Tips when Visiting Napa Valley Wine Country
Northern California is finicky and can change drastically. From stepping off the airplane in San Francisco at 65 degrees to mid day tasting in one of the wine country valleys at 100 degrees and then back to 55 degrees or lower in the evening you need to be prepared. Layering is always best. So wear that sundress but bring a wrap. It is not only the weather but you may be escorted though wine caves or seated on a sunny patio. These are extremes that can surprise the traveler thinking we are in southern California where it’s balmy most of the year. Other recommendations include sunglasses, low heel or closed toe shoes and and a sun hat.
Wineries will specify their requirements when the tasting appointment is booked. If they are touring you through their facilities or vineyard there may be OSHA rules they must follow and you may be required to wear closed toed shoes. You may not be allowed to join in if you are not wearing the proper attire.
Certain times of the year there are wildlife hazards and you may need to be aware of them. Our hills are filled with furry and not so furry creatures that pose little harm to you as a visitor but being aware of them is necessary. So if you are planning on running through a vineyard for that selfie make sure to ask your winery host if it is rattle snake season. Snakes are wonderful for the eco systems but can be a surprise for the unsuspecting guest. Do not be alarmed in the last 12 years of driving guests I have only run into one. But then again I have not run through a vineyard in shorts and sandals.
Schedule your Tasting Appointments
Napa valley gets about 4 million visitors a year, and that is spread over about 400 wineries you are allowed to visit. Which could create a block from you visiting that one winery you wanted to experience. Our company offers tour planning for your trip which cuts out a lot of the stress. One way to get ideas of where you may want to go is to visit our Instagram page @napavalley_tours or @driverssidepodcast. I have shared and will be sharing many tasting experiences here and you can get a good idea of the type of experience you may want while visiting.
The fees can vary from winery to winery and you will need to come up with a budget. One winery tasting fee could range from $15 to $125 which could include a food pairing and a tour. I always suggest not to over book. It is not about quantity it is about a quality experience. Booking only one tour in a day is recommended since you will just be looking at more grape processing equipment when you may really just want to taste the wine and move on. When you do book a tour, make sure you find the most interesting place that offers something special, chocolate pairing, cave or Quad tour of the property. All these options are available in the different valleys all you need to do is ask and we can arrange that for you.
One way to offset the fees is to join the club or simply ask how much wine can I buy for a free tasting. I hosted a group and it was their last tasting of the day so they where a bit tipsy and not paying attention. I was in helping them gather up their things and the host came over with the tasting bill. It was $65.00 per person for 10 people, a whopping $650.00. I stopped and politely asked him if my clients could buy some wine. Yes and all they had to do was buy $200.00 in wine. So they where so happy they bought a few great bottles of wine for their dinner that evening and saved $450.00. It is these types of things that a good chauffeur can help you with while on the road.
You may be very surprised at the cost of the tastings but you also have to understand that tasting culture has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. I have seen random bus loads of people dropped in front of a winery with no warning, walk in and expect free wine. These party buses that would load people in San Francisco and having no knowledge of wine country just drove and dropped without calling and checking ahead of time. It is these types of situations that can ruin a day in our area and having knowledgeable people to help you make the most of your time here is worth the extra money you may spend with our private experiences.
Wineries are in the business of selling wine as well as offering you an experience. So most of Napa Valley and moving into Sonoma County wine regions have become appointment only for a lot of wineries for parties of 6 or more. So good planning is a great way to start your trip.
If you are already here and have some extra time, never be afraid to call a winery last minute. I have been surprised in the past how many will say yes to a last minute drop in appointment. Usually it is a slower time of year or someone happened to cancel an appointment.
Example of a good tasting plan:
10am First Winery
Plan on Minimum 1 hour for a sit down tasting, ask when booking how long then plan on the drive time between each stop. Also be sure to leave Time for photos purchases and chatting. I have noticed the larger the group the longer the tasting can take. If you are on a tight schedule let your driver and wine server know. They will do their best to keep you on schedules. They will try to be courteous to the next winery with their time management.
A few tips for making appointments
A. Make appointments at least a month in advance. Double check your times and dates. Especially if you have some must visits on your list.
B. Have a map and create a loop of wineries or start with the furthest one from your original destination and move closer to your hotel.
C. When booking your appointment you will need to give them a credit card and you will be charged even if you do not show up. There is a cancellation date given at the time of the booking so make sure you make a note of it.
The Reason is that it is really easy to just blow off your appointment and not show up especially toward the end of the day. So these wineries hold your spot, as well as open wine to breath before your arrival. Even if you do plan on cancelling a courtesy call to cancel is still proper etiquette, as well if you are running late for your scheduled appointment. If enough notice was given for the cancellation sometimes you may get a refund if they have a waiting list of people that can fill that space.
Most of the wineries in Napa Valley are only allowed a certain amount of people per day so if they get cancellations they still need to pay the staff for the time you where booked for.
D. Make sure you ask the length of the appointment. If it is 1 hour, plan on 1.25 hours. Add more time for larger groups. This time will get away from you easily and there are wineries that love to drag out your time and keep you there. But send your chauffeur in to let the tasting host know what time you will need to depart for the next tasting so there will be an urgency on their part to get you through the tasting and get the sales made. It takes time to process payments for 12 people joining the club or sending bottles to their home and you need to plan your time accordingly.
E. The drive time between wineries can be deceiving. You may look at a map and see a short distance between a winery in Napa and a winery in Sonoma, but the map may not show a mountain range be each location. I have had it brought up to me plenty of times that they notice it is only 15 miles away via Google mapping, but the mapping takes you over a switch back mountain road and that is not possible in most of our vehicles or the stomachs of the guests.
