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Sonoma County's Best Wineries to Visit, & Why You'll Love Them
Sonoma: Northern California's Most Seductive Wine Region
The word is out: Sonoma County charms visitors.
This beautiful agricultural region on the Pacific Ocean north of San Francisco no longer takes a back seat to neighboring Napa Valley in any aspect of tourism.
• Prices for accommodations, meals, wine and more are gentler than Napa's
• And the mood is slower, less commercial, and more authentic
• Why I think Sonoma County is such a hot California destination, & 9 great places to stay
Here's Why Visiting Sonoma County Wineries Is So Much Fun
Sonoma County is rich in world-class winemaking. The county houses over 450 wineries.
• Sonoma County wineries tend to be small-production, non-factory, small-batch wineries -- an earthier scene than Napa wineries
• Increasingly, Sonoma County wineries are organic or biodynamic
Sonoma County wineries tend to be very visitor-friendly.
• Most wineries feature tours, tasting rooms, wine clubs, and event spaces
• Tasting rooms are good places to... buy the wines at competitive prices
• Some wineries offer overnight accommodations right on the estate
What Kind of Wine Is Made in Sonoma?
• Sonoma County has 16 AVA (American Viticultural Areas) wine appellations, or wine-growing regions
• Sonoma's topography is more diverse than Napa's, with a Pacific coastline, rolling hills, extensive forests, and a fog like San Francisco's
• Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are Sonoma County's top grapes
How to Do Sonoma Wineries Right
• Sonoma County is big -- over 1500 square miles -- so it makes sense to focus on one AVA
• A reasonable tasting-room plan: one or two winery visits in the morning, and another two or three in the afternoon
• Learn more and check out wine-tasting routes and events at Sonoma Wines
• And order a free Sonoma winery map
On the coming pages, you'll experience the best of the many wineries that vacationers and day-trippers can enjoy on a Sonoma sojourn. Be ready for fun!Continue to 2 of 11 below.
02 of 11
Radio-Coteau in Sonoma County: Old-World Technique, New-World Fruit
Best Reason to Visit: Extremely Sophisticated Wines at a Modest, No-Frills Winery
Radio-Coteau is a small garagiste (indie) winery owned and run by Eric Sussman, a native New Yorker who studied agriculture at Cornell.
• Radio-Coteau has been on the radar of serious oenophiles since its opening in 2002
• Sussman produces a variety of wines including Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Syrah
• The Pinot Noir “La Neblina” is a must-try
• Radio-Couteau produces a secondary label called “County Line,” more moderately priced than Radio-Coteau
• The 2013 County Line Rosé was named Best California Rosé by the New York Times; if you like dry rosé, try County Line's
Where to Taste Radio-Coteau's Wines
• You can order Radio-Coteau wines at top Bay Area restaurants including Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, Thomas Keller's Bouchon, and Robert Curry's Auberge du Soleil
• Tastings at the winery are by appointment only; call 707.823.2578
Find Out More
• Radio-Coteau websiteContinue to 3 of 11 below.
03 of 11
Benovia Winery in Sonoma County, California: Flying High
Best Reason to Visit: Some of Sonoma's Oldest Vines, Cultivated at a Modern Winery
Benovia Winery is set in mid-Sonoma County just outside the city of Santa Rosa.
• It was founded in 2005 by husband-and-wife team Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane
• The winery is named for Joe's passion, his 1940s DC-3 passenger jet he dubbed "The Spirit of Benovia"; sometimes the jet appears in air shows at Santa Rosa's airport
• Benovia's co-owner Mike Sullivan is winemaker and general manager
Benovia produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and a small amount of Viognier.
• Benovia Pinot Noir uses grapes from the Martinelli Vineyard, with some of Sonoma County's oldest vines, planted in 1896
• When I visited, my favorite Benovia wines were La Pommeraie Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
• You can taste them all in Benovia's Tasting Room, set in a rustic ranch house on the property
Find Out More
• Benovia Winery website
• Tasting room by appointment... only, 707.526.4441
• Benovia Pinot Noir Chocolate Truffle recipeContinue to 4 of 11 below.
04 of 11
Paul Mathew Vineyards in Sonoma County: Small Production, Big Reputation
Best Reason to Visit: To Discover a Super-Versatile Red Grape
Paul Mathew Vineyards and tasting room are set in the charming small town of Graton near Bodega Bay on Sonoma County's Pacific coast.
