Robert Louis Stevenson called it "bottled poetry." Ben Franklin called it "proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy." But in here Northern California, we just call good wine "a way of life." The region immediately surrounding San Francisco is blessed with endless rows of lush vineyards, innumerable wineries, and plenty of friendly folks ready to share their knowledge of local viticulture with visitors.
Unfortunately, California's authentic "wine country experience" can seem just out of reach for San Francisco visitors on a budget: if you can't rent a car to drive to Sonoma or Napa, or splurge on a guided vineyard tour, you've traditionally be out of luck. But over the last few years, the game has been changing. Thanks to a new crop of city-centered tasting rooms, urban wineries, and even vineyards accessible by public train, Northern California's wine culture is opening itself up to travelers of all budgets.
Here are three of our favorite ways to drink in California wine country on the cheap – and without a car.
Stay in the city
Wineries know not every visitor to Northern California has the time – or the budget – to get out to the vineyards. So several have brought their tasting rooms to San Francisco, making it easy for you to stop in, sample a flight, and learn about the wine-making process without leaving town.
Wattle Creek winery, whose vineyards are located about an hour and a half north of the Golden Gate Bridge, has set up a tasting room in Ghirardelli Square, just a stone's throw from HI-SF Fisherman's Wharf. For just $10, Wattle Creek lets you put together your own flight of five wines by choosing your favorites from eight varietals including sauvignon blanc, merlot, and shiraz.
To get even closer to where wine's actually made, trek out to SF's up-and-coming Dogpatch neighborhood. Though the off-the-beaten-path neighborhood, with its mix of industrial and residential buildings, is still relatively tourist-free, the Dogpatch is rapidly gaining trend traction. And the existence of Dogpatch Wine Works doesn't exactly hurt the 'hood's growing reputation. Dogpatch Wine Works has garnered lots of press for allowing locals to craft their own barrels of wine on-site, though novice winemakers pay a bundle for the privilege. You don't have to be an urban vintner, though, to enjoy this place's wares: instead, stop by for casual tastings of wines made on-site, starting at around $2 per pour.
Another winery within the city limits, Bluxome Street Winery draws oenophiles to the South of Market, or SOMA, neighborhood. Much like the Dogpatch, SOMA's becoming trendier as its old industrial warehouses begin producing modern offerings – such as sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs blended on-site, in the case of Bluxome Street. Order a flight of whites or reds from the menu at the bar, grab a table anywhere you like inside the winery's cozy tasting room, and someone will come right to your table every few minutes to refill your glass. Pourers here will tell you exactly where each bottle's grapes were grown, how they were blended right here in SOMA, and what flavors to look for in every sip. Large windows separate the tasting room from the winery portion of the warehouse, where you can watch the magic happen as you sip. Flights at Bluxome Street usually start at $10, and wines by the glass start at $6. Stop by the SF Visitor's Information Center near the corner of Market and Powell Streets, though, and you can score a coupon for a free flight!
Go off shore
If you'd like to spend a whole afternoon wine tasting, hop on the #108 MUNI bus downtown and make the quick trip over the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island. This tiny man-made island in the San Francisco Bay is known for its wide-angle views of the city skyline, its monthly flea market, and – no kidding – its dozen or so wineries. The majority of the wineries are clustered within several warehouses, all within walking or bus-riding distance of each other, meaning you can hit multiple wineries in one afternoon for the price of a city bus pass.
Opened in 2007, Treasure Island Wines was the first winery to set up shop on the island; today, it's your best bet for a tasting bargain. Here, $5 gets you a tasting and the chance to talk to the winemakers – who will likely be pouring your glasses of made-on-site chardonnay and zinfandel. Continue your island wine tour by stopping in for a tasting and a game of bocce ball at Vie Winery, scoping out the posh décor at The Winery SF, or sampling the diverse menu at "winery collective" Bodega Wine Estates.
If you've got a little more time, hop aboard a ferry in downtown San Francisco. For about $6.25 you can set sail for the Alameda Main Street ferry terminal, which is just a quick stroll from Rosenblum Cellars. The winery's dockside tasting room offers awesome bay views along with flights starting at just $10.
Believe it or not, while basing yourself in San Francisco, you can even get yourself out to some actual vineyards without a car. Just across the San Francisco Bay, a town called Livermore has started giving Napa and Sonoma a run for their money in the vino department. Livermore's got the kind of lush vineyard scenery, elegant tasting rooms, and award-winning wines you'd expect from better-known wine regions. But this little town has two distinct advantages for travelers on a budget: you can get there on public transportation and, once you do, the wineries are grouped so closely together that you won't need a car to make your way between them.
What you will need, though, is a lot of energy and a sense of adventure. Start by renting a bike for the day in San Francisco (try Blazing Saddles, where guests at HI-SF City Center and HI-SF Downtown get discounted rates of $18-$22 per day), then take your cycle on board a Dublin/Pleasanton-bound BART train. A trip to the end of the line will set you back about an hour and just under $6. The train's final stop, the Dublin/Pleasanton station, is about a 10-mile cycle from Livermore's wine valley. Once you reach Livermore, there are a dozen wineries, including Retzlaff, Crooked Vine & Stony Ridge, and Wente, all clustered within easy riding distance of each other around South Livermore Ave. and Tesla Road. (Just remember, moderation at the tasting rooms will serve you well when it comes time to cycle back to the train station).
Whether you choose to sip in the city or cycle the vineyards, we're sure you'll enjoy your taste of Northern California's wine country!
Want to keep exploring Northern California beyond San Francisco? Try out one of our favorite day trips you can take without a car, go for a walk among the redwoods, or spend a weekend exploring Sacramento, Point Montara, or Point Reyes.
Stay at one of our three San Francisco hostels.
Check out a map of all the places mentioned in this story.