If you can stand the drab, rainy weather, January and February are the best times to visit California wine country. The region still has that romantic feel; you can still walk among the rows of vineyards -- albeit brown and bald -- and taste fantastic wines till you drop. Plane fares are cheaper; traffic isn't as bad; bed and breakfasts actually seem appreciative to see you; and wineries aren't overrun with mobs of tourist buses. Well, not as many.
There are plenty of reasons to visit wine country, my favorite being the ethereal feeling of being part of something passionate and real. I get pathetically misty-eyed and wistful when I see the dormant vineyards, resting and getting ready to produce another crop of grapes destined for my favorite beverage. And then there's the unlimited wine tasting. There are literally hundreds of wines available at more than 150 wineries, all vying for your attention -- but especially your money. Taste carefully, choose your wineries wisely, and you can have the best vacation of your life.
I don't normally spring for the B&B experience; instead I save money by staying at a chain hotel. When in Sonoma County, I opt for a central location like Santa Rosa. The Hilton Sonoma often has decent deals in winter -- I've paid as little as $100 a night (a deal in wine country). I rarely stay in Napa Valley, since my wine psyche belongs to the more down-to-earth, less commercial Sonoma region. That, of course, doesn't mean you shouldn't climb over the mountain to visit Napa -- what many people call America's wine mecca.
To keep my vacation going, I normally return home with at least one case of wine. Yes, my house is overrun with wine, but, like an addict on the Home Shopping Network, I can't help myself. And I'm super-choosy about what I schlep home.
If it's available where I live, why haul it? Besides, the wine is rarely cheaper at the winery than at Publix. I seek out the "tasting room only" wines -- the unusual, the rare. Another budget tip: If you can stand the anxiety of a possible break, don't pay the shameful shipping fees to mail wine home -- buy a shipper at the last winery you visit, find some packing tape, and check it on the plane. I've (knock on wood) never had a bottle break on me.
There are two different reasons to visit a winery: the wine and the experience. In Sonoma, the coolest wineries to visit for the beauty, people or uniqueness are Hop Kiln, located in an actual hop kiln (used for making beer); Ferrari-Carano, an absolutely gorgeous property, even in winter; Chateau Souverain, the closest to a Napa winery property, complete with the fabulous chateau; and the Kendall Jackson wine center, which has an amazing educational sensory garden. For a mixture of both unique and fantastic wine, Benziger Winery, a working biodynamic/organic winery, is kind of like Disneyland with its small tram that carts you around. For simply amazing wine in Sonoma, my must visits -- and where I load up on the best wine -- are: Cline Cellars, B.R. Cohn, Murphy Goode, Ridge, Locals Tasting Room in Geyserville, Family Wineries of Dry Creek, Hanna Winery, Preston of Dry Creek, and Simi Winery.
In Napa, I recommend Flora Springs, Milat, Beaulieu Vineyards, Chimney Rock, Markham, Miner, Mumm Napa, Rombauer and Sterling.
Merriam 2001 Russian River Windacre Merlot (California). Sweetness = 1. $28. This is not a wimpy Merlot, so quit the Sideways whining. Bright cherry and earthy cedar characterize this sultry sipper. Smooth, elegant and especially good with food. 4 stars.
Montaudon Brut. Sweetness = 3. $28. A moderately expensive French champagne with a sensation of slight sweetness on the tongue and a crisp, shy lemon/lime flavor. 3 stars.