If you love sipping a perfect pinot on a sunny, 75-degree August day in California’s wine country, you’re far from alone. Literally. Because one unwelcome addition that idyllic day is practically guaranteed to come along with? Hundreds of other people — all vying for the same wine-tasting seats, the same coveted hotel rooms, and all waiting in the same endless lines for brunch at Bouchon. Over-touristed travel is rarely fun, and in the middle of a pandemic, it can feel downright dangerous. The good news: There is a way to do wine country without the crowds.
According to the Napa Valley tourism bureau, the area welcomes about 3.85 million visitors per year, the majority of whom come through during the area’s busiest (and sunniest) months, from summer to early fall. Luckily, as wise travelers will tell you, high season isn’t the only season — in wine country or elsewhere.
Besides, there are now more wineries in Northern California than ever before (3,600 by our count) which means there’s absolutely no need to elbow your way into the handful of uber-popular ones — at least not until post-omicron. All you need is a bit of planning and a little trust in the knowledge that when it comes to wine country, taking the road less traveled will truly make all the difference.
Plus, there’s no time like the present — that is, the post-holidays winter season, from January through early March — to experience the best and most peaceful version of Northern California’s wineries.
Think outside the Napa box.
Yes, Napa is central to California wine culture. But said culture is a robust and varied one, and it’s far from a one-town market. Napa city proper is usually the most crowded — and can be the most expensive — choice on the map, so instead, seek out a unique experience by heading to the more laid-back (but still wine-centric) locales of Healdsburg, Yountville, and Sonoma.
On a recent wintry visit to wine country, I was pleasantly surprised — shocked, even — by the striking balance of chill and chic to be found in all three of these towns when they’re at their emptiest. Especially after past trips to experience the typical summertime wine country (you know, the most basic version: tipsy in a shared rental limo zipping across Napa with a bunch of friends), I had no idea what I’d been missing: namely, wandering hushed riverside vineyards and quaint downtown streets — alone.
I started in Sonoma, Napa’s slightly sleepier sister city; my first evening in town was spent at a bar with a sign reading, “Napa: Get off your high horse — sincerely, Sonoma.” Said bar is the on-site cocktail hub of The Lodge at Sonoma, an Autograph Collection property. The hotel lives up to its motto, “heritage uncorked,” with ample wine programming — including on-site tastings and a “pedal for pinot” project that lets you meander through local wineries on a bike — as well as design and decor that’s firmly rooted in Sonoma’s history as a Mexican mission. Rooms are situated casita-style, with separate entrances for each, among leafy walkways and an ancient oak.
As for downtown Sonoma, a short (free!) shuttle ride from The Lodge, the town center is always adorable, but particularly so in the sleepier season, when you can easily pop in and out of urban tasting rooms Roche, Auteur, and more, without having to jostle for a spot. Cap off your day with dinner at elegant but laid-back French eatery The Girl and the Fig. Go for the delectably simple radish appetizer and flounder meunière; stay for Geoff the uncannily knowledgeable server who truly belongs on the stage. Or at least on his own YouTube channel.
Napa’s northern neighbor, Yountville, is perhaps best known as the town with the most Michelin stars per capita in North America. A relatively unsurprising feat, mind you, given Yountville’s tiny (less than 3,000) population stacked against its two Thomas Keller restaurants — the aforementioned ever-busy Bouchon as well as The French Laundry.
But Yountville is more than a high-end foodie’s paradise, particularly in the off season. Sure, you’re more likely to get a reservation at one of Keller’s restaurants on a random weeknight in January, but again, the popular spots can feel overrated — particularly wallet-wise. If you need a break from the tried-and-true (and expensive), fancy Yountville seems like it might lack options. But you just need to know where to look.
In fact, perhaps my most perfect evening in January wine country involved a stroll down the largely deserted but festively lit Yountville main drag to get to a standalone Mexican-owned taco truck on the edge of town. Tacos Garcia, operated by owner Gabriel Garcia and his family, is licensed by the city of Yountville to operate from a parking lot, slinging delicious tacos for just $1.50 apiece. That’ll spare you plenty of cash for a glass of wine (or four) at the glam and cavernous RH Wine Vault on the walk back to your hotel.
And speaking of hotels, there’s no better place to stay in town than Hotel Villagio, part of the 22-acre Estate at Yountville property. Hotel Villagio, like The Lodge at Sonoma, offers outdoor-entrance joined rooms, so there’s no cramming into elevators or dodging fellow patrons in hallways. Its elegant but accessible accommodations include working in-room fireplaces and a seriously delicious daily breakfast that leaves most hotel buffets behind.
The last, and perhaps chillest of all, stop on my hiding-from-humans-in-wine-country tour was Healdsburg, an hour’s drive north of Yountville — a micro-road trip that passes dozens of wineries on the way, so feel free to stop around at your leisure.
Hotel-wise, the new go-to in town is the Montage Healdsburg (you may have heard about the luxe addition’s over-the-top astro-tourism package). Hotel Trio is another local favorite, and for downtown accommodations, Harmon Guest House is a beautiful — and eco-friendly — option.
