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, in terms of travel amenities, to neighboring Napa Valley. In fact, accommodations, meals, and wine are gentler than Napa's and the mood is slower, less commercial, and more authentic.
Sonoma County is rich in world-class winemaking. The county houses over 450 wineries. Vineyards here produce small-batch, non-factory-farmed wines that mimic the scene of early Napa wineries. Additionally, most Sonoma County wineries are either organic or biodynamic.
Sonoma's topography is more diverse than Napa's, with a Pacific coastline, rolling hills, extensive forests, and coastal fog, making this region ripe for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The area also has 16 AVA (American Viticultural Areas), or wine-growing regions, creating a diverse dichotomy of wine notes to suit any palate. If you chose to visit, select one or two wineries that land within one AVA to make your trip most manageable. Check out the favored wine-tasting routes and order a free Sonoma winery map before you go.
Radio-Coteau ranks high on the must-visit list of serious oenophiles. It's a small garagiste (indie) winery owned and run by Eric Sussman, a native New Yorker who studied agriculture at Cornell. Sussman produces a variety of wines including a riesling, a pinot noir, a chardonnay, a zinfandel, and a syrah. If you like a dry rosé, try their sister label's (County Line) moderately priced bottle which was named "The Best California Rosé" by the New York Times in 2013. Tastings at the winery are by appointment only.
Benovia Winery lies 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 after Joe's passion, his 1940s Douglas DC-3 passenger jet dubbed "The Spirit of Benovia."
Benovia produces a pinot noir, a chardonnay, a zinfandel, and a small amount of viognier. They use grapes from some of Sonoma County's oldest vines, planted in 1896 and located at the Martinelli Vineyard.
All of Benovia's wines are available to taste in their tasting room set in a rustic ranch house on the property And don't pass up the La Pommeraie Chardonnay and the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Tasting is by appointment only.
Paul Mathew Vineyards
Paul Mathew Vineyards and tasting room is set in the charming town of Graton near Bodega Bay on Sonoma County's Pacific coast. Paul Mathew, winemaker Mat Gustafson, and Paul's wife Barbara create wines with great flavor and nuance. Their winery's Valdiguié, an unusual red grape similar to a gamay, pairs delightfully with fish, poultry, or red meat and their Ruxton Vineyard Pinot Noir is a standout, as well. Paul Mathew's tasting room is open from Thursday to Sunday, no appointment necessary.
Enjoy both great wines and good eats in gorgeous surroundings at Lynmar Estate. This winery is a favorite of serious wine lovers and wine travelers. Lynmar offers one of California's most beautiful tasting rooms, with a terrace overlooking Quail Hill Vineyard and the Sonoma foothills.
Founded in 1990 by Anisya and Lynn Fritz, Lynmar Estate produces a chardonnay, a pinot noir, a syrah, and a rosé with grapes that come directly out of neighboring Quail Hill Vineyard—containing some of the oldest vines in the Russian River Valley.
Winery restaurants are rare in Sonoma County, but Lynmar offers a farm-to-table lunch menu, plus a wine bar with a food menu. “Picnic Pairings,” are served from April to September— indoors or out— with three different picnic menus, complete with a paired wine.
If you're just there for the sipping, wine tastings can be enjoyed at a sleek, wood-paneled bar. But you'll probably want to partake in some Sonoma-made charcuterie, cheeses, greens, and other local treats while you're at it. Try the bar's organic popcorn. The salt that dresses the top is flavored with chervil and Moro blood oranges grown nearby.
Littorai Vineyards Winery
Littorai's owner Ted Lemmon was the first American winemaker to work at one of Burgundy's finest wineries, Domaine Roulot in Meursault. After his stint abroad, he returned to the States and established Littorai Winery in 1993. Lemmon's chardonnays and pinot noirs both show obvious French influences in their subtlety and elegance.
While visiting this locale, experience vertical tastings of one varietal in numerous vintages to gain the full appreciation of their offerings. Visitors to this vineyard have options too: you can book the Gold Ridge Estate Tour and Tasting (an hour and a half production) or the Single Vineyard Tasting (only one-hour long). Both tours are granted by appointment only.
Be prepared to chuckle when you read the label of a Moshin Vineyard's wine bottle. The vineyard's punning, humorous wine names like Perpetual Moshin, Moshin Potion, and Emoshin are sure to crack a smile. But the labels are not all that make Moshin Vineyards stand out. Their quality wines are produced in a way that's unique in Sonoma County. They use a four-tier "gravity flow" winemaking apparatus that controls 28 acres of grapes, most of the pinot noir varietal.
Owner and winemaker Rich Moshin was a math instructor at San Jose State University who loved making wine at home. In 1989, he took his passion one step further by founding his innovative Moshin Vineyards in the Russian River AVA. The winery's varietals include a chardonnay, a pinot noir, a rosé, and a pinot gris. The tasting room is open every day and tours are available by advance appointment.
Thomas George Estates Winery
Thomas George Winery is run by a father-and-son team, Thomas and Jeremy Baker, who describe their product as "small-lot artisan wine." The Bakers produce a diverse selection of wines including a chardonnay, a pinot noir, a sauvignon blanc, a syrah, and a zinfandel.
Their winery sits the heart of Sonoma wine country, in close proximity to many other vineyards, and showcases an 8,000-square-foot cave-like tasting room carved from stone. The room itself can house up to 70 guests for a sit-down dinner.
For the complete experience, book one of the property's guest houses—1920s rancher's houses with one, two, or three bedrooms. No reservations are needed for tasting and the fee is waived with a bottle purchase.
Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards
Joseph Phelps is a California hero and 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 magazine. Joseph Phelps' tasting room (or visitor's center) is set apart from the winery in the picturesque Sonoma hamlet of Freestone and no tasting appointment is necessary.
While in Freestone, visit Osmosis Day Spa, with beautiful Japanese gardens or check out Wild Flour Bread Bakery to sample crafted bread and baked goods from a wood-fired brick oven.
Fort Ross Vineyard
Rise out of the coastal fog to overlook the majestic Pacific ocean at Fort Ross Vineyards. Owned by South Africans Linda and Lester Schwartz—who relocated to Sonoma and set up shop in 2012—the winery resides in a newly designated AVA wine region (called Fort Ross). The area is named after historic Fort Ross, built by Russian homesteaders in the early 1800s.
Access to the open sunlight, free of fog, gives Fort Ross's grapes a leading edge and allows them to produce the ample sugars needed for wine production. The winery is known for its pinot noirs, chardonnays, and a pinotage (a red, South Africa's signature grape and varietal). Fort Ross's tasting room is open every day with no reservations needed.
Paradise Ridge Winery
This 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. Nagasawa became known as the "Grape King" but, sadly his family lost the property that currently houses Paradise Ridge Winery 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
Today, brother-and-sister Rene and Sonia Byck produce a delicious a sauvignon blanc here, as well as a sophisticated bubbly wine. The property features a four-acre outdoor sculpture garden called Art in Paradise. And in the summer, visitors can enjoy "Pizza in Paradise"—house-made wines with pies hot from the patio's pizza oven. The winery's "Wine and Sunsets" offering can also be enjoyed late spring through the fall. Tasting-room visitors are invited to enhance their experience with a wine-paired with local artisan cheese. And the tasting room's entry fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase