About an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma County is an unfussy California wine destination that suits the entire gamut of wine drinkers, from oenophiles to dabblers. More than 7 million people visit the region each year, giving Sonoma its proper notoriety as America’s number one wine region.
Aside from an impressive roster of more than 400 Sonoma County wineries, there are also plenty of excellent restaurants to explore across the region. Here, our guide uncovers the must-see spots in this Northern California utopia.
Although each corner of Sonoma County has a charming, small-town vibe, the region covers a lot of ground. You may find yourself among the 55 miles of coastline, exploring the inland towns of Healdsburg and Geyserville, or further south near Kenwood and downtown Sonoma. Depending on how much time you have to explore and what you plan to experience, it’s important to get your bearings before venturing out.
Sip and swirl
Let’s get right down to it – the wine. Sampling each varietal in the region would be an endless (yet enjoyable) task. Sonoma County’s diverse microclimates deliver a variety of tastes within its 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations), including Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley. Warmer valleys primarily foster zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons, and cooler regions produce pinot noirs and chardonnays.
In addition to the various wines, visitors to Sonoma County should also consider the type of experience they are looking for. For those interested in a more intimate tasting experience, the new tasting rooms at Auteur Wines in downtown Sonoma will be ideal. Available by appointment only, visitors to Auteur will be treated to a personal “horizontal tasting” of Auteur’s chardonnays and pinot noirs. Gather around a communal table in a cosy craftsman home and experience winemaker Kenneth Juhasz’s award-winning tastes and learn of his humble, yet highly respected, vision for Auteur.
About 10 minutes from the historic downtown Sonoma plaza is Scribe Winery. You can’t miss the impressive palm trees framing the roadway leading to the estate. In the forefront of the property lies the Mission Revival-style Hacienda, originally built in 1858 as the home of the property’s original owners, the Dresel brothers from Germany. Heralded as the wine pioneers of California, the Dresels’ successful stint in winemaking was prematurely cut short when Prohibition was enacted in 1920.
Today, two different brothers are at the helm of the property – the Marianis. In 2007, Adam and Andrew Mariani, who were raised on a walnut orchard in California, worked fervently to revive the winery. Perched atop a hill overlooking the vineyards and the Hacienda is the tasting knoll, where the young and hip bask in the sunlight along communal wooden tables, tasting wines and nibbling on house made pickled vegetables and spreads. Scribe’s signature wines include chardonnays and pinot noirs, but don’t miss out on some of the more interesting tastes, such as the dry-fermented Riesling and skin-fermented chardonnay. A visit to this winery offers an authentic, farm-style experience – unpretentious and simple, yet stylish and innovative.
Even moviemakers have their hands in the winemaking business. About an hour north of Sonoma, near Geyserville, is the extravagant Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Coppola’s vision to create a “wine wonderland” includes a tasting room, a full-service restaurant, bocce ball courts, movie memorabilia (don’t miss the Oscars!), and two neighbouring swimming pools with private cabines, or mini changing rooms. If you’re looking to sip wine poolside, reserve your spot early – they do sell out. In the tasting room, choose from the First Flight (limited production wines), Sonoma Inclusive (Sonoma County tastings changing once a week), or the complimentary Diamond Collection tasting.
Locally grown eats
To get a closer look at where Sonoma’s farm-fresh food comes from, check out the Sonoma County Farm Trails including an interactive map with information about farms and producers. Cheese-lovers, rejoice – there’s also a specific Cheese Trail Map linking to 30 farms and creameries. Take a tour, sign up for a class, or meet the goats, cows, sheep and other animals on the farms.
Like choosing between Sonoma County wineries, the local eateries are many and varied. If you meander into downtown Healdsburg, head to Barndiva, an eclectic gallery space for dining, drinking and events. Indulge in California-fresh ingredients with dishes like the heirloom beet salad and goat cheese croquettes. Take a breather from the wine drinking with a signature cocktail, made from the impressive spirits selection.
Set in Sebastopol’s Barlow, a 12-acre industrial park comprised of eateries, wineries, breweries, galleries and retail, you’ll find two of the regions’ most successful restaurateurs. John Stewart and Duskie Estes opened Zazu Kitchen + Farm, quickly gaining accolades as one of the best restaurants in Northern California. Inspired by seasonality and sustainability, Zazu’s menu is “snout-to-tail,” with their homemade black pig bacon often starring in most dishes.
For a breakfast bite and cup of coffee, head to Flying Goat Coffee in Santa Rosa or Healdsburg. Enjoy a cup of quality single origin coffee and a fresh pastry to cleanse your wine-tasting palate.
After a long day of tasting, you’ll definitely be pining for a comfy place to rest your head. From brand name hotels to quaint B&Bs, there’s something for every style and price range in Sonoma County. Nestle in the redwoods at the 15-acre Dawn Ranch Lodge in Guerneville, or go luxurious at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, complete with natural mineral hot springs, 18-hole golf course and fine dining.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected but pleasant surprises is the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa. Los Angeles architect George Vernon Russell built the mid-century modernism resort with the vision of the original Vegas Flamingo in mind. Originally opened as a family-run business in 1957, The Flamingo is now a historic landmark of Santa Rosa. Visit the ritzy lounge, relax with a spa treatment, partake in a yoga or cycling class, or swim a few laps in the heated outdoor pool.
For more on Sonoma County wineries, restaurants and spas, visit the Sonoma County tourism website.
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow, making it easy to have a California Wine Country adventure in Sonoma.
Have you visited any of these Sonoma County wineries? Where are your favourite stops in the area? Share your thoughts with us below.
Written by Lindsay Wright