Its vineyards may have put Sonoma County on the map, but to savor the richness of this vast and varied pocket of Wine Country, you must dig into its culinary landscape and explore its breathtaking natural beauty. Beyond the tidy rows of grapevines, there are rolling hills of unkempt farmland speckled with dairy cows, goats, and sheep used to make Sonoma’s award-winning cheeses. On the western edge, there are miles of rugged coastline filled with fresh, briny shellfish, and deep inside the county, there are artisan makers churning out everything from European-style breads, to olive oils and preserves, to fermented specialties like krauts, kombucha, beer, and cider. It’s a county filled with farmers, artists, winemakers, and chefs, all of whom share a love of Sonoma’s simple pleasures and relish in the bounty if its land.
About sixty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway (AKA Highway 1) winds through a cinematic, 55-mile seaside road full of rocky cliffs, secluded coves,and long stretches of beach often cloaked in a chilly, grey fog.
With only a handful of small towns along the way, it’s easy to immerse oneself in the rugged natural beauty of Sonoma’s coast in solitude and find total fulfillment with little more than epic views and a warm bowl of clam chowder from Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay. Clear, crisp days in March through June offer the best opportunities for whale watching at Bodega Head, but Goat Rock State Beach, just south of Jenner, is a favorite gathering spot for the local harbor seal and sea lion populations year-round.
Further north in Jenner, where the mouth of the Russian River meets the Pacific, adventurers can book kayaks through WaterTreks Eco Tours and paddle through calm waters alongside blue herons and harbor seals.
It’s no wonder Dry Creek Valley is a favorite destination for weekenders. Offering both a casual, quintessential Sonoma Wine Country experience of salt-of-the-earth growers and award-winning wines, coupled with upscale lodging, shopping, and restaurants in nearby Healdsburg, travelers get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Depending on how leisurely you want to savor this AVA, you could head to Truett Hurst Winery and settle in for the day with sandwiches from nearby Dry Creek General Store. Enjoy a bottle of the winery’s Old Vine Zinfandel with picnic fare on their biodynamic farm and keep your eyes out on the water, where you may also catch a glimpse of the annual salmon run splashing before your eyes. Or bring a little competition to your relaxation by reserving a game of bocce at Dry Creek Vineyard’s beautiful, Loire Valley inspired tasting room.
To experience more of Dry Creek Valley, add Ferrari-Carano to your itinerary for vineyard select Chardonnay, Unti Vineyards for interesting Rhone and Italian varietals, Papapietro Perry for exceptional, single vineyard pinot noir, and Bella Vineyards for a cave tasting of their small lot zinfandel. If you fall in love with Bella’s wines, you may be just as charmed with their guest cottages both on their farm and in downtown Healdsburg.
A popular vacation spot for San Franciscans, Sonoma’s Russian River region draws a mix of thrill seekers, food and wine enthusiasts, and weekenders looking to unplug from their daily grind. At the heart of this region is the Bohemian Highway, a 10-mile stretch of road said to be one of California’s most scenic drives. A mix of pastoral countryside and ancient redwood groves, this winding drive is best enjoyed with windows down, a good playlist and fresh-from-the-oven treat from Wild Flour Bread at the southern end of the highway in the tiny town of Freestone.
On warm days, vacationers flock to the Russian river for kayaking, paddleboarding, or to enjoy a laid-back afternoon of lounging on the shore of Johnson’s Beach, while more adventurous types bring floats to ride down the river.
To experience the grandeur of California’s famous trees, a hike at Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve is a must-do.
Given its close proximity to the Sonoma Coast, this cool-climate AVA produces standout chardonnay and pinot noir. Try some of the region’s finest at Littorai Wines, Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, and Lynmar Estate Winery. More wineries to visit include Deloach Vineyards, Inman Family Wines, and Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards. Or experience an entirely different kind of tasting at El Barrio, Guerneville’s hip, new mezcal and tequila bar from the owners Boon Hotel + Spa.
