Four days of spectacular scenery and terrific tastings in one of California’s most diverse wine regions.
When it comes to getting Sonoma—really getting it—you have to jump in with both feet. All the maps and books in the world won’t help you arrive at more than a skin-deep appreciation of this sprawling wine region, California’s most diverse.
A month of intensive travel would do it, but who has a month? So here’s the Wine Enthusiast’s solution: A four-day sprint that might leave you gasping for breath at the finish line, but will saturate you in the county’s realities.
Mine is only a sample itinerary; I don’t want to be a travel commandant. You don’t have to visit the wineries I did, or eat at the restaurants I mention, or stay where I stayed for the night. But if you do, you’ll have a heck of a great time.
Here’s the concept. Assuming you’re driving up from the Bay Area, Day One is in the south: Carneros and Sonoma Valley. Day Two gets up to the county’s northernmost AVA, Alexander Valley, and adjacent Dry Creek Valley. Day Three explores the byways of the Russian River Valley. On Day Four, we travel out to the Sonoma coast, where there are few wineries, but some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.
Ready? Let’s go.
Coming up from San Francisco, you’ll first hit the Carneros, the cool region of rolling hills, once pastureland, that has proved so successful for Burgundian varietals and, surprisingly, Merlot. A nice place to stop is at Gloria Ferrer Champagne Cellars on Route 121. It’s up to you: Sip some Champagne, take the winery tour, or both. Either way, the sweeping views from the winery’s patio are inspiring.
Any visit to Sonoma Valley inevitably begins at the town of Sonoma, and the heart of Sonoma is the Town Square. There, the staff of the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau will be glad to help you plan your touring.
Galleries, fine restaurants, bookstores, wine shops, hotels and boutique shops surround the square. When I drive up from the Bay Area—the trip takes about an hour—I like to settle down by taking a cappuccino and pastry at the Basque Cafe, on First Street East. Downtown parking, by the way, is meter-free. Just up the street are the Wine Exchange of Sonoma and the Sonoma Wine Shop, two stores where it’s fun to browse and see what’s new. And then it’s on to the real deal, visiting wineries.
There are several within a few minutes’ drive of the Square. Sebastiani, with its historic old stone building and huge, beautifully carved wooden casks, offers guided tours, but it’s fine to just walk through. The tasting bar is a good place to taste Sebastiani’s wines, which are much improved lately.
Just a few minutes away, down twisting, bucolic Old Winery Road, is Sonoma’s, and California’s, oldest winery, Buena Vista. This property—the name means “beautiful view”—preserves the magnificence of the majestic Sonoma countryside, and the old vineyards, surrounded by hills covered with gnarled oaks and evergreen madrone, are beautiful indeed. The old Press House, with its primitive winemaking equipment, hand-hewn stone walls and dark, dank atmosphere, dates back to 1857, and you really get a sense of what a 19th-century winery was like. The wines, particularly the Carneros Estate line, are very good. Four tastes for free.
Zinfandel lovers won’t want to miss the home of “no wimpy wines,” Ravenswood, just a mile or so away. There’s a fee of $4 for tasting four regional selections, and while you usually won’t be able to taste the famous single-vineyard rarities, you can buy them.
Lunchtime is a great time to be in Sonoma. People come into town from all over, and if the weather is nice, they sit outdoors. One of the best restaurants in town is The Girl and the Fig. The modern California-style cuisine is a favorite among vintners. Just across the street is the famous Piatti Restaurant and Bar, which was for a long time the fine-dining establishment of the area. Also scattered around the square are many affordable places to eat.
Most of the post-1970 wineries are located northwest of town on Route 12, in the Valley of the Moon, the name that the writer Jack London gave this lovely place. To get to the wineries, you have to drive through the little Latinized hamlets—they’re hardly towns—of Boyes Hot Springs, Agua Caliente and Fetters Hot Springs, no easy task, as traffic can be terrible, but thankfully only for a few miles. The best, certainly the safest, way to visit wineries along Route 12 is to stop at the ones on your right as you drive out, leaving the wineries on your left for the return trip. That way, you won’t have to dart across the highway, where speeding cars stop for nothing.
