We've come about a priority list of these areas to consider when coming out to wine country:
1) Planning far enough ahead. In general, from April through October, it is pretty busy here. The busiest months are July - September with "Harvest" usually being in Sept. where many of the big parties are at the wineries bringing droves of people to wine country. Everything from hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and of course private touring, books up early and fast. Most do not realize how truly busy it gets out here and are often surprised when they cannot get a reservation a week or two out. You cannot plan far enough ahead if you want to get to the relatively small number of key places for dining or do some of the more special things to do while here.
2) Too much on your plate (and palate). Most that come out guns blazing, then quickly realize that they've planned too much in too short a period of time. Quick burnout can happen. Scheduling more than 4 wineries a day can be more taxing than ever imagined. Plan approximately 1.5 hours per winery to include bathroom stops, load/unload time, travel time, gift shop or wine purchases, or just meandering. It is easy to fill any extra gaps if you have more time, but hard to play catch up when behind. This is wine country and a place to relax and enjoy wining and dining. Don't try to fit too much a day in and give yourself a couple days here to see a nice variety of tastings or experiences.
3) Poor referrals. Unfortunately, many people get poor advice regarding which wineries to visit. Many times it is just a reference to a 'brand name' with little attention to the actual experience they will encounter. There are over 500 wineries in Napa and over 300 in Sonoma. Good brand names do not always equate to a "good" tasting experience. It is so individual as to what type of tasting experience you, or your group, want to enjoy well beyond just the wines themselves. Take the time with someone local that can give you candid advice as to the exact level of experience offered so at the very least your expectations are in-line with the tasting or winery environment or type.
4) Logistics planning. First of all, Napa and Sonoma are far different both in landscape and location. Do not try and do both in the same day, just don't. Sonoma is very spread out and you can find yourself 1-2 hours from certain popular wine spots. Napa, although more systematic in its approach, can still present logistics challenges and can still be an hour top to bottom. Map it out well beforehand, even if you have a driver, get to know the landscape. There are certain directions that you do not want to be traveling in high-season and you can find yourself in some pretty nasty traffic, even by city standards. Understand the areas well enough to make sure you have a decent plan or your day can be wrought with frustration running late for appointments.
5) Overdoing it on your first day. Believe it or not, wine tasting during the day can really take it out of you, and fast. Most likely you will have some grand plans your first night here and too often it gets blown with one too many out for the day. Remember, it is wine tasting, not a 7-hour long happy hour. You can taste as many 6-7 wines at one winery and you should not drink every one of the tastings. Every place has spit/dump buckets for good purpose...do not feel compelled to finish every tasting. Ideally, it's - sip/coat, spit, sip again, drink or dump and then evaluate. Also, drink lots of water (we provide Smart Water and Vitamin Water to keep you hydrated well).
6) Navigating on your own without much of a plan. You used be able to get away with this...not any more. Even if you designate a 'driver' for the group, stop at one of the visitor centers and get help with your plan. At the very least, grab a Preiser Key (locals go-to guide) or one of the other good maps and information circulars to help. Make a few appointments mixed in with some flexibility to stop in a few places. If it is high season, call ahead and make sure they can accommodate your group even if appointments are not required. It's just good to know what is going on at the wineries that day. Obviously, we'd recommend getting a guide for the day as you will just enjoy all of the benefits of touring more comfortably and safely (see our previous blog post).
7) Planning purchases. If you are able and willing to make a few wine purchases during your trip, plan for how you're going to get the wines home. Especially if you are getting one or two bottles here and there, you will be accumulating wines along the way and will need a means to get them home. You can ship it all back from one of the local shipping-houses, or you can pick up a self-shipper and check it in like luggage for less than shipping it home. The other great option is a great new product, The Wine Check, that you can find in several wineries now. Any knowledgeable driver can assist in getting you to the right places to pick up supplies.
8) Dining reservations and/or choices. Wine country is the dining mecca for great meals and it is a huge part of your trip. Do your research, but make sure to get someone local to give you good advice for your palate and price level. At some point you'll want to spend time dining in Yountville, so just include it in the plan somewhere. Lunch or dinner, just make sure it is on the agenda. And, plan early. The main spots in Yountville book up weeks, sometimes months, in advance. Napa and Sonoma have some great new spots as well, but you can never plan early enough in this category.
9) Improper attire. Most people are amazed how cool it can get at night. And, if going to San Francisco, downright cold. Bring something to cover up with for the evenings and also sometimes along the way with tastings in cave or barrel rooms as well. Also, Napa/Sonoma are "wine country casual" and be comfortable. For wine tasting you'll be getting in and out of vehicle several times a day and you want to be wearing comfortable breathable attire and shoes. You may also have a chance to go in to the vineyards, so be prepared to hike it a little here and there.
10) Not having a good plan B, C or D. The number one thing about wine tasting is that it rarely goes exactly to plan. Appointments are missed, people get lost, someone changes their mind, things get cancelled, or you find a place you want to stay a while or exit quickly. Expect the unexpected and have some good back up plans and places/things to do. Believe it or not there are other things to do besides wine tasting...really.
Although somewhat self-serving, leave it to the professionals where appropriate to make the most of your trip. It is fun exploring on your own and you can make some great discoveries that way. But if you want to enjoy wine country in its truest and best form, go with a local professional who knows the landscape and can get you where you want to go safely and assuredly.
Enjoy your trip safely to wine country either way.