7 No-Fuss Wine Destinations Anyone Can Visit (and Enjoy!)
Wine-tasting can be a reasonably frugal activity, or it can be a very expensive one. If you are staying in a very popular area with a developed high-end tourist industry, like Napa, where hotels and restaurants are expensive, then your costs can rapidly skyrocket. Lodging and food in Napa will burn a hole in your pocket as quickly as tasting fees at celebrity wineries (which can be as much as $60). Luckily there are many lesser-known wine-producing areas in and near the US that still offer inexpensive tastings, unpretentious lodgings, and reasonably-priced food, not to mention delicious wines. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
Wine Tasting Basics
I prefer walk-in tasting rather than joining a wine tour, which allows you to explore little-known, smaller wineries that are off the beaten tour bus path. It also gives you the freedom to taste a few wines, take a break for a picnic or a walk, and taste a few more. (See also: 10 Affordable Wines for the Holidays)
A great way to save on food is to pack some good bread, salami, cheese, and pickles; the perfect counterpoint to a bottle of wine. Take the time to enjoy the area — I often visit just three wineries throughout the day and take time to hike and snap some photos. That way, I'm out just $15 to $30, but I've had a great day on vacation. And don't feel obliged to buy a bottle if you're trying to be frugal; just savor the experience.
If you love wine tasting, here are a few lesser-known wine destinations that won't break the bank. (See also: Frugal Vacations for the Whole Family)
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon's Willamette Valley is a large wine region stretching from Portland to Eugene. Although it is Oregon's largest wine-producing region, many wineries are still family-owned and run, and the Willamette Valley lacks (for the most part) the snobbishness and commerciality many have come to associate with Napa. In fact, it has been likened to Napa Valley 25 years ago. The Willamette Valley isn't known for its big reds — this cool-weather region focuses on pinot noir, pinot gris, and chardonnays, as well as sweeter whites, such as riesling and gewurztraminer, more than bold cabernets and zinfandels.
Larger wineries tend to charge more for tastings ($10-$15, which is often waived if you buy a bottle), but the smaller wineries further off the freeway often charge a more frugal $5 or offer free tastings. There are hundreds of wineries, so make a plan using the Willamette Valley Wineries website. You can find reasonably priced accommodation in any of the cities along the wine trail, from Portland to Eugene. (See also: 14 Affordable Weekend Getaways)
Sierra Foothills, California
Just a few hours' drive inland from Napa you'll find the Sierra Foothills wine country, what some call "one of California's best kept wine secrets." Less sophisticated restaurants (no French Laundry here) and more affordable lodging mean that if you're looking for a wine tasting experience in Northern California without the Napa prices, the Sierra Foothills are a good bet. Zinfandel, cabernet, and syrah are popular grapes grown here as well as many other varieties.
The scenery is outstanding, and if you're headed for Yosemite National Park, tasting the wines in the nearby historic "Gold Country" (site of the Gold Rush) is a great complementary experience. Since this area is off the beaten path, you'll find a lot of cute B&Bs and independent inns rather than chain hotels. (See also: Reasons to Travel Off the Beaten Path)
San Luis Obispo County, California
Within the Central Coast wine-producing region of California, Santa Barbara may be the most well-known wine-tasting area (popularized in the movie Sideways), but just an hour north of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo county is a huge wine-producing area with more down-to-earth prices. A host of small, family-owned wineries line the coast from Arroyo Grande to Atascadero, and up to Paso Robles.
San Luis Obispo county has a wide variety of climates with an accompanying wide variety of grapes. Paso Robles has the warmest temperatures on the Central Coast, which produces intense, award-winning cabernets, as well as zinfandels, syrahs, merlots, and other Rhone varieties. For example, the wildly popular and affordable $12 merlot by J. Lohr is produced in Paso Robles (and the winery offers free tastings). Meanwhile, Arroyo Grande has cooler temperatures and produces delicate pinot noir (my favorite is Laetitia Winery right off Hwy 101).