About five miles out of town comes Arrowood, now owned by Robert Mondavi Winery. Its handsome, modern tasting room is perched on a knoll with a pretty view. As at Ravenswood, you won’t usually get to taste the best stuff, but you never know when they’ll pull out a few bottles of something special.
The Imagery Estate is just down the driveway. Owned by the Benziger family, its varietal wines can be very good; five tastes for $5. But an equally impressive attraction is the gallery of modern art, the best in the valley.
Beyond the Glen Ellen turnoff is a gap in the wineries, although the vineyards come right down to the road. After a few miles you’ll come to what I think of as Haut Sonoma Valley, around the town of Kenwood. Kunde, five miles beyond Arrowood, has its handsome, ziggurat-shaped tasting room in the middle of its vineyards. All the wines are estate bottled, so Kunde is a good place to see what pure Sonoma Valley wine is like: an intense purity of varietal fruit, irresistible flavor and balance and refreshing acidity. Kunde also offers a tour of its caves, but only on weekends.
Just a mile farther is one of my favorite pit-stops. Every wine Landmark makes is available for tasting. The regular releases are free, but for $10, you can taste four reserve bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all of them rare and special. That’s a great deal.
Above Landmark, the mountains press in and the valley narrows. St. Francis’s new tasting room, two miles beyond Landmark, has a Spanish Mission design, with a bell tower like Robert Mondavi’s. They charge $5 for a taste of four wines, while three of the excellent Reserves will set you back $15. That’s a lot, but the reserve tasting is in a private room, where they also serve you delicious hors d’oeuvres. And the wines are terrific.
Beyond St. Francis is the last winery before the suburbs of Santa Rosa. Ledson is housed in a huge stone structure that’s a cross between a French chateau and Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. The gourmet deli is well stocked, and if it’s a nice day, you can picnic on the mansion’s grounds.
Then it’s back toward Sonoma town. In the valley’s warm “banana belt” is B.R. Cohn Winery. Owner Bruce Cohn, who still manages the Doobie Brothers, produces a single-vineyard Olive Hill Cabernet Sauvignon that is one of the most unique wines in the valley, and you can sample it in the rustic little tasting room.
Just beyond Cohn is Valley of the Moon Winery, which got a shot in the arm when it was taken over by Korbel. Set among lush vineyards at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, the wines are among the valley’s best values.
For lodging, there’s no more opulent place than the Sonoma Mission Inn. Although some locals prefer the newish MacArthur Place, for me, the pink stucco Sonoma Mission Inn is the ultimate in pampered luxury. From the four-poster beds and working fireplaces to the sunken jacuzzis in some rooms, it’s what my father used to call “not too shabby.” You can get a manicure or massage, play golf or swim and get a good workout in the gym.
When it comes to dinner, there are so many good restaurants in the valley, you won’t know where to start. Cafe La Haye, just half a block off the square, is certainly one of the best. The sophisticated comfort food is deceptively simple and delicious, making it a favorite of winemakers. Another terrific place is Carneros, a few blocks south of the Town Square. Chef Brian Whitmer used to oversee the kitchen at the famed Highlands Inn, in Carmel. The wine lists at both La Haye and Carneros offer a good selection of Sonoma County wines. If you’re looking for someplace inexpensive, some say the best Mexican food in the county is at Sonoma Taco Shop, at 18340 Sonoma Highway.
Sonoma is not a late-night town and there’s not a whole lot to do after dinner. You’re best off getting a good night’s sleep, because you’ll be up early tomorrow for the second big day of your Sonoma sojourn.
Alexander Valley &
Dry Creek Valley
The drive north from Sonoma town takes you through bustling Santa Rosa, the county seat, and then to the 101 Freeway, known in these parts as the Redwood Highway. Just outside of town is the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. Summer is the best time to visit, when you can see 32 grape varieties growing on 16 trellis systems, but there’s tasting and things to see year-round. Around Windsor, traffic lightens, and you enter serious wine country. Big, ugly billboards advertising wineries sprout like mushrooms beside the road; vineyards, too. Eight miles beyond is Healdsburg. Strategically located at the nexus of the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys, it’s a great place to make your base camp for exploring these appellations.