F. If you are having us prepare your appointment schedule for you it is helpful of you have possible answers to the following question. This way your tour planner can have an idea of the experience you are looking for while visiting.
Do I want larger well known wineries or a small boutique experience?
How much is too much for a bottle of wine?
Do I want a tour of the winery or just a tasting?
Do I need food in my day? Sit down restaurant or on the go food?
What are my favorite wines I would like to focus on? Whites/Reds?
Do I want more scenery then wine? Art Experience? Craft brewing?
How many people will be attending?
Any underaged in attendance?
Would you like, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Healdsburg, or other?
What is your budget per person for tasting fee per person?
Do you need pre arranged, coolers, ice, food, beverages or snacks?
What is your pick up and drop off locations?
Have you been here before?
If so, where have you been and do you want to revisit those locations?
This is something that can easily be taken care of for you. We have a number of optional add ons to our services to make your day the best.
a. We can put a cooler of ice on board if you bring your food.
b. We have bottles of water we can add to your bus.
I highly recommend having water for your guests. Staying
hydrated is essential to your experience. It is generally hot and
dry in our area and dehydration can cause lightheadedness,
dizziness and a serious hangover.
c. Food – Breakfast platters, lunch items, beverages, snacks.
d. Feel free to ask for anything you may feel you need for that day.
If you are planning on having a short stop somewhere to grab food you will be sadly disappointed in the valleys. There are only a few places scattered through the valleys and you will need to order ahead. You can always ask your chauffeur which place is closest your 10am – 11am winery appointment and have them pick it up while you are in your tasting appointment.
Example: I often start my day out with a look at my clients itinerary and see 6 hours of very tightly scheduled appointments. I ask them if they brought food or plan on eating somewhere in the valley. I am always concerned and also know that if I keep you fed and watered your experience that day and the next day will be much better. If I get the answer that they would grab something quick at Oakville Grocery or some of our other spots I will inform you that most days it can take you a good 15 mins just to get the food and will have you pull up a menu of a deli closest to your 11am appointment, place an order on the phone with your credit card then while you are tasting go and pick up the order for you. This is easy for us to do and are happy to assist you in making your day the best.
a. If you are presenting as inebriated they will not serve you more, even if you have a driver. And quite often ask you to leave the winery. Most times if you do have a winery they will come out and firmly reprimand us for bringing you there.
b. Make sure you arrive as close to on time as possible and if you are going to be late give them a courtesy call.
They have other clients lined up back to back and you may be bumped from your tasting if you are too late.
c. Most wineries are not allowed to let you picnic with your food on their property. There are permits needed for almost everything in these valleys, so make sure you follow the wineries rules when you are planning your trip.
d. If we pick you up in San Francisco and you have over an hour drive to your first winery you are welcome to pack up the beer and food. We will happily bring a cooler of ice for you upon request.
But when arriving at a winery all out side alcohol items stay on the bus. It goes in in the beginning and comes out at the end of your journey is a good rule to follow. They can get into a lot of trouble with outside food and beverages.
The thing is as a chauffeur we will hear about the infractions or our office will be called. They usually do not want to spoil your time and will make us the heavies at the rules involved. Our company has been in business for about 30 years and we are happy to make sure you are not embarrassed by these situations. We are happy to make sure your day runs as smoothly as possible.
e. Smoking on the properties is ok at some locations and not at others. California is becoming a very hard state to smoke in and you may need to ask the proprietor of the property where you may smoke. If they say there is no smoking on the property then please abide by that rule. If you do not see a place to throw your butt away have your chauffeur provide a water bottle half full and place all butts in there and take them off the property. They consider throwing the butts on the property littering.
f. Tipping is always a question that I get. From tipping us, the tasting room server to the bellman. Here is a rule of thumb. If they have exceeded your expectations, enjoy their job and work hard for you a reward is always wonderful but never expected. We all get paid for our jobs. If we have made the decision to be in the hospitality world then we have made it our job to create a wonderful experience for you. Not everyone is as good as their job as others.
I want to be as open and honest about this as possible. We do love tips. But we work hard for them. Our jobs are to create an experience for you. Not to be a part of your party but to keep you safe and protected, comfortable with our presence in your day and keep things flowing making it look like with little effort. These skills took time to hone and we make good tips on top of our gratuity to make things happen. This includes the tasting room person who tells the stories, makes you feel connected to the wine and handles everything with ease. You may want to thank them with a little bonus. No matter what you decide to do we love you coming to the valley, we still get paid and we love our jobs. So don’t stress and do what makes you comfortable. We will love you no matter what.
g. This is a little off topic of etiquette. But as chauffeurs we will always prepare our own meals for the day. Please do not feel the need to include us in your plans. It is always nice when you ask if we would like something. And 99% of the time we will decline. I have had the catering staff bring food to my vehicle and told the person in charge insisted we where fed. This is always so nice and it makes us feel like we are real people. But again it is not expected. Our job is to keep you safe and provide a very smooth ride to you and your guests.
h. Children and pets are a welcome but not everywhere. If you want to bring you dog wine tasting please do not leave your dog in a hot car or allow to walk on the hot pavement. We get very hot and dry here and it is really deceiving on how temperatures can affect your pets. You may show up to a winery thinking your furry bud will be welcome only to have your bud banished to the car.
There are places that children can go, but there are also a lot of wineries that do not allow them. If you plan on bringing your kids make sure they are welcome. Some of the wineries see places that serve alcohol is no place for a child.
I hope this will help you with your wine tour experience and feel free to contact us though the sales department or you can direct message me on our Facebook or Instagram Messaging.