Northern California's easygoing county is a haven for wine and food lovers with a taste for variety.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call Sonoma County the land of milk and honey, because it’s the land of so much more.
Yes, milk and honey figure in, but so do wine, olive oil, beer, spirits, all manner of produce and much more. Let’s also not forget the Sonoma chefs who turn all of this heavenly bounty into bold new dishes and bites.
About an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has become the ultimate poster child for good foodie living. It boasts a diverse ecosystem of microclimates and dramatic elevation shifts that reach east-west from the Napa Valley to the cool Pacific Ocean. Marin County lies to the south, Mendocino County to the north.
Its Mediterranean climate nurtures just about every type of happiness-inducing morsel known to gourmands. And then there’s the wine, another shining example of this place’s earthly perfections, from cool-coastal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to briary Zinfandel and finely tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s our list of top places to visit when experiencing the culinary and vinous riches of the region.
Founded in 1997 by passionate cheesemakers Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, Cowgirl’s three fresh and seven aged offerings are made from local organic milk. Its Mt Tam and Red Hawk cheeses are widely acclaimed. The original creamery in nearby Point Reyes Station is still in operation. Guided tours are available every Wednesday at 11:30 am. Look online for a schedule of cheese classes.
Call ahead to reserve a tour of Spring Hill’s downtown production facility, Petaluma Creamery, where weekday tours are preferred, but weekend tours are possible. Walk next door to Petaluma Creamery’s store to taste and buy owner Larry Peter’s handcrafted Cheddars and jacks made from the milk of 400 Jersey cows.
Matos Cheese Factory, Santa Rosa.
Matos is truly a working farm, oft muddy and smelling like, well, a farm. But its St. George is worth every speck of muck, a heartbreakingly-buttery, semi-hard cow cheese inspired by the family’s Portuguese Azores heritage. 3669 Llano Rd., (707) 584-5283
Gaetano Vella started making cheese in Sonoma in 1931. The family carries on, focusing on all-natural, dry jack cheeses.
A picturesque place for picnics, historic Marin French, the oldest cheese manufacturer in the U.S., makes internationally recognized Brie and Camembert from cow and goat milk.
Lagunitas’s TapRoom and Beer Sanctuary is truly what it’s touted to be—a vast, working oasis of all things brew. Devotees are invited to linger over its popular beers: IPA, Imperial Stout and Little Sumpin’, seasonal favorites like Little Sumpin’ Wild or Brown Shugga’, as well as special releases available only at the brewery. For the hungry, there are appetizers, salads, paninis and desserts to enjoy with a regular rotation of live music to keep things hopping.
Racer 5 IPA is among the most recognized of Bear Republic’s beers, but it makes a slew of others to enjoy on its sunny, downtown patio.
Dean Biersch, of Gordon Biersch Brewing Company fame, rotates Moonlight, Gordon Biersch and Lost Coast beers on tap, among many others. The live music and food are good, too.
From its famous Pliny the Elder Double IPA to its Damnation Golden Ale (Procrastination is coming back soon), Russian River provides good reason to ponder the larger meaning of beer, sitting at its friendly outside tables or along the bar. New beers are constantly popping up, envisioned by award-winning co-owner and Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo. Lines extend down the street every February when Pliny the Younger is released, but there is a chalkboard menu’s worth of reasons to stop by any time of the year.
Try a Rat Bastard Pale Ale, Bootlegger IPA or Bush Whacker Wheat at this brewpub that’s situated along the Russian River, and pair it with a sandwich or burger off the grill to enjoy riverside.
WINERY TASTING ROOMS
In the tasting room that’s set against the Mayacamas Mountains, indulge in a seven-course, seasonally inspired menu paired with seven of Mayo’s reserve wines.
Pair current releases with local cheese, salumi or something fresh from the winery’s gardens ($20). You can also pick up housemade preserves and seasonal produce from the farm stand.
The historic winery hosts food trucks on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month from May through September, serving a variety of barbecue, Indian food and cupcakes. On Fridays, the winery opens its Landslide Terrazzo Pizza Café, with woodfired pies and wines alfresco.
