A land of sunshine, grapevine-covered hills and more wineries than you could ever dream of, California Wine Country beckons wine lovers from all over the globe with its laid-back West Coast charm. 

That said, a little planning goes a long way when it comes to traveling to this wine wonderland. Here are our tips to help you maximize your time and money in one of California’s most popular destinations. 

Merlot grapes on vine in vineyard; California wine country
Follow these tips for the best experiences in California wine country © Sherri R. Camp / Shutterstock

Winery tasting and tour reservations 

Reservation policies differ at almost every winery; some allow walk-ins while others require appointments in advance. We recommend booking reservations when possible even when they aren’t required, especially on weekends when the valley lights up with activity.

Wineries usually have tours a few times each day, with the last tour running around 3:30 or 4:00pm, so keep this in mind when planning which wineries you want to tour versus the ones where you simply want to enjoy a tasting. Tasting reservation windows usually run a bit later in the day. 

It can be tempting to rush around to as many wineries as you can fit into your itinerary, but we recommend taking it slow and truly enjoying each location – nobody likes feeling rushed through their glass of wine. Tastings usually take around an hour and a half, especially if there is a tour included, and can stretch longer if you’re enjoying the setting. 

Rows of stacked barrels in a stone cellar, a common way of aging wine in California wine country
Inside a cellar at a Napa winery © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Traveling with a group 

Restaurants and wineries in wine country are not keen on splitting checks for groups, and things can get a bit crazy when it comes to organizing finances after a day full of meals and wine tastings. We recommend using a bill-splitting app like Splitwise, which has incredible versatility when it comes to entering payments and settling up. Users can create groups, assign costs to specific individuals within that group and easily pay using Venmo at the end of the trip. Other bill-splitting apps include Settle Up and Splittr

Vacation rentals in wine country

Vacation rental companies like AirBnB and VRBO are hugely popular across the United States, and California is no different. However, Napa Valley instituted laws in 2016 reining in vacation rentals, and properties have to register with and be approved by the local government; a public list details all the addresses in Napa that are legally operating as vacation rentals. That said, homeowners are still hosting plenty of unregistered AirBnB options, but as a traveler, be aware not every listing is legal. Sonoma’s policies are more lax than its neighbor.

Rows of grapes under a blue sky in California wine country
Rows of grapes in Napa © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Transportation hacks 

Drinking wine all day is bound to lead to a buzz. Designated drivers are your best bet for safe, responsible exploration of wine country, but there are plenty of other options should all members of the group want to partake. 

Ride services like Uber and Lyft frequent the valley; share costs with friends and hop along from winery to winery without worry. The area is not big – Napa Valley is only about 30 miles from top to bottom – so rideshare costs remain reasonable.

California wine country also has plenty of driving services to help visitors travel safely from destination to destination – try Beau Wine Tours or Magnum Tours.

Owner of Bella Winery in Dry Creek Valley sampling a red Sonoma zinfandel.
When you find a bottle you want to take home, there are a few things you should consider © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

Should I buy a bottle? Tasting fees and bottle shipping

Wineries offer wine tastings in the hope their visitors will buy a bottle (or several) after its conclusion, and tastings in wine country aren’t free, generally running around $35-45 dollars. Some wineries will waive tasting fees if you buy a bottle, while others require more of a commitment (a multiple-bottle purchase, or a wine-club membership). Always ask about the policy, because it’s generally not advertised. 

If you do find that perfect bottle of cabernet sauvignon you’d like to bring home, it’s often more budget-friendly to take the wine with you rather than having the winery ship it. Shipping services like Buffalo Shipping Post in Napa specialize in wine and offer special insulated boxes and insurance to protect against breakage and loss. If you are a US resident, be aware some states don’t allow direct shipments of alcohol; make sure you can send your bottles home before purchasing.

If you only have a few bottles and are taking to the skies to make it home, checking a bag is also an option. However, wine is more likely to break and most airlines now charge checked-bag fees, so compare shipping fees with bag fees and make the call that’s best for you.

Finding deals in California wine country

California wine country isn’t exactly a budget destination, but you can find some savings along the way. If wine is your thing and you envision returning to the valleys in the future, a wine club membership at your favorite winery could be a good option. Generally, memberships afford perks like free tours and tastings, as well as discounts at sister properties. 

Other cost-savers include apps like Winery Finder, which offer 2-for-1 deals at more than 100 wineries after you get through a $10 paywall. 

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