But it’s too early to make camp now, so, continuing north, you cross the Russian River then go up a little hill, round a bend, and suddenly, there it is, in all its picture-postcard glory: the Alexander Valley.
This long, river-gashed valley was declared an AVA in 1988, but was known for its soft, earthy red wines long before that. The valley’s south flank is held down by Geyserville. Population 1,650, it’s not much of a tourist town—a few cottages and a run-down downtown. My favorite store is the Geo. M. Bosworth & Son general store, where you can buy good Western wear. Southeast from Geyserville runs little, twisting Route 128 toward the Mayacamas Mountains—Calistoga is on the other side. Down this bucolic wine trail you’ll find a clutch of small wineries, including Murphy-Goode, Sausal, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Hanna, Fieldstone, de Lorimier and others.
Part of the charm of a secondary road like 128 is seeing how real people live. These agricultural neighborhoods have an atmosphere of impoverished gentility, until you realize that even a fixer-upper can cost $500,000.
Nine miles north of Geyserville is the northern terminus of Alexander Valley (and Sonoma County), Cloverdale. On the way up, you’ll see on your left extensive modern vineyards planted in rust-red earth. A must-stop is the Geyser Peak Winery, whose large stone and concrete edifice is a familiar sight. Now owned by Jim Beam, the distiller, Geyser Peak still offers some of the most consistent value wines in the country. Five regular releases can be tasted for free and there’s a $5 charge for three or four reserve wines.
Cloverdale doesn’t offer much for the tourist. This is a hard-working farming community, although there is a small wine and visitors center. You can see how the hills close in here, pinching off the Alexander Valley and bringing it to a close. A few miles up is the Mendocino County line.
Just south of Geyserville is another cluster of wineries: Trentadue, Chateau Souverain, Canyon Road (owned by Geyser Peak) and Clos du Bois. All are worthy of a visit. Clos du Bois in particular, offers wines under winemaker Margaret Davenport. In the modern tasting room, five wines can be tasted for free.
Alexander Valley seems like a big appellation, but in fact, at 32,500 acres, it’s less than half the size of the Dry Creek Valley AVA. If you follow a rigorous schedule, you can do it in a morning, then head back to Healdsburg, check into your lodging, have lunch and devote the afternoon to Dry Creek Valley.
It’s impossible to overstate Healdsburg’s charm. It’s always been quaint, but the booming economy of the 1990s brought in lots of money, and this town of 10,000 is now in danger of becoming boutiqued to death. Still, the blocks surrounding the old town Plaza will prove irresistible to shoppers and those in search of good food.
There are tons of places for a casual lunch. The Healdsburg Coffee Company & Cafe, at 312 Center Street, is a local favorite. One place I always hit is the Oakville Grocery, an offshoot of the famous Napa gourmet shop, on the corner of Mathieson and Center streets. The take-out is fantastic. You can sit in the courtyard or the Plaza on a warm day, or take your food with you on your travels.
There are also many places to stay, ranging from inexpensive to posh. There’s a Travelodge at 178 Dry Creek Road, with rates as low as $79 a night, and, right across the street, the slightly fancier Dry Creek Inn. But the most luxurious place in town is the Madrona Manor, at 1001 Westside Road, about one mile from the Plaza. This spectacular country inn, a sprawling and intricately detailed Victorian mansion set amid English gardens, is expensive and dignified in an old-fashioned way; the little restaurant serves up four-star food equal to most anything in San Francisco.
The Dry Creek Valley AVA dates back to 1983. Dry Creek Road runs through its heart, paralleled just a mile away on the valley’s west side by West Dry Creek Road. The two are connected by several bridges that span the little creek (all that remains of the torrent that carved the valley) and a transit of both roads will take you to most of the famous wineries.
This was originally Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc country, but Cabernet Sauvignon does well and so, increasingly, do Rhône varieties. About four miles up the valley, at the intersection of Dry Creek Road and Lambert Bridge Road, is the Dry Creek General Store (established 1881), where you can get munchies. Taking the left turn over the old bridge gets you to the west valley, in many ways its heart and soul. Here are Rafanelli, Deux Amis, Pezzi King, Preston and many others; tasting rooms tend to be rustic. Dry Creek Vineyard is a good start. Many of its reserve wines ($5 to taste four) are estate grown, and show off the valley’s vibrancy of fruit and the earthy tannins that give the wines structure and depth.
