Sonoma County, the expansive and breathtakingly beautiful wine-producing region that’s located along Napa’s Western shoulder is a popular destination for those who want to taste award-winning wines, relax at a quaint inn, or have a more active visit hiking in the forest and exploring historic sites.
Sonoma draws visitors not simply because of its production of outstanding wines from a dozen different micro-regions, but because the destination is unpretentious and affordable for just about everyone. In the Sonoma area, you can sit down to exceptional meals prepared from ultra-fresh, locally-sourced ingredients without locking in reservations a year in advance and sample the region's best varietals minus the high tasting fees you might experience at other wine destinations. And best of all, during your trip, you’re bound to run into some pretty friendly locals (don’t be surprised if that knowledgeable couple offering you an extra splash of dry rose actually owns the winery).
Sonoma County also delivers top-notch spa services and outdoor adventure getaways like exploring the ancient redwoods that will help you relax, recharge, and reconnect with nature. Whether heading to Sonoma for the weekend or a vacation, these tips will help you get started planning.
Getting To Sonoma County
While the Sonoma Valley feels far from the urban stresses of the Bay Area, Sonoma County’s most southerly point begins just 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re flying in to San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is actually south of the city of San Francisco, rent a car and drive the Highway 101 scenic route to Sonoma County. Allow 1 ½ to 2 hours to drive from SFO to the town of Sonoma, and around 3 hours to get to Healdsburg, another popular stop in the Sonoma Valley. Both wine country locales are built around charming town squares lined with shops, restaurants and tasting rooms.
Places to Stay
There’s lodging for every budget in the Sonoma Valley and some enticing places to spend your time in wine country.
- Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa (Sonoma): You may be tempted to skip your valley wine tasting plans so you can spend more time at this luxurious, full-service resort. The property, which was built atop a natural mineral hot spring, boasts a 40,000-foot spa, an 18-hole championship golf course, several restaurants (including the Michelin-designated Santé), a sprawling resort pool, and nightly wine tastings.
- Beltane Ranch (Glen Ellen): Devotees of the farm-to-table movement will be totally in their element at the Beltane Ranch, a five-room B&B is located in a historic 1892 farmhouse. In this quiet setting, you'll be just steps away from working organic orchards, vineyards, and gardens. Their estate-grown wines include Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. Full breakfasts feature fresh ingredients from the ranch and other local providers.
- H2 Hotel (Healdsburg): This LEED Gold certified boutique property located along Healdsburg’s town square, manages to be hip, laid-back and eco-friendly all at once. The property’s considerable efforts to reduce its environmental impact include filtering all rainwater through its “living roof” of plants and using solar panels to heat the swimming pool and hot water in guest rooms.
- Sonoma Creek Inn (Sonoma): The budget-minded traveler will appreciate the casual yet centrally-located Sonoma Creek Inn situated a few miles north of the Sonoma Plaza, near the Sonoma Mission Inn. The inn’s 16 guest rooms, many of which have a private outdoor patio or deck, provide a relaxing environment with the amenities you'll need for your wine country getaway including Wi-Fi, flat-screen TV's, coffeemakers, A/C, and free parking.
At last count, Sonoma County had more than 425 wineries with varietals to suit any taste and budget. When crafting your own tasting adventure, these five wine-trail favorites are an excellent place to start. Just be sure to call or email ahead—some wineries in Sonoma, especially the smaller ones, require reservations.
- MacRostie Winery & Vineyards (Healdsburg): Built along the hillside overlooking an expansive section of the Russian River Valley, the Estate House (the vision of winemakers Steve and Thale MacRostie) affords exceptional views from every table and the rare opportunity to enjoy a seated tasting overlooking the tranquil vistas from one of the four patios or stunning indoor areas. Guests select from two curated tasting flights. Reservations are recommended.
- Buena Vista Winery (Sonoma): Yes, this is one of the oldest working wineries in Sonoma, but you’ll get anything but a stodgy retelling of its history. Instead, the “reincarnated” Count of Buena Vista” (played by character actor George Webber) will walk you through his property’s storied past, through its dramatically lit caves, and a wine tool museum. You'll be invited to taste exclusive current release wines and visit the Champagne Cellars. Tours are $25 per person. The museum-only tour is also available for $10 per person— children with a paying adult are free.
- St. Francis Winery & Vineyards (Santa Rosa): One of the most sought-after “restaurants” in Sonoma is, in fact, a winery. For $85 you can enjoy an evening in their elegant estate dining room for a multi-course wine dinner. The executive chef selects the wines for the seasonal pairing-menu—a five-course fine dining experience, led by wine and food experts. In addition, in their Sonoma Valley Tasting Room, guests can enjoy a tasting flight of their award-winning Sonoma County wines for $15.