The coastal scenery is one of this area's many draws. Pristine beaches, craggy cliffs, and sweet towns line the coast, perfectly complementing the region's delicious wines.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
If you're visiting Niagara Falls, or if you live in New York or in Southern Ontario, the Niagara-on-the-Lake wine region is a worthwhile trip. The village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, located where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, is known as one of the most picturesque towns in Ontario. There are a wide variety of wineries to visit in the vicinity, from larger corporate wineries to small family-run, organic and sustainable wineries. Often tasting is free, or the $5 to $10 fee is waived if you purchase a bottle — and you might want to do so if you find something you like, as many of these wines cannot be found in big box stores. Many tastings may include a tour of the winery as well.
The soils in this area, formed by the the recession of Lake Ontario, offer a distinctive terroir you will not find anywhere else. Pinot noir, chardonnay, and cool-weather red blends are the local specialty, as well as cool-weather whites such as riesling and gewurztraminer. This is one of the best places to get ice wine and late-harvest wines.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a tourist destination, so there is a good selection of hotels at reasonable rates as well as cute little B&Bs. If you are staying in nearby glitzy Niagara Falls, just a half-hour drive away, you'll find a wide variety of reasonably-priced hotels. If you don't want to cross the border into Canada, there is a small wine trail on the US side of the border as well, known as the Niagara Wine Trail USA.
Finger Lakes, New York
If you're a fan of riesling, you'll probably love a visit to the Finger Lakes wine country in New York State. The cool lake country, which specializes in white wines, has been compared to the Rhine River Valley wine growing region of Germany. With over 100 wineries, it is one of the largest wine producing regions in the US outside of California. As a bonus, you can gaze out at the gorgeous Finger Lakes while you enjoy your wine.
The Finger Lakes are a popular destination, so there is a range of accommodation ranging from frugal motels to upscale hotels. If you're looking to save on lodging while enjoying the great outdoors, there is also the option of camping in one of the area's many campgrounds.
The Western Slope, Colorado
Colorado isn't just a destination for skiing and hiking. If you're up for a change in pace, the Western Slope area of Colorado is an emerging wine region that has seen an explosion in wine production in the past few decades. This unstuffy, family-friendly wine region offers the highest altitudes of any wine region in the US. The area has stunning scenery, with views of vineyards set against majestic mountains, as well as fresh local produce and charming hotels. Find very affordable accommodation in the wine country towns of Grand Junction or Palisade. (See also: How to Save on Travel Accommodations)
Tastings are affordable with many wineries offering tastings for $5 or less, and prices for bottles in this up-and-coming area are very reasonable, too. The high desert climate in this area is suitable for growing a variety of white grapes, but there are also large plantings of merlot, syrah, and pinot noir.
Hill Country, Texas
The Hill Country around Fredericksburg, Texas, is another emerging wine region that has been producing excellent wines in the last few years and doesn't yet have the high prices of more established wine regions like Napa. There is plenty of reasonably-priced accommodation and restaurants in the historic town of Fredericksburg and there are several wineries within a short drive of the city. On Saturdays there is also a free wine shuttle from downtown Fredericksburg that takes you to several wineries so you can imbibe without worrying about driving. Tastings cost between $5 and $15 and often include a free glass. Many wineries also have tasting rooms downtown.
The landscape is reminiscent of Italy's vineyards and lends itself to Mediterranean varieties like syrah and tempranillo, but of course with distinctive Texas flair. If you've always wanted to enjoy BBQ with your wine tasting, this is the place.
There are many other little-known wine regions around the country that the limited scope of this article cannot do justice to. With wine tasting becoming an increasingly popular pastime for many Americans, emerging wine regions abound and there are sure to be some near you. Going to your local wine producing area is one of the best ways to go wine tasting on a budget, with the added benefit of supporting local vintners.
What is your favorite place to go wine tasting? How do you do it frugally?