Paul Mathew's Wines
Paul Mathew winemaker Mat Gustafson and his wife Barbara create wines with great flavor and nuance.
• Their winery's Valdiguié, an unusual red grape similar to Gamay, pairs delightfully with fish, poultry, or red meat
• The Ruxton Vineyard Pinot Noir is a standout as well
Find Out More
• Tasting room is open from Thursday to Sunday
• Your tasting is free if you buy a bottle
• Culinary events are held regularly in Paul Mathew's tasting room
• Paul Mathew Vineyards website
• 707.861.9729Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Lynmar Estate in Sonoma County: Wine & Food, Both Made with Love
Best Reason to Visit: Great Wines and Good Eats in Gorgeous Surroundings
Lynmar Estate has come to the attention of serious wine lovers -- and wine travelers.
• Lynmar offers one of California's most beautiful tasting rooms, with a terrace (shown above) overlooking Quail Hill Vineyard and the Sonoma foothills
Lynmar Estate's Wines
The winery was founded in 1990 by Anisya and Lynn Fritz.
• They produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Rosé
• The Pinot Noir “Quail Hill Vineyard” is sublime
• Quail Hill Vineyard's vines are among the oldest in the Russian River Valley
Dining at Lynmar Estates
Winery restaurants are rare in Sonoma County. But Lynmar offers lunch plus a wine bar with a food menu.
• Winery chef David Frakes trained at the California Culinary Academy and with Chef Gary Danko at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
• “Picnic Pairings,” a farm-to-table lunch served from April to September indoors or out, offers three different picnic menus with wine pairings
Wine-Tasting at... Lynmar Estates
Wine tastings are enjoyed at a sleek, wood-paneled bar.
• You can sip as you nibble on Sonoma-made charcuterie, cheeses, greens, and other local treats
• Try the bar's organic popcorn; its salt is flavored with chervil and Moro blood oranges grown nearby
Find Out More
• Lynmar Estate website
• 707.829.3374Continue to 6 of 11 below.
06 of 11
Littorai Vineyards Winery: Burgundy, Sonoma-Style
Best Reason to Visit Littorai: A taste of Burgundy in Sonoma County
Littorai owner Ted Lemmon was the first American winemaker at one of Burgundy's finest wineries, Domaine Roulot in Meursault. He established Littorai Winery in 1993.
Lemmon's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs both show obvious French influences in their subtlety and elegance.
On my visit I experienced amazing vertical tastings: of one varietal in numerous vintages.
• My vertically-tasted Littorai wines: Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs
• My favorite Chardonnay: B.A. Thieriot
• My favorite Pinot Noir: Haven Vineyard
Tasting Options at Littorai
• Visitors have tasting options: the Gold Ridge Estate Tour & Tasting (an hour and a half) or the Single Vineyard Tasting (an hour)
• Both are by appointment only
Find Out More
• 707.823.9586Continue to 7 of 11 below.
07 of 11
Moshin Vineyards in Sonoma County: The Wines Are Fine & the Puns Are Fun
Best Reason to Visit Moshin: Harmonious Wines Whose Labels Make You Laugh
Winemaking: an "Emoshinal" Connection
Owner and winemaker Rich Moshin was a math instructor at San Jose State University who loved making wine at home. He founded his innovative Moshin Vineyards in 1989 in the Russian River AVA.
Moshin Vineyards is known for:
• Its wines' quality
• Its four-tier, downward "gravity flow" winemaking apparatus, unique in Sonoma County, that controls 28 acres of grapes, mostly Pinot Noir
• And for its punning, humorous wine labels like Perpetual Moshin, Moshin Potion, Emoshin
The winery's varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé, and Pinot Gris.
Moshin Is Very Visitor-Friendly
• The tasting room is open every day
• Tours are available by advance appointment
• The winery is dotted with hummingbird feeders, a pleasure to watch
• Special events include winemaker dinners in local restaurants
• Moshin wines are spotlighted in an annual river cruise throu...gh Burgundy and Provence
Find Out MoreContinue to 8 of 11 below.
08 of 11
Thomas George Estates Winery in Sonoma: Best Wine Cave Around
Top Reason to Visit Thomas George: Impressive Tasting Room Carved from Stone
Who Is Thomas George?
Thomas George is run by a father-and-son team, Thomas and Jeremy Baker, who describe their product as "small-lot artisan wines."
