Navigating Wine Country in 2016

So many choices…what does it really entail?

When visiting Napa or Sonoma travelers are faced with a major issue:
How do we get ourselves around safely and make proper choices of where to go amongst nearly 1,000 options for wineries?

I’d like to entertain various options for travelers while candidly pointing out the pros and cons of each, keeping in mind that there are several factors that go in to making this challenging decision. We’ll make no apologies for the fact that private touring services (such as Flex Wine Tours – FWT) and other private guides are by far the customer preferred form of touring, for the right group.

Entering in to our 7th full season taking care of thousands of would-be wine-goers, the one major underlying current of what we’ve discovered is that we know and do things that visitors would rarely discover on their own. There are so many nuances of navigating wine country, the casual visitor might not be fully aware of all the options. However, regardless of how you choose to get around, local knowledge here is more important than any destination location due to the nature of the wine, food and hospitality industry.

Let’s explore some options for getting around Napa and Sonoma:

Private Touring Services (SUV)
As with FWT, private guided tours offer the most flexibility, education, personalization and professionalism than any other type of service. It does come at slightly higher initial cost, but that cost is often offset with several key factors that travelers fail to recognize – waived (or reduced) tasting fees, extra wines, discounts, shipping services, concierge-type services, dining recommends, specialty services, touring efficiency & safety – just to name a few. Additionally, we offer numerous insights (i.e. insider locals’ knowledge) to all your other activities so you can make the most of your short time here. In working directly with customers in partnership with their specific needs, we can work within whatever parameters given us to meet most any budget…we can truly deliver more for less as needed in dedicated comfort. And, in a manner that parallels customer expectations of all that your special trip to wine country offers.

Limos or Town Car Services
These were great 15-20 years ago when there was somewhat a ‘cache’ to being in a Limo or some other ‘black’ vehicle and other options were limited. Limos are quite antiquated now (and frankly a bit dark and dreary) for seeing wine country in its best light. ¬†Additionally, Limos are often restricted as to where they can go now and you will see many signs that indicate ‘No Limos/Buses’ allowed. Plus, who wants to sit backwards or sideways after drinking all day…? Town Cars offer little (if any) personal space or conveniences that can make your trek around wine country most comfortable. Opt for the SUV or Limo Bus/Sprinter services either way.
*Note: Read the fine print with these services. They often charge exorbitant ‘service charges’ and/or other fees up to 35%. ¬†

We-drive-your-car Services
The first glaring issue with ALL of these services is that they are not formally licensed or governed by the same arm that private services have to abide by, the PUC (Public Utilities Commission). The PUC provides a TCP license to ‘For Hire’ transport services that then require proper insurance and reporting to the State of California along with DMV screened driver reports to make sure drivers have sound driving records. There is currently a big push for these services to fall in to some category as to assure customers that drivers are properly registered and insured to handle ‘For Hire’ transport services. The vast majority of these services are not properly insured or screened, and unfortunately it will require a major accident for the PUC to fully take some serious action. Hotels and concierges have already been put ‘on notice’ that they can be made responsible/liable if they recommend a service that is not properly insured. From a touring perspective, given there is no screening process and they just try to fill seats, you get random persons with random levels of experience and hence a very random level of overall service. You have to ask yourself – Do you want to risk the most important part of your trip to cram in to our own (rental) car with no regard to safety or personal comforts? Hmm….

Group Join-In Tours
These are great options for first-timers who do not care to make any personal choices of where to go or have any regard what kind of wines they prefer. It is also great way to meet people and make their time in wine country more of a party atmosphere. Count on it though that within a group of 10-15 people there will be someone (or several) who will not be able to handle their alcohol very well and it impacts the entire group for the rest of the day. In our experience, once people have done this type of tour day and gotten it out of their system they almost always opt for the more personalized or private experience next time out.

Uber is great for A-to-B service as an alternative to Taxis and getting around town after-hours, not so for wine tours…at all. We have encountered various people trying to navigate wine country using this method very unsuccessfully with very unqualified drivers. It is a bit of a running joke amongst guides as we watch people waste their day waiting around or being delivered to place that they did not realize was ‘appointment only’ then having to get another ride somehow to the next place. Plus, Uber drivers do not like to go far up valley where most wineries are located and they have a poor attitude about it. Not mention that the majority of Uber drivers servicing this area are not from Napa/Sonoma and have no idea where they are going or anything about wines whatsoever. Uber’s push in this area falls far short of the expertise you need to navigate wineries.

Driving Yourself
There is a reason this is last on the list and frankly the least viable option. Aside from the obvious ‘drinking and driving’ issue, wine country has been deemed the ‘most dangerous’ place to drive in CA. So even if not your fault, you will be breathalyzed and at risk. The average DUI charge here in Napa/Sonoma exceeds $10k. Even if someone in the ‘group’ is the ‘DD’, the amount of time wasted in trying to navigate and figure our who, what, where, how, etc…you could have done and seen things you would never know about that can impact your entire trip. And, have gotten insights for the rest of your trip that make it that much more enjoyable and resourceful for the next time out.

The bottom line is that you’ve spent all this time, effort and money to make your trip to wine country special. Why skimp on the most important part that will have the biggest impact on your overall trip? And, we could argue a myriad of other ways we’ll help you save money somewhere along the way during your trip with just our insights and guidance for the entirety of your stay here.

Napa and Sonoma are some of the most traveled and revered destination locations in the world. Go back home knowing you saw the best wine country has to offer. Who knows, you may or may not get this chance again…make the most of if while here.

James, Chief Wino & Guide