Choose an Event Location that is “Venue Only”

What you need to know about California wedding venues vs. places that are “secondary” wedding venues

How Some California Wedding Venues Aren’t All the Meets the Eye

Read on for personal stories, accounts, and more information about how some California wedding venues can go so wrong.

All California wedding venues have their pros and cons.  But most of the cons are hidden until your wedding is in progress and you just have to grin and bear it.  In this article, we’ll let you choose the type of venue you are considering to learn more about the issues each brings with it, and then give you some advice on how to find the perfect wedding venue for your day.

Beware of Being an Afterthought

Your wedding should be the primary consideration

When looking at California wedding venues, it’s always best to choose a location that only does weddings, where your wedding is their primary concern.  We’ll tell you why with some examples.

Many businesses (that are not truly California wedding venues) look to make more money from their location. As weddings happen on weekend evenings, they think it will be an easy way to make a few extra bucks. Or, it could be that you are bringing in all those guests, will help them do their marketing. And yes, they will try to sell your guests their products.

Wineries

Throughout the US, you’ll find areas calling themselves “wine country” and offering winery and vineyard weddings. There are winery California wedding venues in Northern California, Paso Robles area in Central California, Temecula in Southern California, just north in Willamette Valley in Oregon to mention a few.  Most places, even those you think are urban, like New York City, have wineries that host weddings.  The most famous area for winery California wedding venues in the Napa Valley, where destination winery Napa weddings come at a premium cost.  Some are willing to pay the six-figure price to be able to say “We were married at a winery in Napa.”  

Many wineries are picturesque and have wonderful facilities for a reasonable price – but beware.  When you take the tour, you’ll learn that you are required to buy their wine, ½ to one bottle per guest – including those that don’t drink.  They’ll offer you a discount price on the wine – typically what their wine club members pay.  They will sign you up for the wine club, so they can send you, and your guests, sales materials in the future.

Then, as their bartenders are serving your guests, and telling them about the wine, they’ll try to sell your guests wine, get them on the wine club list.  All the while the winery owner is thinking, “Thank you for doing my marketing, and bringing me buyers for my wine.”  Events are part of their marketing strategy.  It doesn’t feel like an insurance salesperson hard sell, but trust us, the salespeople have gone through extensive training on how to coax your guests into buying.  Many times their day jobs are in the tasting room, talking to and selling to anyone that walks in.  It’s an extremely polished sales pitch, but their goal is always clear.  “Discount if you buy a case now, and we can ship it to you, or take it to your car” is a typical pitch.  If they don’t make the sales quota, they no longer have a job.  Will your wedding guests feel the way you do when a salesman is trying to sell you a car?

Do you want to have a beer?  It’s allowed at some wineries, but it also comes with a hefty corkage fee. One we recently saw was $3 per beer, just to open a bottle you already purchased and pour it into a glass the venue provided.

What if you want to serve that special wine you found on your first date, but it’s not from your selected winery wedding venue?  That can run upwards of $25 per bottle for corkage alone.  One bottle is only 5 servings, so $5.00 per person in corkage alone.

Does the winery have sparkling wine, AKA champagne?  What’s the corkage on it?  Some wineries have a charge per glass to pour the champagne.

Oh, and you want a private event?  That means they have to close the tasting room early, and there’s a charge for that.  What?  Do you have to pay to not have people crash your wedding?  Wow!

One famous California wedding venues where winery weddings are held also advertises to the public to come and have a picnic on the grounds.  So on the far end of the large lawn facing the vineyard, the wedding ceremony is underway, all the guests are seated.  A family walks in, lays out their picnic blanket on the other end of the lawn, and starts enjoying their picnic while watching the wedding.  Wineries are typically open to the public, don’t have gated access or any access controls to their grounds.  Many times, they will put out a small sign that says “Private Event”, but to some people, that’s an invitation to crash a party for free food and drink.  Your wedding could be at risk of being crashed by both innocent, and not so innocent people.

A celebrity-owned winery in Napa would host weddings on its lawn, surrounded by vineyards.  It’s a very prestigious, and expensive location with weddings costing well into six figures.  On the morning of the wedding, the wedding vendors began to arrive and found the entire vineyard had been pulled out with tractors for replanting.  The ground was tilled, and the vines waited in large piles to be burned that winter.  Although the vineyard was owned by the winery, the vineyard manager and the events manager didn’t talk about what a disaster it would cause for the couple that rented the Napa wedding venue.

One of the most interesting offerings of a winery is the ability to use the barrel room.  This is a dark climate-controlled room where the wine will age in oak barrels supported by wine racks stacked to the very high ceiling.  It can make for a beautiful backdrop to your winery wedding.

