California’s Napa Valley and frugal travel aren’t exactly an ideal pairing.
Or so I thought. Despite Napa’s reputation as a pricey destination for wine lovers, over two days last month — during peak fall harvest season, no less — I managed to visit seven vineyards, taste about 30 vintages, learn more about wine than I ever imagined (including how to punch down the cap of skins into a vat of crushed grapes) and not starve — or go homeless.
I even had an affordable meal at a restaurant (of sorts) run by Thomas Keller, perhaps the most celebrated chef in America. It was not, alas, at the French Laundry, where the tasting menu for one with two modest glasses of wine will run about $325. In fact, that’s about as much as I spent on tastings, meals and lodging combined during my two days in California wine country.
The key to a successfully budget-friendly visit to Napa is picking your wineries carefully. You can eliminate many simply by price: Many tastings reach $50 or more a person. Try to stick to the $10 and $15 tastings, some of which offer two-for-one deals if you go to napatouristguide.com/napa-on-a-budget, download the Winery Finder app or pick up coupons at the Napa Valley Welcome Center (visitnapavalley.com/welcome_centers.htm).
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But don’t be too stingy. The tasting at Tres Sabores (tressabores.com) was the most expensive I did: $25 a person. But given what came with it, it ended up a bargain.
That memorable “punch down” took place during a tour and tasting at the winery, a tiny operation owned by 59-year-old Julie Johnson.
Johnson, her hands purple, interrupted our seven-person tour to ask if we wanted to pitch in some labor. Handing us an apparatus that looked like a giant potato masher, we took turns driving the thick cap of grape skins, buzzing yellow jackets hovering above them, into the juice below. Punching down the skins as they rise to the top, I learned, is vital to maceration, the process by which red wine gains its color and tannins. It is not, however, vital that visitors do it — but it was one of the experiences that made Tres Sabores so great.
Even if you know nothing about wine — and I know little — you can go a long way simply by choosing small-scale wineries as far into the hills as possible. For a group, Tres Sabores may be too expensive; as a substitute I’d recommend the tiny Nichelini Winery (nicheliniwinery.com), in the same family since 1890. With a coupon, the tasting is $15 for two.
My next piece of advice: Be flexible, especially when offered a specific tip. My first night, I dined at the bar of Il Posto Trattoria (ilpostonapa.com) in the town of Napa, a reasonably priced restaurant more popular with locals than visitors. I ate an elegant $12 bowl of house-pulled spaghetti with beef-pork-veal meatballs and a vibrant tomato sauce. The bartender, Miguel, suggested I head up into the hills to Pride Mountain Vineyards — so I did.
Going to Pride (pridewines.com) is the very opposite of visiting one of the highway-side wineries along the valley’s two main roads, the St. Helena Highway and the Silverado Trail. It’s so far up a winding mountain road that the Napa-Sonoma county line runs right through its rolling vineyards.
At our tasting ($15), our guide, Nikki Lamberti, started by having us try a 2012 viognier with a floral nose and notes of honeysuckle and tropical fruit — or so I was told and subsequently found plausible. Then she whisked us off to watch a worker load bunches of cabernet sauvignon grapes into an astonishingly efficient machine that crushed and destemmed them, and into a maze of caves burrowed into the hillside, where she had us taste a 2012 merlot directly from the barrel. It was quite tannic, unusual for merlot — the result of the thicker skin that grows when you raise grapes at higher elevations.
The day I went to Pride and Tres Sabores, I picked up lunch at Ad Hoc Addendum (adhocrestaurant.com/addendum), a little shack behind Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc that serves $16.50 box lunches Thursday to Saturday only. I chose the astonishingly juicy buttermilk fried chicken, which came with spongy cornbread, potato salad and coleslaw.
Dinner that night was far cheaper: $1.50 beef cheek tacos, the only choice at Tacos Chavez, a decades-old business operating from a truck in the lot of a convenience store at 75 Coombs Street.
None of this is to say that you should skip the bigger wineries — just choose well.