A little farther up West Dry Creek Road—one of the most beautiful wine trails in California, for my money—is Quivira Vineyards. Everything they make is from Dry Creek Valley, and it’s all available to taste for free. After a few more meandering miles, you come to Raymond Burr Vineyards. Tasting is free, and you get the added bonus of a mini-museum dedicated to the career of Burr, the late movie star and TV’s Perry Mason.
|Just past Burr is Yoakim Bridge Road, which leads half a mile back to Dry Creek Road. You’d better take it, because West Dry Creek continues on up into the hills, and has no outlet. Go left on Dry Creek, and you’ll soon come to the valley’s showstopper edifice, Ferrari-Carano. After all the humble little wineries, this Italianate pink palazzo comes as a shock. You’d swear you were in Tuscany, and the wines are excellent; $3 for any four.|
The last of the valley’s wineries is Lake Sonoma Winery, now owned by Korbel. Here, in its warmest northwest corner, the valley comes to an abrupt end at Lake Sonoma, held back by its earthen dam. The view from the ultra-modern tasting room is stunning. You can see all the way down to the Mayacamas range, and to the ridge where tomorrow’s destination, the Russian River Valley, begins its westward bend.
Dinner in Healdsburg is no problem. Park by the square and choose: California fusion, Asian, Mexican, Italian, veggie; you name it.
Much has changed in the Russian River Valley over the years—villages have become towns; towns, cities—but one thing remains the same: the river itself. Sometimes rampaging, more often it’s just a lazy old thing winding its way down from the Mendocino highlands.
At 96,000 acres, the AVA, which dates to 1983, is less than half the size of Napa Valley. But it is endlessly more complicated. It’s unfair to try to do it in just one day, but there it is—you just have to be selective.
The dog-ear that extends on the east side of the 101 Freeway is political spoilage that can be discounted; even locals concede its artificiality. The real Russian River Valley is the box-shaped region that extends, broadly, from Healdsburg to Santa Rosa in the east, and from Occidental to Guerneville in the west. Fog and a cool maritime influence are the coin of the realm, and that means early ripening varietals, especially Pinot Noir. Only it’s not that simple. (When is it ever?)
|If you stayed in Healdsburg, you can begin the day in the valley’s northeast quadrant, where the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Chalk Hill come together. At the intersection of Eastside Road and Old Redwood Highway are two wineries that share a parking lot: J Wine Co. and Rodney Strong. Both have good tasting rooms and make good wine. Oded Shakked, J’s winemaker (he also has his own small brand, Longboard) says this area, the Upper Reach of the Russian River, is its warmest part. Although people grow Pinot Noir, the region is increasingly known for its Rhône varietals.|
The main east-west road in the valley’s northern half is Westside Road. You can reach it by getting back on 101, or by following Eastside back into Healdsburg. One word of caution: If you’re touring Russian River Valley, bring a good map and have a good general sense of the roads. It’s very easy to get lost. (I’ve gotten lost on a regular basis here for the past 20 years.) It’s also advisable, at any time of the year, to dress in layers. You can be hot one minute and shivering the next. Winters can bring inundating rains.
Westside is as close to a wine trail as the valley has. A few miles past Madrona Manor, you enter the holy of holies, the Middle Reach of the Russian River. As the road twists and turns, every now and then opening on magnificent views to the south, you go past Armida, Rabbit Ridge, Belvedere, Toad Hollow and Hop Kiln, arriving after six miles at one of the appellation’s must-see wineries, Rochioli, where tasting is always free. The Rochioli family has grown grapes there pretty much forever, and once they started making their own wines, they joined the ranks of rock-star winemakers. Pinot lovers love Rochioli.
