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California’s most diverse county, Sonoma is rich with sprawling cities, folksy towns, a rocky coast, Redwood forests, the mighty Russian River, plus peaceful pastures and farms. More to the point—its vineyards yield some of the world’s greatest wines.
Separated from its more famous neighbor, Napa Valley (with whom it maintains a friendly sibling rivalry), by the Mayacamas Mountains, Sonoma County holds 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). One of those is Sonoma Valley. There’s also a town of Sonoma. Some confusion is understandable.
As with all California coastal counties, Sonoma has a warm-cool spectrum.
Regions closest to the ocean and San Francisco/San Pablo Bay are suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while the warmer, inland AVAs are naturals for ripe, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons, Petite Sirahs and Zinfandels.
Because of Sonoma’s diverse climates, virtually every grape variety grown in California performs well somewhere within its 1,576 square miles—the same size as the state of Rhode Island.
Winters can be chilly and wet—the little town of Cazadero is the rainiest measuring station in California. Yet, it can hit 75 degrees on a winter afternoon, delighting denizens of outdoor cafés.
Summers, by contrast, shine warm and dry (just what grapevines like), with May through October the height of the tourist season. Yet, Sonoma never sees the crowds that converge on Napa.
Towns like Healdsburg, Sonoma and Sebastopol have memorable artisanal restaurants, while sprawling Santa Rosa, the county seat, is the metropolis of the North Coast.—Steve Heimoff