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When Anika Steig and Gordon Wilson got married at Healdsburg’s Arista Winery in June, planner Corina Beczner not only conjured their dream wedding, but she unknowingly made one of their guest’s dreams come true.
Steig recalls an interaction with a family friend during the reception, which was held amid oak trees with a view of the vines in the distance: “As we were greeting people at their tables, she said, ‘I’m so happy to be here. I’ve always wanted to have dinner outside in an oak grove.’ It was actually on her bucket list.”
The magical backdrop was one of the main reasons the San Francisco couple selected Arista for their nuptials, and Wine Country in general held plenty of appeal as a destination. Of course, Steig and Wilson are hardly alone in this thinking.
The Wedding Report found that in 2017, Napa County was the site of 1,808 weddings at an average cost of $36,801. Sonoma County tallied 3,347 weddings with an average price tag of $34,530. Beczner, who runs Vibrant Events, a sustainability-minded planning company out of Sonoma, estimates that couples can expect to spend at least $60,000 for 140 guests.
As with any locale, there are key things to know before committing to a wedding in Wine Country. For starters, due to a nearly 30-year-old ordinance barring wineries from hosting events unrelated to marketing, only four wineries in Napa County are allowed to host weddings: Charles Krug Winery, V. Sattui Winery, Merryvale Vineyards and Beringer Vineyards — all of which are located in St. Helena. (Hans Fahden Vineyards, which is also permitted, has a Napa mailing address, but is physically located in Sonoma.)
While Sonoma offers dozens of winery wedding venues, the two counties have shared characteristics worth bearing in mind regardless of which is on your short list. Here, we’ve rounded up pointers for those embarking on the planning process.
Grape Expectations: The Wine
Not surprisingly, when a winery hosts a wedding, it typically wants only its wine served. Hence, for Steig and Wilson, in addition to the grounds, Arista Winery’s viticultural offerings became a priority.
“We went to a couple of other places where the venue was beautiful, but the wine was so-so,” says Steig, whose guest list drew heavily from her native Pacific Northwest. “We really didn’t like the idea of having people come from out of state, expecting to experience California Wine Country, and then not like the wine.”
According to event planner Jenna Lam, whose firm has offices in Napa and Marin, “A lot of the winery permits don’t allow them to have hard liquor, so they can only serve beer and wine,” she says. “That’s another thing that could surprise people, and is something to ask about.”
A Very Important Date: Scheduling
To avoid insane amounts of traffic and demand-driven exorbitant hotel rates, if possible, steer clear of dates that overlap with major events in the area. For example, the weekend of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, an annual NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway that attracts tens of thousands of fans, probably isn’t a great time to host a wedding nearby. (In 2019, the race is slated for June 21 to 23.) For information on upcoming events in each county, check the local visitors bureaus at www.SonomaCounty.com and www.VisitNapaValley.com.
Checking In: Hotels
While both counties offer more than 100 choices at varying levels, Napa is home to a greater number of high-end resorts, like the five-star Auberge du Soleil, Las Alcobas, Meadowood and Solage. But, Beczner points out, there is a Motel 6 in Napa — although, like many of the places in Wine Country, it requires a two-night minimum stay, she says.
Special event or not, though, lodging in Wine Country can cause out-of-towners sticker shock. STR Global reported earlier this year that the average daily rate in May in Sonoma was $192.72; in Napa, it was $366.08.
While Beczner has been able to negotiate block rates at the major hotel chains (with discounts between 10 and 15 percent), the boutique hotels are usually a challenge. “They’re charging $700 for a room in downtown Healdsburg because they know they can get it,” she says.
Suggesting that guests stay a bit farther out can keep travel expenses lower. For example, the rate at the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa may be a couple hundred bucks, and it’s approximately 20 minutes from Healdsburg. In recent years, more of Beczner’s clients have been turning to VRBO and Airbnb, too.
Volume Control: Music
Both Napa and Sonoma ban amplified music outdoors after 10 p.m. (Even the BottleRock music festival has to abide by this curfew.) As a result, some couples opt for an alfresco ceremony followed by an indoor reception that can go late into the night.
Others, including Lam, prefer an open-air ceremony and reception, then continue the celebration elsewhere with an after-party (another line item in the budget!). After their tented wedding on a friend’s property in Rutherford, Lam and her now-husband “moved everybody over to Merryvale’s Cask Room to have a dance party with a DJ,” she says. “Since a lot of our friends are not from here and had never been to Napa, we wanted an experience that was uniquely Napa. It was super dramatic and a really fun time.”
The Ride Stuff: Transportation
With guests at a Wine Country wedding likely raising a glass or two, coordinating transportation for them is strongly advised. To protect their grounds, some sites, such as Annadel Estate Winery, restrict private cars from their property.
“There’s a lot of environmental impact — people (driving) on and off,” Beczner explains. “It’s not just the wedding guests. It’s the rentals; the lighting, tenting and restroom companies.” Local transportation firms often charge a minimum, which means paying for four to five hours of service is not uncommon.
The Heat Is On: Weather
“People think about rain plans, but they don’t always think about heat or sun plans,” Lam says. “That’s something we talk about more and more.” In September, an especially popular month for weddings, the average temperature in Napa is 83 degrees, while Sonoma averages 87 degrees.
Lam adds that the lack of available shade at a venue can be a deterrent. But if a couple falls in love with a place, there are a range of ways to combat the heat — from providing guests with parasols (a reasonable cost) to building a shade structure over the ceremony spot (a significant cost).
Timing is Everything: Picture Perfect
Once the date has been finalized, consider scheduling the timing of the ceremony, happy hour and reception to accommodate photos around sunset. “I think the best sunsets happen in Wine Country,” says Beczner. (It’s easy enough to search online for the sunset time on a particular date for a specific location.)
“We take the couple into the vineyard and there’s just this golden light,” she says. “It’s absolutely breathtaking and gives me chills every time I experience it. It’s pretty much unbeatable.”