The empty road was flanked by neatly combed hillsides, which soared upwards like unfurled wings. Vine canopies – tinged with pink, maroon and gold – popped against the cornflower sky. There were few other guests in the tasting rooms, where I chatted to winemakers and lingered over generous pours of pinot noir.
Later, I backstroked lazily in my hotel pool, gazing at the shimmery outline of mountains beyond and wondering, not for the first time that day, where everyone was.
I had uncorked a hidden secret. And its name was Napa, California.
From late November, the majority of tourists have flown and the delights of wine country are left to the locals – plus a few savvy travelers looking to avoid the crowds.
It’s a similar story in neighboring Sonoma County.
And this year could be even quieter, as local businesses fear tourists may be slow to return following recent wildfires, which largely hit residential areas in the region. Businesses in Napa and Sonoma are urging tourists to come back, book holidays and drink more wine – which is pretty tough to argue with.
The landscape is still bucolic, the hotels are still luxurious and, yes, the wine is still very, very good. If that’s not enough, here are some other reasons to explore wine country during off-season:
Or at least, cheaper. From late November, hotels and tour companies drop to low-season rates, usually 10% to 20% cheaper. It’s also quieter, meaning less time in traffic and more time enjoying the wine.
You can be spontaneous, too, popping into wineries without prior appointments or booking a glorious sunrise balloon ride over the vines with Napa Valley Aloft – in high-season, tickets can sell months in advance. Even better, darker mornings mean the balloons launch later, so you can sleep in (sort of).
Crisp, clear days with a slight bite (more like a gentle nibble, really) to the air are definitely not a bad thing. Those used to sweltering summers will find it refreshing, and those fleeing harsh winters will find it positively balmy.
And while verdant vines accessorized with clusters of precious grapes are a bewitching sight, the transition through autumn into winter is pretty special too. The leaves darken to shades of burnished gold and garnet – the west coast’s answer to fall colors – and yellow mustard flowers bloom between the vines.
Later, the canopies are laid bare and skeletal, lending a stark and eerie beauty to the landscape. You can wrap up in your favorite winter woolens, too.
Big, bold reds
World-beating reds are sniffed out by wine collectors all year round but locals know that Cabernet Season is the loveliest time in the Napa Valley. From November through April, wineries offer imaginative food pairings (cabernet and bacon, anyone?), chefs serve heartier meals to pair with the wine, and the valley slows to a luxuriant pace.
Then there’s the Napa Truffle Festival, a long mid-January weekend of wine pairings, tastings and general earthy deliciousness from top truffle chefs, followed by special prix-fixe menus during Restaurant Week.
Where there is wine there is usually other lovely stuff, like spas. When the weather is chillier, being cocooned with steam, luxuriating in mineral pools and getting pleasantly pummeled by a masseuse seem more appealing and more necessary.
Close to downtown Napa, Spa Terre at the Meritage Resort is housed in an underground estate cave below a terrace planted with vines. Treatments use local lavender, grape seeds and mud enriched with wine.
Calistoga, at the northwestern tip of Napa Valley, has natural hot springs and isn’t afraid to use them. Retreat to the Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, a revamped motel with cool, camper-themed rooms. Hotel pools are fed by the springs and new MoonAcre Spa offers ‘Splish-Splash’ mineral soaks in its baby blue, claw-footed bathtubs.
You’re more likely to think rosé in the sunshine than footprints in the snow, but wine country knows how to do Christmas. Most towns host parades and twinkle with lights, with Yountville in Napa shining brightest. Holidays in Yountville runs for six weeks from November 20, with carriage rides, Christmassy movies, wreath-making classes, food-and-wine walking tours, and ugly sweater parties.