On our way to our most recent Sonoma County trip, we realized that we had lost count of how many times we’ve been to the region. Given that fact, you would think there would not have been much excitement for the trip, but the truth is that we were more excited than ever. It seems that the more we learn about Sonoma County the more we realize how much we still have to explore.
Sonoma County has almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, 18 AVAs and over 400 wineries. The vast expanse of this region makes this part of wine country a never ending treasure hunt for wine lovers. Here we will attempt to give you a road map to this breathtaking and exciting wine region. We still have much to explore ourselves, but hopefully some of our experiences will be of help.
Sonoma Valley vs Sonoma County
When we first visited the area close to 20 years ago, we thought that all of Sonoma County was the same as Sonoma Valley. The truth is that Sonoma Valley is the most popular AVA in the county but it’s only a small part of it. Sonoma Valley is an estimated 45 minute drive from San Francisco and it spans approximately 17 miles. Over 100 wineries reside in Sonoma Valley which is also home to the town of Sonoma. Known as the birthplace of wine in the State of California, Sonoma Valley, besides being it’s own AVA, also hosts four other AVAs, Bennett Valley, Carneros, Moon Mountain and Sonoma Mountain.
So far we have found Sonoma Valley to be the most diverse of the Sonoma County AVAs. With a numerous amount of microclimates and it’s unique terroir, it consistently produces world class wines from many varietals. Besides it’s wines, Sonoma Valley is full of history and the town of Sonoma, with its charming and vibrant plaza, is the perfect spot to do some shopping and enjoy some great food.
The Alexander Valley is one of the farthest north AVAs of Sonoma County. Known mostly for its Cabernet Sauvignon, the Alexander Valley is approximately an hour and a half drive from San Francisco and it’s about 25 miles long. With over 40 wineries and approximately 15,000 acres of vineyards, this beautiful valley is worth the visit. If you decide to visit, we suggest that you stay in Healdsburg, which is one of our favorite towns of Sonoma County.
This cool climate AVA is a must visit for all Sparkling Wine lovers. Also known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Carneros AVA includes parts of both the Sonoma and Napa Counties and is approximately a 15 minute drive south of the town of Sonoma. With it’s proximity to San Francisco and Napa you can expect a lot of visitors in the area but it’s beauty makes it worth the visit. With around 20 wineries, Carneros is easy to explore. If you are in this part of Sonoma County you might want to venture over to Napa Valley and see why so many people love it.
Dry Creek Valley
Know for its Zinfandels, the Dry Creek Valley is approximately 55 minutes north of the town of Sonoma. The Valley, which is about 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, is home to over 150 winegrowers with some of them having over 100 years of grape growing tradition. Dry Creek Valley is fairly easy to navigate as it consists of two primary roads. Here you can often find yourself visiting with winery owners and grape growers. It has over 60 wineries and the primary grapes are Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon with Sauvignon Blanc leading the charge on the white side.
Driving through this part of Sonoma County, with it’s enldess sea of beautiful gnarly Old Zinfandel vines, is like immersing yourself in a fairytale.
The Petaluma Gap is a newcomer to the AVA system as it was established in 2017. With it’s easy access from San Francisco, this region is getting plenty of notoriety. It’s breathtaking landscape, which consists of endless rolling hills of pastures and vineyards, has become one of our new favorite spots to explore. This AVA is within the Sonoma Coast AVA which gives you easy access to the Pacific Ocean.
If you decide to visit Petaluma try to escape to Bodega Bay and visit the Sonoma Coast State Park to take in the picturesque Pacific Ocean views and if you are lucky enjoy some whale and sea lion watching.
Russian River Valley
If you are a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lover, this AVA is for sure a must visit. With close to 100 wineries and 14,000 acres of vineyards this Valley is often subject to drastic temperature changes between daytime and the evening thanks to the fog that often invades it from the Pacific Ocean. The cool nights that result from this fog invasion along with the terroir of the region is what mkes this stretch of land such a great place to grow both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We have also tried some great Zinfandels from this area.
From Sonoma you can expect to have an approximate 50 minute drive. If you decide to make the drive we highly recommend that you take some time to visit the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Home to the majestic Redwoods, this park is easy to acces and walking around these giants, that can live up to a 1,000 years, is a magical experience.
Wineries to Visit
As you can imagine, with over 400 wineries to visit, you will have no problem finding some amazing wineries and wines during your stay in Sonoma County. Here are some of our favorites by region:
* Robert Young Estate - Alexander Valley
* Seghesio Family Vineyards - Alexander Valley
* Domaine Carneros - Carneros
* Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards - Carneros
* Ram’s Gate - Carneros
* Schug - Carneros
* Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves - Dry Creek Valley
* Nalle - Dry Creek Valley
* Saini Vineyards - Dry Creek Valley
* Hanzell Vineyards - Moon Mountain
* Azari Vineyards - Petaluma
* Kastania Vineyards - Petaluma
* Arista - Russian River Valley
* Enriquez Estate - Russian River Valley
* Iron Horse Vineyards - Russian River Valley
* Lynmar Estate - Russian River Valley
* Thomas George Estate - Russian River Valley
* Williams Selyem - Russian River Valley
* Hirsch Vineyards - Sonoma Coast
* Auteur - Sonoma Valley
* Buena Vista - Sonoma Valley
* Gundlach Bundschu - Sonoma Valley
* Ledson - Sonoma Valley
* St. Francis - Sonoma Valley
Where to Eat
As you all know, wine and food go hand in hand so the following are some of our favorite spots. We have devided them by town to make them easier to find.