Like a sleeping giant, Alexander Valley is about to have its moment. Comprised of hilly terrain from the Mayacamas, rich, fertile soils from the Russian River bed, and Sonoma’s warmest climate, this region is cabernet sauvignon country, and its productions are most frequently compared to those of both Napa and Bordeaux. While its the largest and most widely planted AVA in the county, it’s also one of the least explored. Covering the northeastern quarter of Sonoma, Alexander Valley is quietly growing exceptional fruit, just like generations past.
Stretching from the northern edge of Healdsburg, along the Russian River, up to Cloverdale, the this vast Wine Country region offers picturesque vineyard scenery to rival anywhere in Sonoma.
In Geyserville, be sure to stop into Pech Merle Winery, a hip and playful tasting room with delicious Sonoma County wines, before indulging in one of the region’s culinary gems, Diavola Pizzeria and Salumeria, an innovative, farm-to-table Italian restaurant where The Dictator Pizza, topped with sliced ribeye, kimchee, kewpie mayonnaise, and serrano chiles, is a must.
On the southeastern corner of Sonoma County, just a 45- minute drive from San Francisco, you’ll find the charming, historic town of Sonoma. Mission San Francisco Solano, California’s last and northernmost mission, along with historic buildings and barracks from General Vallejo’s era, surround the town square, giving this friendly farming community an old world vibe.
Amongst cobblestone alleyways and century-old buildings, some of the area’s finest reds grown from the Valley’s famous Moon Mountain district are poured daily just off the plaza inside Kamen Estate Wines‘ modern tasting room. Travel back to the time of the pioneers with a visit to the Buena Vista Winery tasting room just outside town.
Experience more of Sonoma Valley’s unique flavor just up the road in the tiny village of Glen Ellen. Made famous by its former resident, Jack London, whose namesake park is a popular stop for hikers, picnic-goers,and history buffs, this little town is hub of great food and wine.
While in Glen Ellen, schedule a tour at the Benziger Family Winery to get a behind-the-scenes look at their biodynamically farmed Sonoma Mountain estate. Or stop by Imagery Estate Winery to try some of their unusual varietals, paired with their fabulous art collection. For a casual tasting and insider’s look at wine production, visit Loxton Cellars, where the friendly Aussie winemaker will guide you through his entire process from grape to bottle.
Finish your wine tastings just a few clicks north on Highway 12 with Wine Country comfort food at Kenwood’s popular new restaurant, Tips Roadside.
Centrally located in the heart of the county, Santa Rosa is Sonoma’s largest and most diverse city, offering a mix of culture, arts, restaurants, and nightlife, including world class performances at Luther Burbank Center For the Arts.
Into retro? Check in at the Sandman Hotel, a beautifully renovated motor-lodge with a throw-back feel, or the new Astro Motel, a playfully restored, mid-century motor lodge effortlessly blends kitchy detail, modern design, and Sonoma hospitality. The Astro’s owners run the popular restaurant The Spinster Sisters a few blocks away, where guests enjoy farm-fresh “Sonoma County Cuisine” from breakfast through dinner.
Often referred to as “beer city,” Santa Rosa is also home to world-famous Russian River Brewing Company, along with a growing community of smaller craft beer producers in and around Santa Rosa.
Just about seven miles west of town in Sebastopol, artists, farmers and hippies have created an eclectic and innovative hub of local food and drink culture beyond beer and wine.
Sample probiotic elixirs at The Kefiry, artisan gin at Spirit Works Distillery inside The Barlow community marketplace and sustainably caught fish at the new locals hangout, Handline. If you find yourself at The Barlow, circle back to wine tasting at the MacPhail Tasting Lounge.
For another taste of this diverse region, visit Petaluma. Located seventeen miles south of Santa Rosa and surrounded by historic farms, Petaluma’s downtown district is filled with blocks of stunning Victorian homes, antique shops and delicious fare from the surrounding land and sea. Tucked inside the beautifully restored Hotel Petaluma, enjoy oysters and very local wines from “less than 30 miles away” at The Shuckery and don’t skip town without a visit to Della Fattoria for salt-studded loaf of their Meyer-Lemon Rosemary bread.
Cover image courtesy of Facebook: Experience Sonoma Valley