fees. I decided to try to do Napa on the cheap, to really experience Napa like a first timer on a serious budget. Here's what I did.
WHERE TO STAY: For starters, I skipped staying at a hotel. Instead I shopped the AirBnB's and found a cute cottage for less than $200 a night. That was easily a hundred bucks a night cheaper than the cheapest hotel. I collected the best bets for AirBnB's and put them in a separate article you can find here.
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.
START YOUR DAY: My first stop was Oxbow Public Market where I set my sights on Model Bakery. They have GREAT breakfast sandwiches for around $6, made with their famous English Muffins. You need this breakfast. You need these muffins. Trust me, skip the sit down breakfast houses and eat here instead.
TO WINE PASS OR NOT TO WINE PASS, THAT IS THE QUESTION: If you've been on my site you know I am a big fan of the Priority Wine Pass. I used to promote free coupons, phone apps, passports, but no one does it better than the annual Priority Wine Pass. It's basically a two for one pass you show on your phone, saving you $25 or more on average at every stop. Get it HERE to get my discount - it will be $39.99 but you only need one pass per couple. Of course you don't need to get the pass but you will be kicking yourself at the first winery when they tell you two tastings are $50 and you realize you could have both had tastings for half that price.
FIRST STOP, A TOUR: So with the Priority Wine Pass loaded on my phone I was off to the races. I wanted to experience Napa like a true first timer so I opted for a tour to see how wine is made. I picked Bell Winery and did their Grape to Glass tour which is pretty fantastic. I've been on a lot of tours and most of them have you walking through vineyards in the hot sun and make you listen to a boring presentation before letting you sip some wine. The Bell tour is short, just enough to get a feel for production and history, and before you know it you're in the barrels room and they're popping open a bottle of sparkling. Bell has great wines and you move all the way through the gamut until you get to deep bold reds. It's a 90 minute experience, reservations are required, and it was half off with the Priority Wine Pass. That made it $25 per person which is a killer deal.
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!
For the adventurous and spirited head over to The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's famous high end restaurant where dinner for two will set you back a thousand bucks. No, I'm not saying you should eat there. Instead go across the street to their gardens and you'll find a few picnic tables and a chairs. Be discreet and you found the perfect picnic spot. Of course they might kick you out but that's why I said you need to be adventurous!
My wife is a bit of a chicken so instead of risking being kicked out of the French Laundry gardens we headed over to Napa Cellars, one of the best winery picnic spots. What makes Napa Cellars so good is that they give you two for one glasses of wine with your Priority Wine Pass, perfect for enjoying with your lunchtime snack. Napa Cellars is $20 per person but two for one with the pass - $10 per person for a glass of wine and picnic spot, that's a good deal.
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 why not stop? 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 :-)
IT'S TOURISTY, IT'S POPULAR, BUT IT'S WORTH IT: Beringer Winery is perhaps the most beautiful winery in all of Napa. Tasting fees are $25 per person but you get two for one so it's another bargain. Lots to see, there's a retail shop, gardens, and lush landscaping all around. It's the perfect last stop. I normally skip Beringer due to the crowds but really loved it here. There was live music, a fun vibe, I liked this stop a lot!
Let's Do the Math
So how much did this day cost you? Let's assume you got the Priority Wine Pass so you got the savings.
BREAKFAST: Less than $20 for two for breakfast sandwiches and coffees.
BELL WINERY: $50 tour for two.
PICNIC LUNCH: Less than $20 for two for a baguette, cheese, meats and waters.
NAPA CELLARS: $20 for two.
SUTTER HOME: Free tastings
BERINGER WINERY: $25 for two.
TOTAL COST FOR TWO: $135 + $39.99 for Wine Pass = $174.99. That's only $90 per person! That's not bad since I didn't really cut any corners. Heck, even the stop at Sutter Home was fun and helped me stretch the wine tasting budget.
Dinner on a Budget?
I didn't forget about dinner. My absolute favorite budget dining in Napa is the Happy Hour at Bounty Hunter where you can get ribs and slaw for $6 and two for one glasses of wine. Bounty Hunter has very credible BBQ and is worth it at any price but the Happy Hour before 6PM, M-F, is place to be.
Don't forget, you can email me if you ever want my free, unbiased advice! I can guide you to the best of Napa on a Budget and show you the wineries, restaurants, and places I love in Napa!