Just a little farther on is Davis Bynum, here since the early 1970s. Located in a tangle of madrone and bay laurel, this venerable winery, in an old stone hop kiln, offers a range of wines to taste, mostly for free. Hampton Bynum, the VP, says the Middle Reach extends about two miles to the west and three miles to the east. What’s so intriguing about this stretch is how well Zinfandel can do, even though this is Pinot Noir country. “The fog funnels up from Bodega Bay,” bringing cool nights and mornings, says Bynum, “but we have extremely long, warm days. It’s that temperature variance that makes the Middle Reach special.”
Just west of Bynum, you’ll see the hillsides explode with conifers: redwood and fir. Since both grow only where the fog is, this is a clue to climate change. There aren’t many wineries west of Bynum (although Gary Farrell is just beyond), so this is a good place to turn south, on Wohler Road, where you’ll recross the Russian River over a dramatic red bridge.
You’ll hit River Road, which to my mind divides the valley between its (relatively) warmer northern section, and the cooler south. Korbel lies a few miles to the west, in a chilly pocket of its own. Most of the winery action is to the east. About a mile eastward is a cluster of wineries in a very cool area that Hamp Bynum calls the Laguna region (named after a local road), but which others call the Gold Ridge district, named after a sandstone formation that is superb Pinot Noir terroir. Here are classic Pinot producers: Dehlinger (not open to the public), Joseph Swan and others. Dehlinger produces a successful Cabernet from vineyards just high enough to poke through the fog and allow grapes to ripen.
The main east-west road south of River Road is Guerneville Road. If you drive west, you’ll feel the weather grow perceptibly cooler and more moist; you can taste the salt tang of the Pacific, just 10 miles away. You’re now entering the coldest part of the Russian River Valley, Green Valley, which is its own AVA. As you approach the little town of Graton, population 1,400, you’ll come to one of the best wineries in Sonoma County, Marimar Torres.
The estate is an adobe yellow Catalan-style building, perched on a hill. It is not open to the public on a regular basis, but visitors who call in advance can make an appointment for a 90-minute tour (weather and business permitting) that is one of the best and most absorbing in California. The winemaker there, Tony Britton, calls Torres a “destination winery,” and the view from the upper part of the Don Miguel Vineyard is spectacular.
By now, you’re probably ready for lunch. This is a good time to head back east, to Sebastopol, the major town in the south (population 7,800) and a good place to spend the night. There are plenty of places for lunch. Locals recommend Cafe da Vero, at 7531 Healdsburg Avenue, or 101 Main Bistro and Wine Bar, at 101 South Main.
Sebastopol is an old town, named after the Crimean seaport in Russia, and a beautiful one, but like Sonoma and Healdsburg, it’s in danger of choking on its success. Traffic can be awful, but it’s a convenient place to start off on a tour of the Russian River Valley’s southerly flank. You don’t notice Sebastopol’s elevation until you head eastward on Occidental, the most southerly east-west road, and find yourself descending into the Russian River Valley’s broad, flat southeast quadrant. In this ancient flood plain, Pinot remains king. Here is another Hanna tasting room, and, a little to the north, Sunce and Pellegrini. Here, too, is Martinelli, famed for single-vineyard Zins, Chards and Pinots. On Olivet Road is the standard-bearer in these parts, DeLoach.
Winery president Michael DeLoach colloquially calls this area the Piner-Olivet district, named after local roads. It’s too cool to ripen Cabernet (although the eucalyptus and palm trees suggest otherwise). Instead, this is Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc country. The winery offers a broad range of wines to taste for free.
By now it might be a good time to head back to Sebastopol for the night and do some exploring. Sebastopol is a hip, alternative-lifestyle kind of town. Crystal shops, street musicians and natural food stores abound and the pungent aroma of incense (and sometimes certain other herbs) fills the downtown streets.
I stayed at the Sebastopol Inn, at 6751 Sebastopol Avenue, one of the newer places ($112-$152), which is downtown. A little further out is a very nice Holiday Inn Express, at 1101 Gravenstein Highway South ($89-$159). There are many good places to dine. The K&L Bistro (119 South Main) is wildly popular among local vintners. The food is California cuisine and portions are huge.
Another lodging place of note is the Applewood Inn and Restaurant, at 13555 Highway 6, in Guerneville, a luxurious place to stay or dine. The restaurant’s wine list is one of the greatest in Sonoma County, with an in-depth listing of local wines.