- Lasseter Family Winery (Glen Ellen): John Lasseter and his wife Nancy don’t widely distribute their excellent French-inspired small batch wines—which is what makes tasting them all the more special. Your best opportunity to sample their curated collection is to reserve a tasting right at the winery, where you’ll get to walk among the grapes hear the personal story behind each unique varietal and the colorful labels that adorn each bottle. The Proprietor’s Reserve Tour and Tasting is $45 per guest and reservations are necessary.
- Twomey Cellars (Healdsburg): Refreshingly, Sonoma doesn’t have an attitude about bringing small children along on wine tasting—but it helps to choose a family-friendly spot. Twomey’s patio and flat, crescent-shaped lawn make it easy to keep an eye on the kids as you sip.
In addition, there are many wineries in Sonoma County that offer either free wine tasting or waive the tasting fee with wine purchase.
Part of the Sonoma Valley experience is eating local. Chefs create culinary masterpieces with seasonal foods from their gardens as well as from the small farms in the surrounding area.
- The Girl and the Fig: Rustic, Provencal-inspired restaurant The Girl and the Fig, located in The Sonoma Hotel, has been a “must-visit” dining experience for locals and visitors alike for over two decades. The restaurant’s French-Californian fare showcases the very best of what’s in season, with many ingredients sourced directly from the restaurant’s own herb garden and organic farm. Dishes such as Croque Monsieur, Wild Flounder Meunière and Steak Frites, and are paired with French-inspired cocktails (like the signature Fig Royale) and locally produced wines made from Rhone-Alone varietals.
- Cafe La Haye: Arriving at Cafe La Haye, housed in a gorgeously transformed former garage located just off Sonoma Square, you’ll instantly feel as if you’ve been welcomed to an intimate dinner party thrown by owner Saul Gropman and executive chef Jeffrey Lloyd. The consistently updated menu celebrates fresh-from-the-farm ingredients and features a daily risotto and fish special.
- Dry Creek Kitchen: The town of Healdsburg has become a well-lauded culinary destination in its own right, with much credit for that distinction owing to Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. Most of what’s served in the sleekly minimalist dining room—from the meats and seafood to produce and olive oil—is sourced directly from nearby Sonoma County purveyors. You'll enjoy the best of the sea and land with selections such a delicate Hamachi Crudo with Meyer Lemon, Sonoma Chicken Breast with Rosemary Garlic Jus, and perfectly seared Black Angus Strip steak. The wine program is equally committed to the region’s excellence, showcasing 100 percent Sonoma County wine, with more than 500 selections from across the Russian River and Alexander Valleys, Dry Creek, and the Sonoma Coast.
- Glen Ellen Star: This popular restaurant which resembles a quaint wine country farmhouse, offers both local and international dishes. The ambiance is friendly and inviting, the offerings seasonal and current, and, for the most part reasonably priced. Glen Ellen Star offers a two-course menu on Wednesdays for $36 plus complimentary corkage for Neighborhood Night.
Recharge in the Sonoma Valley
Are a few days of swirling and sipping, you’ll be ready for some detox and relaxing time exploring nature and history. These are a few top spots to recharge your batteries.
- Willow Stream Spa: Few things feel as instantly restorative as dip into the mineral pools at the Willow Stream Spa, located at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. The naturally-heated waters are fed by a thermal spring flowing up from more than 1,000 feet below the ground. Head inside to experience the spa’s signature bathing ritual—which includes an exfoliating shower, two mineral-soaking pools, herbal steam dry sauna and cool-down showers—before capping off your morning or afternoon with a spa treatment. In addition to massages, facial treatments, and bodywork, guest can select mind-body focused options including Reiki with Reflexology, Guided Meditation, and Body-Energy Alignment.
- Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve: Coast redwood trees—some as tall as 250 feet, 16 feet wide, and living up to 1,800 years—used to preside over much of northern California’s coastal region. Today, you can experience what this area used to look like by visiting the Armstrong Reserve, which preserves 805 acres of these majestic Sequoia sempervirens. The park offers nine trails, between one to 10 miles in length, that lead you through the massive trees, allow you to inhale the redwood scent, and relax in the forest.
- Jack London State Historic Park: Once home to one of America’s most prolific and well-loved authors, this 1,400-acre property features several historic buildings, including the cottage where Jack London wrote many of his late stories and novels and the ghostly remains of his dream home, Wolf House (ravaged by fire in 1913). Explore the small onsite museum (which contains an excellent exhibit devoted to Jack’s short but highly adventurous life), or stretch your legs on 29 miles of trails that crisscross Sonoma Mountain backcountry.