The Game Plan: Get to Napa Valley
The most traveled time of the year is harvest season, which is (*tada!*) right now - August through November. People want to get here to "experience" harvest. The second most traveled time of the year is May through July. So, incidentally, this is when all the rates for everything go up. My budget-friendly, thrifty suggestion: visit during the off-season - November through April. Now I know all the locals are cringing in their seats (as this is the rainy season), but there are some real pluses to coming to Napa during the off-season.
1) Lower rates, and in a down economy, this is quite important. You can save 40-50% more money on hotels, rental cars, even air fare (which may not be a 40% savings, but still... cheaper!). This gives you more money to buy wine or splurge on restaurants and activities.
2) It's the rainy season meaning that there is a lot of greenness. It's true that some days can be rainfall after rainfall after rainfall. But it's not always like that. There are breaks of sun. And one of the coolest things about the rainy season is that everything is green except the grapevines (which are in their dormant season). What is also beautiful during this season is the annual mustard growth. Yellows fill up the green valley and rolling hills. The fog settles in the valley throughout most of the morning, making the scenery quite romantic and enjoyable. Plus, there is no deathly hot temperatures to escape from on a daily basis, which you would encounter during the summer.
(Photo taken by Denise in February 2010 right outside of Yountville)
3) Napa is known for its Cabs (Cabernet Sauvignon blends, mostly), and what better time of the year to enjoy a deep, dark red than during the cooler months? Trust me, you'll enjoy them more in the cooler weather...
4) Most of the wineries keep up their outdoor holiday light displays through March. I found this weird at first, but after awhile, I kind of grew to like it. Why not enjoy the festivities and decoration during the months when the sun sets earlier? It gives the valley a bit more romance during an otherwise "gray" season. (It's still California - not like we're living under 10 feet of snow for 6 months!)
5) Most tasting rooms less foot traffic during the off-season, meaning you're more likely to have a personable experience if you are going wine tasting. This could be a plus all the way around!
6) San Francisco is only about an hour away from Napa, and actually, the best time of the year to see the city (I think) is when there is less fog in April and May. So if you're planning an additional city trip, thing about this time of the year as well!
If I haven't convinced you yet to come during the off-season, then come during the heavy travel times. Be aware that there will be more crowds, more traffic, usually hotter temperatures, and higher hotel rates, especially on the weekends. But at least you'll get to enjoy a piece of sunny California.
Where to Stay: My Favorite Budget Friendly Hotel
Sure, you could stay in luxury at Auberge de Soleil (http://www.aubergedusoleil.com/) - side note: I'm still trying to convince my Berks Countian father to splurge on a wedding here some day! Hahahaha...) - where you can spend well over $1500 a night (but it is luxury)... OR you could check out my favorite thrifty (yet classy) hotel: El Bonita (http://www.elbonita.com/Index2.html). During the off-season, rates are as low as $79 to $99 dollars a night! That is a STEAL in Napa Valley... no seriously, a steal! Busy season rates run from $119 to $279 a night depending on the room location. The plus side to El Bonita - it's right in the middle of Napa Valley on Highway 29, below St. Helena. This puts you in the perfect location if you are just planning a visit throughout the valley. Plus, they serve a very charming, Californian continental breakfast every morning. It's a cozy, magical little nook and cranny right in the heart of wine country.
Of course there are other thrifty choices: The Bestwestern Stevenson Manor Inn in Calistoga (http://www.stevensonmanor.com/), Embassy Suites in Napa (http://embassysuites1.hilton.com/en_US/es/hotel/NAPVLES-Embassy-Suites-Napa-Valley-California/index.do), and the Meritage Resort and Spa (http://www.themeritageresort.com/) just to name a few. For a list of more hotels, visit: http://napavalley.com/lodging/hotel_motel.html.