To save on electricity, some wineries will dig wine caves for their climate-controlled barrel rooms.  Underground it’s a constant temperature and reduces the amount of electricity needed to keep the barrel room cool.  With the rounded ceilings, lights can be brought in to make spectacular effects on the ceilings and walls.

In both above ground wine barrel rooms and wine caves, the wine barrels are stored at a constant 45 to 55 degrees with humidity kept to 50 to 70 percent, with no light.  Cold and damp.  So make sure to tell your guests to bring layers of clothes.  Also keep in mind that some people have a fear of being underground, in caves, and may not be comfortable with the wine cave portion of your wedding day.  Both the caves and barrel rooms have hard, unforgiving walls making for horrible acoustics.  When you get a few people into a wine cave, and they start talking, it seems to amplify and echo.  People sitting at the same table can’t hear one another because of how horribly loud it becomes.  Just think of how loud it becomes when you put a bucket over your head and talk normally – that’s what’s like times the 100 people on your guest list.

However, to us having been in many barrel rooms and wine caves, the reason we always want to get out as soon as possible is knowing there’s been many mishaps with the barrels.  Forklift back into a stack, and they become dominoes.  Bottom barrel rack bends, and the two tons of barrels above fall over.  Or the worst, an earthquake, just like they had in Napa Valley in 2014 during the wedding season.  Did you know that many of the rolling hills are best to plant vineyards are, are created in areas with earthquake faults?  The Napa Valley and Sonoma, are tied to the huge San Andreas fault that caused the great San Francisco earthquakes.  That’s what I think about every time I have to walk into a barrel room or wine cave.

But let’s talk about what wineries truly are.  They are industrial factories with stainless steel tanks and pipelines created to turn grape juice into wine.  Hazardous chemicals and high-pressure tanks of gasses are used in the processing.  The wine is stored in 600-pound oak barrels, stacked twenty or more feet high that may fall during earthquakes.  There are large trucks and forklifts with back up beepers.  There are cellar rats (that’s what they call the people working in the facility), moving juice, wine, grape seed oil, and grape pumice around.  What is grape pumice?  That’s the skins and seeds that are left in the bottom of the tanks that must be removed before the tank can be used again.  When it’s first removed, it smells like wine, but quickly, it oxidizes and has a vinegar smell.  Then, once enough is gathered together, it’s composted (yes, compost smells) and eventually moved back into the vineyard to fertilize the vines.  

The romantic vision of the “lil ole winemaker me” was a marketing ploy that never really existed.  These days, the only time people jump in vats and stomp the grapes is for competitions and tourists.  Large corporations play on romantic winery ideals and build beautiful buildings to attract customers to buy their products.  Yes, you can take advantage of the beautiful buildings for your wedding.  But now you know what you might find when you make that choice.

Vineyards

Make sure the vineyard that they show you when you take a tour, is owned and managed by the venue.  And that the event manager is in charge of the vineyard.  Besides the vineyard being raised as mentioned above, there are other situations with vineyards that can arise.

At one Napa wedding venue, the vineyard was sprayed with a miticide the day before the wedding.  The couple arrived to find little signs at the end of some of the rows, warning to not go into the vineyard, due to how dangerous the insecticide is – you cannot enter the vineyard for a week.

Another wine country vineyard had compost distributed through the rows in the week before the wedding.  The compost consisted of wine byproducts, mixed with manure from the local dairy.

A bride wanted to have her wedding in the fall when the leaves start to turn.  This happens around harvest time, which varies from year to year.  In this case, Harvest was occurring, and there were field workers picking grapes, tractors hauling trailers with grape bins, and a lot of other activities associated with harvesting.  Including, semi-trucks full of grapes arriving at the winery to dump their loads into the crushers.  When harvest starts, it can be a 24/7 operation with activity and lights all night long.

Weddings that happened after Harvest, found that vineyards that suffer through mechanical harvesting (a huge machine that grabs the vine and shakes it so violently, that the grapes, birds nests, rodents) all fall off into the hopper.  Afterward, the vines are beaten up, looking like they’ve gone through a tornado.  

Equestrian Facilities, and other Animal Parks

Did you know that most engagements happen around Christmas?  In fact, in the wedding industry, the period between Halloween and Valentine’s Day is called “Booking Season”.  Those that are newly engaged, start their hunt for a wedding venue for their wedding later in the year, or the following year.

How does this relate to Equestrian Facilities and Animal Parks you might ask?  Flies, mosquitoes, bees, yellow jackets, hornets, spiders.  In the winter, these insects are dormant, some living in the feces of the animals on the property.  As it’s cold and wet, odors from the animals are also mellowed.  But have you seen just how many flies there can be around horse pens?  Ever wonder why people will put blankets, or hoods, on their horses?  It’s for fly protection, not for warmth.  