Have a good night, and wake up for breakfast at the East West Cafe, 128 North Main Street, where the bohos munch braised tamari tofu in ginger sauce, served on toast. From here, it’s a straight shot out the Bodega Road to the coast for the final day of your sojourn.
On any given day, driving out to the coast can be like entering a cave—a big white cave. A thousand-foot thick wall of fog blankets the shore for a few miles inland. But the sky can also be brilliantly, preternaturally blue and sunny. It’s only 14 miles from Sebastopol to Bodega Bay along the twisty, scenic Bodega Road, which is also Highway 12. The farther west you get, the denser become the stands of redwood, fir and spruce. About five miles out, the road begins a rapid, steep ascent up and over the final range of coastal hills separating Russian River Valley from the sea.
This is wine country only in the most extreme sense. Until a few years ago, no one in his right mind would have thought of planting grapes here. Today, gamblers, mostly Burgundian in outlook, roll the dice. They believe that, in a warm vintage, the coast will produce California’s greatest Pinot Noirs. Others think it’s too cold. Time will tell.
Near the Bohemian Grove, you enter high pastureland. After 10 miles you come to the little village of Bodega (different from Bodega Bay). With its trim, shingled frame houses and tall, steepled white church, it could be in New England. Just outside of town, you’ll hit Highway 1, the old coast road, the “PCH” (Pacific Coast Highway) of Southern California, which runs the entire length of California’s 644 miles. Turn north and enjoy the roller-coaster ride. Cows and sheep graze the steep slopes, and hawks and falcons ride the thermals as the road loop-de-loops until you enter Bodega Bay, population 950.
The blue jewel of Bodega Bay and, over the bluffs just beyond the inlet, the Pacific Ocean, take you by surprise. The town itself is a mile-long stretch of restaurants, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, galleries and kitschy shops, not terribly pedestrian-friendly. Before it became a tourist town, Bodega Bay was a fishing village, and it is still home to a fleet of 300 working boats. The coast is a place to relax and unwind, after three frenetic wine-filled days. Bodega Bay may not be wine country, but it’s quintessentially Sonoma. You can stay in an inexpensive motel, modestly priced B&B or expensive inn, or you can rent a cottage on the beach. I stayed at the Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa, at 103 Coast Highway One, a luxurious, 84-room resort with killer views and a fine restaurant. Even on a frigid day, the lodge’s jacuzzi offers outdoor warmth with glimpses of the bay, the dunes and headlands.
Whenever I come, I head down to the Sonoma Coast beach and walk over the dunes to the sea. The ocean here is cold, the color an almost alarming cobalt blue marbled with emerald green. The beaches are almost always deserted, or nearly so, and a pleasure to walk. Flocks of hungry gulls and cormorants careen low above the sand; harbor seals live here, too, waddling in the surf or sunbathing in the sand.
Most of the coast, from Bodega Bay to Jenner, is a chain of state beaches: Salmon Creek, Marshall Gulch and Portuguese Beach, each little more than a sandy cove. This is San Andreas Fault country, and the land is tortured. Just offshore, isolated, jagged towers of rock rise from the sea, where breakers hit them in huge explosions of spray. This 13-mile stretch of road includes campsites, picnic areas and hiking trails.
As you enter the town of Jenner, with fewer than 400 people, there’s a little wood-shingled Indian restaurant with a tiny parking lot. It abuts a long, narrow steel bridge, the final span across the Russian River before the ocean. Below, the river widens to an estuarial lagoon, brackish in summer, clear and deep in rainy winter. From here, you can get a sense of the geological factors that impact almost all of Sonoma’s viticulture, and a good part of Mendocino’s. Here, the river has found one of the only outlets to the sea through the natural barrier of the thousand-foot-high wall of coastal hills. Conversely, here also the cold northwesterlies find an open window inland, carrying with them the fogs and mists that meteorologists call “the maritime influence.” This natural air conditioning follows the river along its entire course; without it, inland Sonoma would be a summertime furnace.
If you were to kayak from this spot inland, you would come to Guerneville, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale, recreating your journey. And what a journey it’s been: a rush of sights, sounds, scents and flavors that are all Sonoma.