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Off Season Bargains in the Sonoma Wine Country

Spring is the perfect time for an off-season, weekend in California's Sonoma Valley. Premium rates don't begin until just before the Memorial Day weekend.

Off-season extends from the end of harvest in November through mid-May.

During December, January, and February there can be a bit of rain, which is good for the grapes. Even for visitors, the inclement weather adds to the valley's charms, especially with so many restaurants serving comfort food and delicious wines.

During March and April, day time temperatures hover in the mid 60's to low 70's, with the nights still in fireplace-cozy mid-40s. A few buds are beginning to appear on the grape vines, but brilliantly colored wild flowers are already in full bloom.

Fields of bright yellow mustard plants spread as far as the eye can see. Tall green grasses glistening in the morning light surround mile after mile of still dormant, grayish grape vines. The lifeless looking vines mask the vitality that is about to burst forth and create brilliantly green vines.

To attract visitors, you'll find many hotels have lowered their room rates during the off-season. The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau's web site (http://www.sonomacounty.com/) is a good guide to lodging, restaurants, and recreational opportunities. Calling around you'll discover who has discounted their rates.

Recently we enjoyed a long weekend with family and friends in Glen Ellen. We much prefer to stay in a rental home rather than a hotel. We have more privacy that way and because we can make our own meals, we save money in the long run.

With four couples we rented a house offered by Beautiful Places (http://www.beautiful-places.com). The off-season rate for our weekend stay at Villa Andrea was discounted 20%. At some of their properties, stay three days and the fourth day is free.

Besides saving money, you'll also have a more relaxing time. Right now, you'll have Sonoma, Petaluma, Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Healdsburg, and Sebastopol and all their wineries pretty much to yourself.

There is only light traffic on the main roads. There are no lines in the tasting rooms at popular wineries like the Benziger Family Winery, B.R. Cohn, Loxton Cellars and Tin Barn Vineyards. With fewer visitors, a wine maker like Bob Benziger has time to talk to virtually every visitor and lead some of the tram rides through the vineyard.

I've spent time in Sonoma in the summer and it is glorious. But after this trip I've discovered the pleasures of an off-season visit. We had better access to the wine makers. We had more leisure time because we weren't stuck in traffic jams and we were happy about spending less.

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