Their winery is in the heart of Sonoma wine country, in close proximity to many other vineyards. It's a great place to start tasting Sonoma wines.
Thomas George's Wines
The Bakers produce diverse wines including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Zinfandel.
• My favorites here: Sauvignon Blanc “Windsor Oaks Vineyard” and Pinot Noir “Baker Ridge"
Thomas George Estates Is Community-Minded
• The 8,000-square-foor tasting room a true cave, is a must-visit
• No reservation is needed, and the tasting fee is waived with a bottle purchase
• The room can host up to 70 guests for a private sit-down inner
• The winery's mountaintop event venue is magnificent, too
• Several on-property guest houses -- 1920s ranchers' houses with one, two, or... three bedrooms -- can be rented for a true Sonoma wine getaway
Find Out MoreContinue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards: Beloved Founder, 100-point Wines
Best Reason to Visit: To Taste a Sonoma Icon's Legendary Wines in a Country Hamlet
Who Is Joseph Phelps?
Joseph Phelps is a California hero: one of the first modern winery owners in the Golden State.
• Phelps established his first winery, in Napa, in 1970
• Since then his signature wine, "Insignia," has garnered three perfect (100-point) ratings by Robert Parker of Wine Advocate
• In 1999 Phelps began developing another 100 acres of vineyards, in west Sonoma County
Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Guest Center (the Winery's Tasting Room)
Joseph Phelps' tasting room is set apart from the winery in the picturesque Sonoma hamlet of Freestone.
• No appointment is necessary
• While in Freestone, you can visit Osmosis Day Spa, with notable Japanese gardens
• Also in Freestone: Wild Flour Bread Bakery, with a perpetual line for bread and baked goods from a wood-fired brick oven
Find Out MoreContinue to 10 of 11 below.
10 of 11
Fort Ross Vineyard, Sonoma County: From South Africa to Northern California
Best Reason to Visit: An Exquisite Setting above the Fogline, Overlooking the Majestic Pacific
Fort Ross Vineyard's Global Backstory
Fort Ross Vineyard is owned by South Africans Linda and Lester Schwartz, who relocated to Sonoma and set up shop in 2012.
• The winery is in a newly designated AVA wine region, Fort Ross
• The area is named for historic Fort Ross, built by Russian homesteaders in the early 1800’s (which explains the name of the local Russian River)
• The vineyards and winery are beautifully set on hilltops above the fog line on bluffs overlooking the Pacific
Fort Ross Vineyard's Wines
• Open sunlight means that grapes can produce ample sugar
• The winery is known for its Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Pinotage
• Pinotage, a red, is South Africa's signature grape (and wine varietal)
• My favorite Fort Ross wine: Pinot Noir “Symposium”
Fort Ross' Tasting Room
• The tasting room is open every day with no reservation needed
• Fort Ross Historic State Park, a few miles from... the winery, is worth a side trip
Find Out More
• Fort Ross Vineyard website
• 707.847.3460Continue to 11 of 11 below.
11 of 11
Paradise Ridge Winery in Sonoma County: Where Samurai Met Sonoma
Best Reason to Visit: A Breathtaking Setting with an Amazing History
First, Paradise Ridge's Backstory
This perennially award-winning winery in the hills overlooking Santa Rosa has a surprising past.
• The original winery was founded in 1856 by Kanaye Nagasawa, heir to a samurai title and one of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S.
• He became known as "the Grape King"
• Sadly, his heirs lost the property during the U.S. government's persecution of Japanese-Americans during World War II
• A small museum at the winery showcases Nagasawa photos and memorabilia
• Read his incredible story
Paradise Ridge Today
The Byck family bought the estate in 1978. Its current winery, now known as Paradise Ridge, opened in 1994, and is run by brother-and-sister Rene and Sonia Byck.
• They produce a delicious Sauvignon Blanc as well as a sophisticated bubbly wine simply called "Sparkling"
Tastings at Paradise Ridge
• The tasting room's entry fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase
•... Tasting-room visitors can enhance the experience with a wine-paired tasting of local artisan cheese; call or reserve in advance here
More to Do at Paradise Ridge
• The winery features a four-acre outdoor sculpture garden, Art in Paradise
• Outdoors summer through fall, visitors can savor Pizza in Paradise: house-made wines with pies hot from the patio pizza oven
• Wine and Sunsets runs from late spring through the fall
Find Out More
See you in Sonoma County!