Executive Chef Justin Wangler is a master of texture and flavor, a kid in a gourmet candy store with KJ’s culinary and sensory gardens steps away from his kitchen. Enjoy seated pairing menus that match limited-production and reserve wines with cheeses, desserts or other delectables. Just prepare to be blown away by Wangler’s creativity in making small-but-mighty bites.
J’s sparkling wines, Russian River Valley Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are ideally suited for The Bubble Room, a luxurious sit-down, full-service salon. Executive Chef Mark Caldwell pairs multiple wines with each of three courses ($65), inviting diners to dive deep into pairing philosophies and tastes, seasonally inspired, of course.
Ask a local what their favorite restaurant is, and chances are they’ll name Scopa, a narrow, oft-packed sliver of a place in downtown Healdsburg. Chef/Owner Ari Rosen has made pizza and pasta a religious experience in the heart of fancy food land. Winemaker Wednesdays feature local winemakers pouring their goods tableside.
Sonoma’s answer to The French Laundry, complete with a caviar and Champagne cart and a well-appointed bar, Cyrus is the epitome of elegance and refined, award-winning cuisine.
Co-owner Duskie Estates found fame as a competitor on Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, but has been beloved by locals (along with co-owner/chef and husband John Stewart) for embracing the farm-to-table philosophy well before it was de rigueur. Their Black Pig salumi and bacon have taken off, too. Zazu is the quintessential Sonoma County wine and food experience—casual in spirit, but überserious in food sensibilities—and not to be missed.
The latest from beloved local restaurateur Sonda Bernstein, this lovely Victorian-housed spot serves high-end Italian food, and features a grappa bar and its own gardens.
An old-style homespun diner set in the heart of Carneros, Fremont takes a locavore gourmet approach, and is a muststop place for breakfast or lunch.
Slated to open in May by French Laundry alum Ari Weiswasser and his wife, Erinn, the daughter of winemaker Mike Benziger, this spot’s wood-fired-oven fare and housemade ice cream look to take center stage.
Yucatán-born Chef Mateo Granados combines his heritage with Sonoma-grown ingredients to make singularly inspired Mexican cuisine, paired with an equally elevated Tequila bar. Check out the restaurant’s outdoor patio.
There is simply no better Neapolitan-style pizze and piadine in Sonoma County than Rosso. Its housemade burrata is freakishly addictive, too. DISTILLERIES
An up-and-coming microdistillery that makes gin and whiskey, it will soon be housed in the Barlow Center, a food-and-drink mecca in downtown Sebastopol that will also feature Kosta Browne, La Follette, Wind Gap, Marimar Torres and other local wineries, in addition to breweries, bakeries, coffee roasters and other artisans. Expect tours of the distillery, where fermenting and distilling will both take place.
Tiny Stillwater is where a lot of fine spirits are being made in Sonoma these days, including Wylie Howell Whiskey, made from organic whole-grain sweet corn.
OTHER ARTISANAL FOOD PURVEYORS & FARMERS MARKETS
Chef, cheese maker, caterer, culinary educator and owner Sheana Davis is a veritable fount of information and passion for cheese. At Epicurean’s cheese, wine and beer bar, she offers fresh and soft cheeses, conducts classes and tastings and serves local artisan soups and sandwiches that can be enjoyed onsite or taken away for picnics or parties.
Sheana Davis is among Sonoma County’s most beloved and knowledgeable cheesemakers. She’s the founder of the annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference and Winter Artisan Cheese Fair, and owns The Epicurean Connection shop, where she makes and sells cheese, teaches cheesemaking classes and gives guests tips on beverage and cheese pairings.
While Davis says certain cheeses call for wine, others make for a delicious beer pairing—an underrated match she likes to highlight for guests of her shop.
“You find in the wine business people drink a lot of beer. They’re good friends, cheese and beer, and so easy to pair,” says Davis. She claims that because beer has carbonation that scrubs your palate, lifting away oils, fats and strong flavors, the bubbles reset the palate just in time for your next bite of cheese. That’s why beer also works so well with other mouth-coating foods, such as eggs and chocolate.
