October is the perfect month to visit California Wine Country. Napa Valley, only about 90 minutes from San Francisco, is at its vintage best then, when the grapes are being pressed and the wineries are in full production. If you can't go in the fall then wait until spring, when the mustard flowers are in full bloom. Winter promises the best rates and smallest crowds, but also chilly days and the threat of rain.
Whenever you go, keep in mind that buying wine at the source doesn't mean you save money. In fact, it's usually the other way around. You'll probably end up spending more at a winery than at some supermarket that buys wine in bulk by the case. Your best bet is to make a list of your favorite wines as you tour around and then purchase them when you get home. If your favorite is available only locally, head for the Safeway in St. Helena--as locals know, the Safeway has an enormous selection and some of the best deals. The St. Helena Mailing Center (1241 Adams St. at Highway 29; 707/963-2686) will pack and ship wine anywhere in the U.S.
And don't just make a day of it, you really should try to spend at least one night in any number of charming inns and B&Bs. Frommer's wonderful California Wine Country recommends the following moderately-priced places to stay:
- Wine Country Inn (St. Helena; 707/963-7077)
- The romantic Deer Run B&B (St. Helena 800/843-3408)
- White Sulphur Springs Retreat and Spa (St. Helena; 707/963-8588)
- Cottage Grove Inn (Calistoga, 800/799-2284)
- El Dorado Hotel (Sonoma; 800/289-3031)
- Glenelly Inn (Glen Ellen, 707/996-6720)