Recently I saw an advertisement for a fly trap at a horse facility on social media.  They were showing that in a single day, at a single horse paddock (small pen for one horse), the flytrap had two inches of flies in it.  

I attended a wedding industry event at a horse facility, in a barn.  120 people sat down in the barn to eat and listen to the speaker.  It was a clean facility that has a lot of weddings, but everyone in the room was shooing the flies away from their food and drink.  The wedding videographer sitting next to me started counting the flies at our table alone.  He leaned over to me and said “There are 9 flies, including the one doing the backstroke in her wine.”  

Many equestrian facilities have horses owned by other people.  Folks that live in town and keep their horse at a boarding facility.  Parent’s bringing out their kids to muck the stalls (pick up the poop), or feed their horses.  Trucks with horse trailers to move horses horse shows or other locations.  And all of this activity is unrestricted – they are paying to have their horses there, so they are free to come and go.  In one case, a little girl was taking lessons with her horse in the arena, which hadn’t been watered.  So when the breeze changed, all the dust being created wafted over the guests as they ate.

Flower Gardens

Flower gardens can be beautiful during flower season.  These outdoor venues offer great photo opportunities.  Although they can have some of the same insect, insecticide and compost issues at vineyards, they offer a beautiful backdrop for photos.  

However, with flowers, you get pollen in large quantities.  Enough that it can trigger asthma attacks in some people.  So think about your guest list and any medical issues they may have before booking a flower garden wedding venue.

Rural Campgrounds with Lakes

This is one of those California wedding venues that look great during the fall and winter months when most couples are looking for a wedding venue.  The grass is green, the air is crisp, and there are minimal bugs.  

But from Spring through the first rains, the insect populations explode.  Speaking with guests that had recently attended a wedding at a venue with a natural lake, they told stories of clouds of mosquitoes, and after dark, the lights attracted even more bugs to the campground.

If it’s truly a rural location, there are wild animal considerations.  From bears breaking into guests’ cars or the kitchen at night, to ground squirrel holes that cause broken ankles, to rattlesnakes looking for a rodent to eat.  

A guest told me about a wedding they attended, where they were to stay in tents, in dry grass fields, and use the porta-potties.  It was just behind the dunes from the beach, and they thought it would be fun to camp out.  The evening started out well enough, campfires, smores, wine, and beer.  But then the wind came up, as it can on the coast, and everyone retreated into the tents to escape the blowing sand, except the poor responsible person left to make sure the fire was out.  Eventually the wind died down, and the guest needed to use the porta-potty.  So in the dark, in his underwear and flip flops, he made his way towards relief.  Oh yes, did I tell you about the cows that wander through the campground at night?  He was reminded about them as the warm ooze seeped around his flip flop and between his toes.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  It seems that the cattle stay away from the campground area while people are around the tents.  But the next morning everyone went into the tourist town to do what you do in tourist locations.  They came back in the early afternoon only to find that the cows had walked through the campground, and literally, through the tents.  The cows had figured out that humans leave tasty morsels in the tents, so they just walk in the front door and make themselves at home.  They stepped on sleeping bags, suitcases, left calling cards (yes, you know what I mean) and knocked the tents over.  When the people returned from town, the entire encampment was flattened.  They later found out from the townspeople that it was a regular occurrence.  Too bad the couple didn’t know before reserving the date.

When is the last time you used a campground porta-potty, or restroom?  No description necessary, it’s not a great experience for you or your guests.  And can you imagine using them to get ready for the wedding day?

Then there are the considerations of ‘rentals’.  That’s what the wedding vendors call all the supporting materials that need to be brought into a bare location.  Tables, chairs, forks, knives, stoves, ovens, wedding arch, lights for after dark, luxury porta-potties, tents, beds, dance floor, etc.  One recent wedding, held in a redwood grove and meadow, required four large trucks of rentals.  Guests were delivered in busses later.  The cost of the wedding was enormous, because absolutely everything had to be imported, set up, cleaned up, broken down, and removed.  It was a huge undertaking and expensive as compared to almost all other options.  And remember the mosquitoes that were mentioned?  Yah, they attended the wedding too.

Golf Courses, Grainge Halls, Fairgrounds

Although some provide some indoor and outdoor areas, their main business isn’t your wedding.  You have to bring in extensive decorations to make it look like that Pinterest vision you have in mind.  Yes, it may be cheap, but after bringing in everything needed, is it?  

After the wedding, you have your memories, and the photos to remind you of the special moments.  Well, except that your photos look the same as every other couple that got married at the golf course.

