Ah, Sonoma. This is a different experience than Napa…a bit slower paced and gives you a glimpse into what Napa maybe used to be like before it got so popular. Don’t get me wrong…there are still plenty of tourists, but there’s just a different vibe. The people working at the winery linger to talk to you longer and there’s a sense of simplicity that is both welcome and comforting. You do have to drive a bit more in between wineries if you follow my list below, so as with all wine tasting please be careful and make sure you have a designated driver. Sonoma’s a bit harder to do in a day and get the full experience so I suggest a weekend to truly enjoy it at the leisurely pace you should adopt while visiting this unique and tasty region.
My recommendations for what to do, where to eat and of course where to taste are below…and to see some pictures of many of the wineries and surrounding valley check out my Sonoma Photo Album.
Wine Tasting: Coming in on the 37 from Marin County and then heading up the 121 and 12 (in both directions once you get to downtown Sonoma). Here’s a good map to help you orient yourself a bit for the wine tasting….
- Gloria Ferrer – This is a great first stop, right on your way into Sonoma for some refreshing & delicious sparkling wine. Beautiful property, very good bubbly and also pretty good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (this is the Carneros region after all).
- Jacuzzi Family Vineyards – I feel like I shouldn’t like this winery, because it is one that feels a bit like Disneyland for Wine, but I really love spending time at this property. It’s likely my Italian roots & love of all things Italian that keeps me coming back, but whatever it is I suggest you go. The wine & olive oil is good but the property & view from the outdoor patio is magical…a little piece of Tuscany in California wine country.
- Buena Vista Winery – this is apparently California’s oldest premium winery, founded in 1857. They make fantastic wine and on a hot day their tasting room is a haven. The history and property make it worth a visit alone, but the wine will keep you lingering. Oh, and I saw Tiki Barber here once, maybe you’ll have a celebrity sighting of your own (okay, I’m using “celebrity” loosely here!)
- Gundlach Bundschu – this is very close to the Sonoma plaza and a nice change of pace. It’s a bit funky and eclectic but still amazingly beautiful. Such a nice property, in fact, that they host lots of music and film events here. They make small lot ultra premium wines that you often can’t find anywhere else. I remember finding their Tempranillo Rosé unique and they also make a good Gewurztraminer, which Christian loves.
- Chatuau St. Jean – first, let’s be clear. This absolutely is a chateau that makes you feel like you are in France…gardens, fountains, the works. They are not using that word loosely. So definitely come check out the property, but their vineyard exclusive Cabs, Chardonnays, the Fumé Blanc and the Late Harvest Riesling are worth the visit too!
- VJB Cellars – I haven’t been here in a while, and they might actually be on a different property now but when I first discovered this place it was not for the property. This was just a rustic little tasting room in a parking lot but their focus is Italian varietals and I found the people working there and their wines to be fantastic. It’s a nice spot at the end of the day…casual, unpretentious and space to sit and relax. Oh, and they usually have some imported Prosecco on hand for those of us needing a bit of an effervescent pick me up by this time in the day!
- St. Francis Winery & Vineyards – another amazing property here, designed in the Mission style. If you can snag a seat on the back patio do it….and spring for the charcuterie plate while enjoying your tasting out there. You need a snack by now, right? Or better yet if you can book the wine & food pairing I’ve heard amazing things about Chef Dave Bush and at $38 it seems like a bargain. In terms of wine, I remember liking their Meritage quite a bit (Meritage is California’s version of Bordeaux…a made up word blending Merit and Heritage).
Restaurants: There is some good eating to be had in Sonoma. I’ve kept my recommendations to those that we’ve returned to more than once, but there are plenty of other fabulous places for you to explore.
- Basque Boulangerie Cafe – amazing homemade baked goods…both French and classic American in style. Perfect to have a casual bite there or grab with a coffee and head out on your way to wine tasting.
- Fremont Diner – I dare you to drive by an adorable farm stand with picnic tables and signs that say “whole hog” and “fried pies” and not stop. Seriously, I dare you. This is on the outskirts of Sonoma (location-wise it would be best to go here after Jacuzzi, but before Buena Vista) but worth it. Trust me on this.
- The Sonoma Cheese Factory – we’re big fans of the picnic lunch while wine tasting, so more often than not we just head here and get picnic fixin’s. Not surprisingly, they have great cheese…but also really fabulous fudge for those of you a bit less “savory” than me.
- Sunflower Caffé Espresso & Wine Bar – on a warm afternoon the back patio at Sunflower is a little slice of paradise. A relaxing reprieve from your day with yummy little snacks to go along with your drink.
- The Girl and the Fig – this is THE restaurant to go to when in Sonoma, in my opinion. It embodies everything I love about the wine country experience; local ingredients, simple almost rustic delivery, and an intimate, comfortable ambiance. Whatever you do, don’t skip dessert, they’re phenomenal. They’re brunch looks fantastic as well, although we’ve haven’t been yet.
- El Dorado Kitchen – if you’re looking for a classic yet trendy Californian experience, EDK will deliver. Inventive dishes with a farm to table focus and one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in wine country. Delish.
- The Olive Press – this is in Glen Ellen, which is an adorable little town in Sonoma County. I’ve actually only been here for lunch and really loved it but it looks like maybe they’re now only open for dinner. This is primarily a catering company, but the ambiance of the space and quality of food is both unique and fantastic.
Things to Do: To be honest I haven’t spent enough time to get very far beyond the food and wine but there are a couple other things I’ve done or know about that are fun:
- Cycling through wine country – biking through wine country is one of my favorite things to do, but don’t count on trying as much wine if you do (biking tipsy is harder and less fun than it sounds). Here is a great resource for maps and rides or if you’d rather someone else do all the coordination try this tour company.
- Ziplining– I love adrenaline rushes like this, but I’ve only ziplined once in Belize so I I’ve never had this specific experience, but I imagine it’s beautiful with the redwoods!
- Infineon Raceway – not my thing, but if you’re into NASCAR Infineon Raceway is right on the outskirts of Sonoma (good to be aware of race times anyway since it can affect traffic)
- Agri-Tourism Experiences – this on the other hand, is my thing. Farm tours, pick your own apples, you name it and there’s likely a farm in Sonoma County that will help you have that experience
- El Dorado Sonoma Hotel – this is actually the only hotel we’ve ever stayed in while visiting Sonoma. It’s classy, has a beautiful pool and is perfectly situated right on the Sonoma square which makes it great for rambling around in the mornings and evenings. Perfect for the price in my opinion.
- Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa – this is a Fairmont property so it is luxurious and pricey, but oh so gorgeous and nicely outfitted with natural hot springs
So get out there and start gourmet globe trotting in Sonoma…compared to Napa it’s certainly more quaint and reminiscent of earlier, simpler times. There are less crowds, but more driving since he wineries are a bit more spread out. A bit less pretentious and touristy but certainly just as delicious, in terms of both food and wine. I guarantee that you will come back from a weekend in Sonoma feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and possibly perusing the real estate listings…you know, just out of curiosity :)
Need some more convincing to plan your trip? Check out some photos here!