What’s California’s top wine county destination? While Napa Valley has taken top billing since there were vines in the soil, it’s no longer the top contender for the title. These days, you’re bound to hear rave reviews for Sonoma County, the expansive and breathtakingly beautiful wine-producing region that’s located along Napa’s Western shoulder—and no longer in its shadow.
Sonoma draws both visitors and accolades not simply because of its production of outstanding wines from a dozen different micro-regions, but because the destination is unpretentious and accessible to just about everyone. Here, 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 exorbitant tasting fees. 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 a top-notch spa and outdoor adventure getaway, with a multitude of experiences to help you relax, recharge and reconnect with nature. Whether heading to Sonoma for the weekend or a booking extended trip, use this guide to maximize every moment.
While it can feel a million miles away from the real world, Sonoma County’s most southerly point begins just 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re flying in, make San Francisco International Airport (SFO) your hub, and rent a car to take you along a 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. Both wine country locales are built around charming town squares lined with shops, restaurants and tasting rooms.
Unless you’re driving to Sonoma via your own set of wheels, you’ll definitely want to rent a car to get around. With such a beautiful drive, we did it in style and tested the 2016 Lexus RX 450h SUV. Rather than using a traditional GPS system or our typical Google Maps app, we downloaded the Lexus Enform App Suite because besides offering navigation, it also gave us access to mobile apps like Yelp, OpenTable, and Pandora through the vehicle's center-console display.
No need to be a Silicon Valley CEO to secure a room in Sonoma; there’s lodging for every budget.
If you book your stay at Fairmont Sonoma Mission, you may be tempted to skip your wine tasting reservations so you can spend more time at the expansive, 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.
Devotees of the farm-to-table movement will be totally in their element at the Beltane Ranch. The five-room B&B is located in a historic 1892 farmhouse just steps away from working organic orchards, vineyards, and gardens. Full breakfasts feature fresh ingredients from the ranch’s larder.
H2 Hotel, a 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.
At last count, Sonoma County had more than 425 wineries—just a few more than you could possibly visit on a single trip! 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 require reservations.
- MacRostie Winery & Vineyards: Built along the hillside overlooking an expansive section 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, side-by-side tasting; just two glasses are presented at each pour.
- Buena Vista Winery: 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 new wine tool museum.
- St. Francis Winery & Vineyards: One of the most sought-after “restaurants” in Sonoma is, in fact, a winery. Executive chef Bryan Jones crafts an inspired and often unexpected five-course menu, each plate designed to pair perfectly with St Francis’ best varietals.
- Lasseter Family Winery: John Lasseter (Pixar Chief Creative Officer) 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.
- Twomey Cellars: 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.
- 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 nearly 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 recently refreshed 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. Chef de cuisine Warren Bullock brings the best of the sea and land to your plate, with selections such a delicate Hamachi Crudo with Meyer Lemon, Sonoma Chicken Breast with Rosemary Garlic Jus, and perfectly seared Black Angus Striploin. 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.
Are a few days of swirling and sipping, we can guarantee: you’ll be ready for some detox and downtime. Here 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 weave you through the massive trees.
- 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.