* El Molino Central - This colorful Mexican stop focuses on housemade and fresh Mexican classics. The dangerous thing about this place is that you will be tempted to order everything on the menu. Located in Sonoma Valley
* Tasca Tasca - This Portuguese Tapas Bar has a really cool vibe and some tasty and creative options. Located in Sonoma Valley
* the girl & the fig - With its French country fare, this restaurant has become one of the favorites in the area. If you get the chance to dine outside, we highly recommend it; however, if not then we have no doubt that you will enjoy the really cool and rustic feel of the inside restaurant and bar. Located in Sonoma Valley
* The Red Grape - Who does not love wine and pizza? With no shortage of creative pizzas and dishes on their menu you are guaranteed to not leave hungry. Located in Sonoma Valley
* Dry Creek Valley General Store - Established in 1881, this historic establishment, full of charm, is the perfect place to take a lunch break before or after those easy flowing wine tastings. Located in Healdsburg
* Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar - If you are a seafood lover this tapas style cafe is a must try. Here you will find creative and delicious small plates alongside a Raw Bar with amazing choices. Located in Healdsburg
Where to Stay
There is certainly not a shortage of places to stay in Sonoma County. The trick is to identify the part of Sonoma County you want to spend most of your time exploring, as driving distances can get a bit long, especially if you are wine tasting.
While doing research for our trip last year we came across the Four Sisters Inns collection of small hotels and inns. The company is called Four Sisters because it was actually founded by four sisters. Their Inns range all the way from budget friendly to pure luxury and you can find them throughout Sonoma County. The beauty about them is that you know that you are going to get first class hospitality regardless of the property you choose. Since finding out about them, we have been able to collaborate together on a couple of occasions and have enjoyed some amazing stays with them.
We have also been able to collaborate and enjoy the hospitality of the Sonoma Valley Inn, which is a Best Western property but has a super cozy feel with no corporate vibes.
Another way to experince Sonoma County is by staying in an Airbnb. We were fortunate to explore this option when we collaborated with Azari Vineyards and they graciously hosted us in their guest house.
Following are some of the places that we have stayed at or seen, that you might be interested in checking out. They are in alphabetical order.
* Azari Vineyards - As we mentioned earlier, we were fortunate enough to enjoy the amenities of this spacious 3 bedroom guesthouse. The Azari’s also have another smaller Airbnb cottage on their property. When you stay here you get to feel like you are part of the family as their main residence is across from the guesthouse. The only thing separating the two properties is their beautiful pool. This second generation winery is all about family and hospitality so don’t be surprised if you find yourself touring and tasting with the owners during your visit.
* Enriquez Estate - We have not had the pleasure to stay at this Airbnb cottage but we had the opportunity to check it out when we visited their winery. They have remodeled an old milk barn into a modern 2 bedroom spacious cottage which includes a full size kitchen, bathroom, living room and dining room. If you want to feel at home among the vines you might want to give this Milk Barn a try.
* Gaige House + Ryokan - If you are looking for a Zen retreat you have found it. Nestled in Glen Ellen, this Japanese inspired luxurious hideaway, is a great place to find some peace and quiet. The rooms are spacious and come with their own private meditation gardens. The bathrooms face the meditation garden and include a beautiful stone bath tub and awesome shower. Make sure to take advantage of the pool, the complimentary breakfast and their daily happy hour hosted by one of the local wineries. We absolutely loved our stay.
* Healdsburg Inn - Talk about Old School Charm! This beautiful Inn built in 1901 on the historic Healdsburg Town Square is all about location, location, location. Our room, which featured a fireplace, grandiose high ceilings, a claw foot tub and a bay window overlooking the plaza was simply spectacular. Great shopping and restaurants are right at your doorstep and you can enjoy their free continental breakfast and evening happy hour which is usually hosted by one of the local wineries. No pool is available. Parking might seem tricky but it’s really not. We had no issues finding a spot, just make sure to check the expiration times if you park on the street because they are strict about ticketing.
* Kenwood Inn and Spa - This intimate Mediterranean inspired inn is pure luxury. If you are looking for a retreat in the Valley of the Moon treat yourself to a stay here. The grounds are impeccable and the architecture is beautiful. Our room, which had double doors that opened to the pool and gardens, was elegant and spacious. A fireplace and an amazing shower are the perfect combination to ensure a relaxing evening. Make sure to start your day by indulging in their spectacular continental breakfast. The only bad thing about the Kenwood Inn is having to checkout because you simply just don’t want to leave.
* Sonoma Creek Inn - This budget friendly Inn is located just minutes away from the Sonoma Plaza. Our room was bright and comfortable and had it’s own private little patio. Their retro decor gives it a cool vibe. Easy parking is a plus. If you are looking for location and are on a budget, check this one out.
* Sonoma Valley Inn - Looking for a place with great location, a pool, big rooms and price friendly? Look no more. This Inn, located behind the Sonoma Square, is an awesome spot. It has its own private parking in downtown Sonoma and sits across from a Whole Foods in case you get hungry late at night. It is also located walking distance from all of the great shopping and food of the Sonoma Square. For sure one to consider if you are looking for something in Sonoma Valley.
Lodging is often a stressful issue so we hope these options give you some reference. One thing that might be helpful when looking for a place to stay is to divide Sonoma County in 4. If you are going to be visiting wineries in the south we suggest that you look for places in Sonoma Valley. If you are touring both the south and north ends we suggest that you look for a place in Santa Rosa which is a mid point and is also the County seat. If you are looking to stay north we suggest you checkout Healdsburg and if you are looking to visit the Petaluma Gap look for spots in Petaluma and Bodega Bay.
Now that we have lost count of how many times we have visited the area, we are thrilled to have realized that we are in the beginning stages of understanding one of the most dynamic and diverse wine regions of the world. We are hooked on Sonoma County and can’t wait to go back.