But perhaps your best bet for a stellar experience without the crowds is just outside Healdsburg in Forestville: Stay at the gorgeous family-owned Farmhouse Inn, and you can get your own idyllic cottage with easy access to all of the property’s upscale amenities, from the Michelin-starred farm-to-table restaurant that put the inn on the map to a spa whose welcoming, curated atmosphere feels authentic, not cheesy. Also on offer are local sommelier-led wine experiences, complimentary lobby bars for both hot chocolate and artisanal bath products, and rooms that make escaping the crowds easy — because you never want to leave.
Like Sonoma, Healdsburg is home to a cute downtown plaza that manages to be both full of life and far from the crowds, at least for winter visits. Start your day with phenomenal French toast — pain perdu for the traditionalists — at Costeau Bakery, or locally roasted coffee and a violet-laden cashew butter tartine at Black Oak Coffee Roasters. And for dinner you cannot do better than Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar for cocktails, wine, winter fish options galore (the lobster roll is otherworldly).
Unsurprisingly, Healdsburg is actually becoming celebrated for its off-the-beaten-path status. It “offers visitors a beautiful sense of small-town charm that might not be found in other similar California wine communities,” explains Brooke Ross, member of the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District (HTID) and director of sales and marketing at Hotel Trio. “The scale of Healdsburg’s downtown plaza and its surrounding neighborhoods make it feel very intimate, with a palpable energy and walkability — there is an ease of connection for both locals and visitors.”
She adds that “Healdsburg is one of a few wine country towns that make it easy to enjoy a full day of wine tastings, art galleries, shopping, and innovative culinary offerings without ever having to get in a car” — not quite the same as sprawling, vineyard-scattered Napa Valley itself.
If you do have a car on hand, though, it’s worth the 30-minute drive to see the breathtaking — and uncrowded, this time of year — coastal redwoods in Armstrong Woods. You can even hire hike guide and health coach Karen Austin of HealthStarts2Day for a curated woodsy experience; Austin knows these trails like the back of her hand and is a pro at steering clear of the heavily trafficked times and places.
Timing is everything.
The secret formula: winter + weekdays. In addition to planning your wine country visit for the cooler-weather “off” (but still very much on-trend) season, avoiding weekends can get you prime spots for wine tastings and chef’s tasting menus alike.
“Weekdays are a must,” advises Nicole Hinchliffe, aka the Wine Country Mama. But she points out that “some wineries and restaurants take Mondays and Tuesdays off, so you must plan accordingly.”
And don’t get spooked by those potential off-season temperatures; you’re not going to freeze. Both Napa and Sonoma Counties only dip down to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit in January, with highs of 58 or so. By March, you’ll be seeing sunny skies and highs of 67.
Winter is “an absolutely great time to visit the Sonoma wine country,” agrees Joe Bartolomei, owner of the Farmhouse Inn. “The scenery and landscape is beautiful, and you don’t have to deal with the crowds. The wineries are eager to see you, you get all kinds of special attention.”
Healdsburg’s Ross concurs, noting that “one of the best-kept secrets of California wine country is to visit between winter and spring. After harvest and the always-busy wedding season, things tend to slow down quite a bit and travelers are able to get a real behind-the-scenes look at the destination.”
Of course, your best bet for a behind–the-scenes look is to “visit the mom and pop shops,” urges Hinchliffe. “Big, famous wineries are nice, but there’s nothing better than visiting a small winery and having the winemaker and their family host you. Visit and support the smaller, eclectic wineries rather than just going by Yelp 5-star populars.”
Some top options for uncrowded indie wineries include Talty Vineyards, Hanna in the Russian River Valley, and my personal favorite, Truett Hurst, a local leader in biodynamic winemaking that is taking holistic farming to a new level. Here, fourth-generation vintner Paul Dolan (official title “partner, founder, and CEO,” unofficial title “wise winemaking wizard”) is helming something of a sustainable wine revolution — from converting 70 grape acres to certified biodynamic and regenerative, to growing horsetail on-site that he mixes into organic bug repellent for the grapevines.
Slow travel has its perks.
On a slow day in the vineyards, you’ll be surprised what delights lie in wait — that you’d likely miss if you were among the crowds whizzing from major winery to major winery in the high season. At JR Richards winery in Cloverdale, they’ll “pour you vintages that are not available to the public if it’s a slow day,” says Hinchliffe, “and let you lounge in the courtyard area to oversee their Alexander valley vineyards.”
As for my own slow-travel wine country journey, my family and I closed out an evening at Truett Hurst with a tasting that was private, outdoors, and heated — the COVID-era traveler’s dream. It was a damp, chilly day and we largely had the vineyard to ourselves. My son hobnobbed with the resident goats while we dove into a cheese board laden with local goodies alongside Truett-Hurst’s signature zinfandel and an aged sparkling rosé, neither of which are sold anywhere else in the world.
As the sun set and Paul kindly dazzled us with his wine wisdom (something tells me he doesn’t quite have the time to do this in, say, June) I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to consider visiting wine country in the winter. I think I’m officially an off-season convert for good.