While reading a contract for a wedding at a golf course, there was a statement that the couple acknowledged, it was at a golf course and errant balls may pummel (my word) them and their guests.  What?  They are putting everybody in danger by allowing golfing in the area of the guests?  Well, their main business is golfing, and as golf balls can travel over 100 yards (a football field) and they have no control over those drinking and golfing, I guess it makes sense to have a release of liability for the golf course.  Heck, I don’t even have to make a long drive and have the golf ball go where I didn’t intend.  I guess that’s why they have those huge screens to protect the houses and roadways.

Most golf course California wedding venues are “All Inclusive” requiring that you buy a variety of services and products from them.  They have in house catering, alcohol, DJ, dessert, etc.  Some allow you to bring in your own flowers, photographer and planner.  But you’re about to learn about all the hidden charges.  Cake cutting fee per person, forced gratuity (18% of the bill or higher), valet service charges, coat check charges, nicer rentals charges, etc.  Excuse me, I don’t mind giving a tip if I get good service, but being forced to pay it before the service is delivered?  What if it’s bad service because they know they are already guaranteed the gratuity?

Art Galleries 

This is an interesting idea, and a clean environment.  Air-conditioned, parking, bathrooms – check, check, check.  But whats an Art Gallery’s’ main purpose?  It’s not weddings, it’s selling the art to the people you brought to the gallery.  Is your guest there to celebrate your wedding day, or are they there to look at art price tags, and have the gallery employees try to sell them the art?  It’s not comfortable going to a used car dealership and being pressured to buy, why take your guests to a place designed to sell the people who enter?  Of course, if it’s your art – it might just be a way to pay for your wedding.  Guests always enjoy being invited to an event, and then finding out there’s a cost, don’t they?  It works for the timeshare sales people.

Public Areas – Beach Weddings, and Weddings in Parks

California wedding venues that are public venues are just that, public.  So wedding crashers are a reality, and you can’t exclude the public from a public area.  To reserve an area in a park, or on a beach, about the only thing it provides is you get certain picnic tables and BBQ’s.   No one will be there to keep the public from walking through your event.  Who knows, some may join in?  There are even stories about uninvited people joining in the buffet lines.

Beaches, cliffs over the water, parks, and other public scenic areas provide great backdrops for spectacular pictures. There can be challenges with not having other people in the pictures during the golden hour (the hour around sunset when the light is best for photographers).  And make sure to be safe, don’t take stupid risks with your life just for a photo.  You don’t want to be another one of those sad stories in the newspaper.

Choose Wisely, Choose a Professional California Wedding Venue

When looking for California wedding venues, keep some of this advice in mind.  Ask, “What other businesses do you do on the property?”  The right answer is “None, you are our only concern.”  

The best California wedding venues are styled for weddings and built to make the wedding day easy.  Not only for you but for your wedding vendors.  The easier job your vendors have, the easier it is to provide you and your guests with the best experiences.  

California wedding venues have logistics built into the venue.  From places for vendors to park and work away from guests, to proper parking areas, to thinking about every element of your wedding.  Including ways for shuttle busses to circulate without backing up (back up beepers)  and endangering guests.  

Professional California wedding venues provide plenty of photo opportunities for photographers to work with for spectacular photos.  Backdrops, flowers, vintage trucks, natural areas (rocks, trees, grass), everything is crafted to make your day stress free.  The photos and videos of your special day will be uniquely yours.

The venue thinks about the fact that you have people coming together that haven’t seen each other for a while.  They want places to sit and catch up, and have a bit of privacy.  That isn’t possible in large halls with a band or wedding DJ playing.

The wedding site thinks about the flow of your wedding, having easy ways for guests to get from one area to the other.  And they have multiple areas, so your guests are continually amazed as the night rolls on and new areas are revealed.  Whereas at a large hall (grainge, Moose Lodge, fairgrounds), the guests walk in, and they’ve seen everything.  All of the experience you want to create for your special day is finished once upon arrival of the wedding guests.

Professional California wedding venues will have done many weddings, and have advice for you. Beware of new California wedding venues, or new management, you need someone with experience.  Some advice may seem odd, but you’ve never hosted a wedding before – they have.  They know the difference between a wedding celebration and a frat party.  Some of the guidance you may not understand, but if you ask, they will explain why.  Most of the reason will be to protect you, your guests, and your wedding day.

Professional California wedding venues know that many of the issues mentioned above must be controlled for their couples to have a spectacular wedding.  Professionals work to mitigate all the issues to make it the best day possible for your wedding.  Is there a guarantee of perfection?  No, but at least you have someone more worried about your wedding day more than their ‘primary’ business.

About the Author, John Alden

John Alden is a Wine Country Wedding expert and the owner of Mountain House Estate, a Northern California wedding venue located near Cloverdale,  Sonoma County. Over the past 5 years, John has tirelessly worked to keep the property in pristine condition and has unmatched expertise about wine country weddings. In his free time, he enjoys working on classic cars in his garage.