By Matt Villano, on November 19, 2013

Napa and Sonoma in the offseason

California wine country in September and October is a sight to behold: Sunny days, chilly mornings, grape leaves changing colors, and wineries buzzing with the excitement of a season’s harvest. California wine country between November and February? Now that’s another story entirely. Restaurants are empty. Hotels are deserted. Tasting rooms are dead. Oh, and it rains a lot.


Most travelers prefer experiencing Napa and Sonoma for the busier season – an effort to bottle the experience of harvest for themselves. But as someone who lives in the area year-round, here’s a secret: visiting in late autumn and winter is the way to go, especially if you can’t deal with crowds.


During high season, scoring reservations at top restaurants in the area – places like French Laundry in Yountville, Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, and Morimoto Napa – is akin to scoring tickets to the Super Bowl. During late autumn and winter, however, it’s a cinch; you might even be able to call and snatch a table freed up by a last-minute cancellation.


Once you’re inside, you’ll find better deals and discounts toward the end of the year. Some places, such as the Farmhouse Restaurant in Forestville and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, offer seasonal prix-fixe menus as a way of attracting crowds.

Fried whole fish at Morimoto Napa

Other spots, such as Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, have locals’ discounts, most of which servers will extend to out-of-town visitors if you ask with a smile.


The hotel issue can work in your favor, too. While deals abound after Thanksgiving, the vibe at certain properties in Napa and Sonoma opens up, as well. Hotel Healdsburg, for instance, is infinitely less stuffy when the serious wine crowds clear out. The same can be said for Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, the Carneros Inn in Napa, and for Solage Calistoga. (Also, you’re much more likely to get free room upgrades in winter.)


Perhaps the biggest seasonal difference in Northern California wine country is in the tasting rooms. Sidle up to the bar in October and you’ll find yourself sandwiched between crowds of humans two or three people deep. After November 1, however, it’s a banner day if you’re not the only person in the tasting room.

Viewfinder Tip: After tasting at Medlock Ames, in Healdsburg, poke around back to sample a handcrafted cocktail from the prohibition-era saloon. The bar opens at 5 p.m.

Some of the benefits of a slow tasting room usually include extra pours, inside scoops from the people working the counter, and a relaxed environment that is conducive to enjoying more wine. Another benefit: in some cases, you might even meet the winemaker or winery owner.


In my family, we like to leverage this reality and spend late autumn and winter lingering at places we normally wouldn’t be able to visit at all. Some of our faves: Cakebread Cellars in Napa, Cuvaison in Napa, and (the creekside patio pads at) Truett-Hurst in Healdsburg. We also love visiting Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford, largely because they welcome young kids (and we often have ours in tow).


The bottom line: offseason in California wine country offers some of the best opportunities to experience the highly trafficked region like us locals do – when life moves on as normal. Don’t get me wrong; my home region is arguably one of the nicest travel destinations in America during just about any time of year. Still, it’s always nice not to have to fight for a parking spot.

What’s your favorite destination to visit in the offseason?