Thanks to generally good weather year-round, California's Napa and Sonoma Valleys welcome visitors throughout the year. But if you want a genuinely idyllic wine country experience, the best time to visit is in the late summer and early fall—roughly late August through mid-September—when vines are still weighed down by massive clusters of grapes and wineries are aflutter with harvest activity. The days are still plenty long, with warm, sunny days and cool nights.
Harvest Time in Napa and Sonoma
Peak tourist season in Napa and Sonoma also coincides with harvest season. While harvest season variers year-by-year due to weather and other factors, most wineries start picking grapes in August and continue through October. While visiting at this time of year is ideal, simply because of great weather and an abundance of activities, wineries are much busier, and you can expect to see higher rates for accommodations, increased traffic, and more massive crowds at tasting rooms and vineyards.
Fire Season in Wine Country
Fires are an increasing threat throughout California, and both Sonoma and Napa have been subject to large-scale blazes over the past several years. Wildfires are most common in the late fall and winter when dead vegetation and high winds can quickly spark flames. In late 2019, the Kincade Fire burned nearly 80,000 acres of land in Sonoma County. While most grapes had been picked at this time, the fires did burn one winery, as well as countless homes, but still affected a relatively small area of the region.
With California's wine country drawing more than 20 million visitors each year and employing 325,000 people, winemakers worry that the threat of fire will keep visitors away. In all reality, it shouldn't. Even after the fires, most of the surrounding wineries, tasting rooms, hotels, and other businesses were open as usual.
Spring in Napa and Sonoma can be variable, with a mix of rainy and sunny days, but overall, this is a beautiful time of year to visit—as long as you don't mind bare vines. At this time of year, the vineyards are just sprouting their first shoots, which is called "bud break." Temperatures are typically in the 60s and 70s F, with nights cooling to the mid-40s and 50s F.
Events to check out:
- The Napa Valley Marathon takes place each year in March, running 26.2 miles from Napa to Calistoga.
- BottleRock is a large music festival held each year in Napa. Typically held in late May, BottleRock draws large crowds and hotels and accommodations book up quickly.
- Kendall-Jackson's farm-to-table dinner series kicks off in early May. These open-air feasts are held in the stunning gardens at the Kendall-Jackson Estate gardens and feature a curated menu from winery's culinary team, master gardener, and winemaker. They're held throughout the spring, summer, and fall but sell out quickly.
Summertime in Wine Country means bright, sunny, and long days. Vineyards are typically lush and green by this point, and crowds and traffic can be intense. Even though wineries aren't quite as active as they are during harvest, there's still plenty of activity as winemakers groom their vines and keep an eye out for the first clusters of grapes starting to form. Harvest of grapes for sparkling wine can kick off as soon as August some years. Rain is rare during the summer months, and temperatures are usually quite warm—with daily highs in the mid-80s F and sometimes even higher.
Events to check out:
- Festival Napa Valley is held each year in mid-late July and celebrates the region's wine, food, and lifestyle.
- Music in the Vineyards is a popular summertime event that involves chamber music played in intimate winery settings. The series runs throughout August.
- Many vineyards hold their own special events throughout the summer, ranging from yoga to film screenings to picnics. Check Visit Napa Valley or Sonoma County Tourism for comprehensive calendars.
Fall in wine country is prime time for harvest and other activities, but tasting rooms can be crowded as visitors flock to the region to see fall colors and ripe grape clusters on the vines. Most of the actual harvest takes place under cover of night, to keep the grapes cool, but many wineries host special events, including blending seminars and in-depth tours. Temperatures fluctuate throughout the fall, with some stretches in September seeing high temperatures well into the 80s F, and lows dipping into the 40s F at night. This is mostly a dry season, with minimal rainfall.
Events to check out:
- Schramsberg, a producer of famous sparkling wines, hosts a hands-on, immersive camp during harvest season. Regardless of wine expertise, "campers" are invited to participate in the wine-making process from start to finish.
- The Napa Valley Film Festival takes place in November and celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2020. While it's smaller than other big names, the festival still draws a large contingent of celebrities and top-class films.
- Jordan Winery, in Healdsburg, holds a series of popular harvest lunches throughout the fall. Centered around a theme and often drawing on family recipes from the winery's staff, these multi-course outdoor meals are paired with the winery's award-winning cuvées.
- The Sonoma Harvest Music Festival is held in late September and draws top musicians to this laidback destination. Past performers include Chvrches, the Avett Brothers, and Death Cab for Cutie.
Winter can be a great time to visit Napa or Sonoma. All the crowds associated with harvest are gone and, while the vines are now bare until the following year, the lack of people means that you'll find empty tasting rooms and peaceful tours. As a bonus, California's winter weather is still much milder than many other destinations. While this is the rainiest time of the year, temperatures often still hover in the 50s and 60s F. Olive oil harvest takes place in November and December and, if you visit in February, you'll likely catch sight of the vibrant yellow mustard flowers blooming throughout the valleys.
Events to check out:
- Napa Valley Restaurant Week is held in late January and offers discounted menus at some of the area's top restaurants.
- In December, the quaint Napa Valley town of Calistoga holds a festive lighted tractor parade down its main street.
- Santa Rosa hosts a handmade crafts fair each year, bringing in more than 90 local vendors and artisans from throughout the region. There is also live entertainment and snacks for purchase.
- Winter is a great time to lace up your boots and hit the trail! The 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Sonoma County is among the best places to see California's dramatic, towering redwoods.