In 1981, the Sonoma Valley was named among Sonoma’s first American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). However, its importance to and impact on winegrowing in the region dates back far longer.
Sonoma Valley’s first known vineyards were planted by friars at Mission San Francisco Solano in 1823, and in in 1857, Hungarian-born soldier and entrepreneur (and eventual crocodile victim, but that is a story for another column) Agoston Haraszthy opened its first winey: Buena Vista, which is not only still open but has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating family winery in all of California.
As you can imagine, Buena Vista was the first, but certainly not the last, winery to find success along the sweeping 17-mile stretch of land between the town of Sonoma and Kenwood bordered to the east by the grand Mayacamas Mountains and to the west by the epic Sonoma Mountains.
Today, Sonoma Valley boasts more than 100 wineries as well as nationally acclaimed eateries, award-winning resorts, lush golf courses and so much more. Obviously, there is no way to see and do it all in one weekend. But we are here to help you try (or, at the least, plan a handful of visits to the area!).
The 226-room the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which is five minutes from the bustling historic Sonoma Plaza, is the ultimate place to stay in the area. Full spa? Check. Access to world-class golf? Check. Expansive suites? Check. Award-winning restaurant? Check. Thermal springs? Check. Wait, what?
Yes, the Sonoma Mission Inn was built atop a natural go-thermal hot spring. As a result, it boasts multiple thermal pools on property, a true luxury by even the highest of standards.
The 182-room Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection is similarly stunning. In recent years, the property went through an insane update, so even if you’ve been before, it is worth seeing now, especially the cottages. Each has a private entrance and your own set of bicycles to use while staying!
Kenwood Inn by Four Sisters is also in the region. We are OBSESSED with all the resorts under the Four Sisters collection of curated boutique spots across California. OBSESSED. For that reason, we also love their Inn at Sonoma property just off the Historic Plaza as well. Insider tip: do not say no when they offer you their cookies!
If a frequent Fabulous California reader, three of the region’s wineries – Hamel Family Wines, Gundlach Bundschu Winery (pictured at top of page) and Three Sticks Winery – should already be on your list.
To build it out a bit more, here are some best bets:
Buena Vista Winery: Obviously, you must visit Sonoma County’s first-ever winery. The show starts in the parking lot here. Once parked, you walk down a looooong garden path. Along it on the hill is a massive art installation called “History Hill,” featuring stand-ups of famed figures throughout history welcoming you down the path. There are founding fathers, inventors and even a stand-up of Father Junipero Serra, who is credited with bringing grapes to California for mission vineyards. Oh, they also have the ancient gods of wine, which is a kick.
Before visiting the actual winery and its caves, you will see an outdoor maze. If you have the time, try your hand at venturing through it. Once inside the tasting room, there are copious tastings from which to choose (stay tuned for an upcoming column that delves deep into them), but no matter what; pay the fee to do the full tour of the property, which is led by a guide in full character. Expect secret rooms, passageways and a full glass during the entire tour.
Ram’s Gate Winery: Perched between the Sonoma Valley AVA and its Carneros AVA neighbor, Ram’s Gate towers from above. Set atop a hill with views that will take your breath away, the 28-acre estate winery looks like a page out of Architectural Digest. Once inside, it becomes “Top Chef” meets Wine Spectator thanks to Executive Chef Stacy Combs and head winemaker Joe Nielson. In the words of Janice from “Friends”…Oh.My.Gawd. There is a five-course food and wine pairing experience that will make your head explode. If staying for a long weekend, they also have seminars every Sunday on a different topic. Could be wine blending (so fun!). Could be hacks on pairing wine with food. Could even be an up close and personal workshop on barrel aging. Honestly, you can spend an entire day here and still want more.
Landmark Vineyards: Did you know John Deere has a connection to wine country? Yep. Among Landmark Wines’ co-founders is Damaris Deere Ford, who happens to be great-great-granddaughter of John Deere himself! How is the wine, you ask? Their ability to source from vineyards that each claim a unique microclimate and soil composition and deft blending gives them over-the-top results. When visiting and tasting as their Sonoma Valley winery, opt for the bocce ball tasting, an outdoor experience that gives you access to the bocce court for two hours plus a glass of wine for each guest, a curated cheese and charcuterie board, and keepsake wine glasses. Obviously, you can add a classic or reserve tasting as well.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards: Sparkle! Sparkle! One of Sonoma Valley’s best varietals is sparkling wine, and Gloria Ferrer – also on that Carneros/Sonoma Valley border area – is a boss when it comes to bubbles. They are also a leader when it comes to green. In 2016, Gloria Ferrer received the official sustainable certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, in fact. When visiting, if interested in going the bubbles route, opt for the caviar experience. It features tastes of the Royal Cuvée, Extra Brut, Carneros Cuvée Rosé and Carneros Cuvée along with deviled egg with truffle oil and trout caviar, a crab cake with remoulade and white sturgeon caviar, and gougeres with creme fraiche, house-cured steelhead trout and smoked trout caviar. Be sure to book it on the patio for the view as well!
WALT Sonoma Plaza: Did someone say chocolate? WALT Wines offers insanely decadent chocolate and pinot noir pairing. The seated sweet stop also gives guests the chance to taste from “top to bottom” of the winery starting with its northernmost vineyard and working the way down. You will not believe how the chocolate brings out such different flavor notes in each pairing, and how the slightest changes in terroir from vineyard to vineyard impact the wine.
Beyond wineries, do not miss the Sonoma Plaza itself. Completely walkable, there is a perfect mix of shopping, galleries and eateries, notably:
Prohibition Spirits: This husband-and-wife business that started after the couple fell in love with limoncello, and started making their own. One turned to two, two to four and so on. Today, they carry four types of “cellos,” including one with fig; a full line of whiskies; three types of rum; five gins including a pink one; brandies; and specialty spirits, including a California moonshine and a walnut liqueur that blow the doors off. They offer tastings daily in addition to full bottle purchases, making it a fun twist on a “tasting” in wine country.
The Girl and the Fig: I mean, no story about Sonoma Valley is complete without a moment of fan-girling over the iconic Girl and the Fig! Founded by the one-and-only Sondra Bernstein – widely considered the mother of wine country cuisine – the French-inspired bistro beams with warmth upon entering. The hype is real here. From cocktails to service to all that food; it is a special place in a region of special places.
Within the region, you will also love Annadel State Park, Abbot’s Passage Winery & Mercantile, Purely Sonoma, Kenwood, B.R. Cohn, Kunde Estates, Lake Sonoma Tasting Room, Donum, Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and HopMonk.
For more information or to plan your visit, click here.