“They’re both fermented products. If you have a fruity wine, you go for a light cheese, and when you have a dark stout, you go for a heavy, hearty cheese. And when you find brewers who are treating their brews like wine, it’s amazing,” she says.
Davis is increasingly finding examples of cheesemakers-turned-brewers and vice versa. Denise Jones, brewermaster at Santa Rosa’s Third Street Aleworks, for example, is also making cheese at Moylan’s Brewery & Restaurant in Novato, California. Arne Johnson of Marin Brewing Company and Daniel Del Grande of Bison Brewing are both also newly making cheese.
Here are Davis’s top three picks for local beer and cheese pairings.
Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Hop Stoopid Ale pairs with The Epicurean Connection’s Delice de la Vallee: “The hoppiness of the this ale finishes beautifully with the creamy tang of the cheese,” says Davis.
Bear Republic Brewing Co. Racer 5 IPA matches Weirauch Farm & Creamery’s Tomme Fraiche: “The sweet and citrus flavor of the IPA complements the rich and smooth tomme flavor,” she says.
Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder pairs with Two Rock Valley’s Goat Cheese: “The hint of pine and pleasant bitter finish [in the brew] pairs perfectly with this earthy, aged goat cheese,” says Davis.
Here’s how to make Davis’ Crème de Ricotta at home.
Crème de Ricotta
Recipe courtesy Sheana Davis, The Epicurean Connection, Sonoma, California
1 gallon whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ cup fresh blackberries
½ cup fresh peaches, peeled and cut into ¼-inch cubes
In a heavy-bottom stainless steel pot set over a low flame, heat the milk and cream, stirring frequently, until an instant-read thermometer registers 200˚F when inserted into the liquid. Once the milk is heated, stir the mixture a few times clockwise, then quickly add the vinegar, continue stirring and sprinkle with the salt. The milk will start to coagulate immediately and white curds will begin to float. Cover and allow it to simmer for 10 minutes.
Place a colander inside a bowl and line the colander with cheesecloth, or a 200-count cotton cloth. Gently ladle half the curds into the cloth, allowing them to drain. Place the fresh fruit in the center of the colander and gently ladle the remaining curds over the fruit. Using all four corners, gently pull the cloth up, fold it over the cheese and allow it to drain for up to 15 minutes, depending on your desired consistency (the longer it drains, the firmer the texture will be). Once it’s drained, gently lift the cloth up while carefully squeezing the liquid from the cheese. Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth, place on a serving board and serve with a warm baguette.
Beer Pairing: Crème de Ricotta pairs nicely with Russian River Brewing Company's Pliny the Younger, a Triple IPA with three times the hops of a regular IPA.
If RRBC isn’t available in your area, try your favorite local IPA with high IBUS (definitely more than 100) for a similar pairing experience.
Visit the DaVero farm and orchard and get a guided tasting of everything they make, from olive oil and wine to jams. Wander the fields, have a picnic or ask any question you like about biodynamic farming.
A cozy downtown cafe serving large, brick-oven breads from Della Fattoria’s farm west of Petaluma. Della’s polenta, currant walnut and Kalamata breads will bring happy tears to your eyes.
An organic peach farm hidden among Dry Creek’s vineyards, its bounty includes heirloom yellow peaches, white peaches, nectarines and plums. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, July through mid-September.
A veritable Sonoma County institution, vintage-style country store Jimtown offers gourmet breakfast and lunch goodies that are prepared in the tiny kitchen behind the counter. Eclectic condiments, jams, nuts, cookies and wine are available for purchase up front.
Nestled beside the Mayacamas Mountains, Oak Hill is 45 acres of farmland, planted with flowers, organic greens, heirloom vegetables and orchard fruit. Check out the Red Barn store on the grounds. Open Wednesday through Sunday, April through December.
Navigate the Russian River’s cold waters and witness a vast landscape full of vineyards, farmhouses, river homes and redwood groves. Burke’s will supply a two-seat canoe or kayak for a 10-mile, self-guided meander with plenty of picnic and sunning spots along the way. It’s a favorite habitat of otters, osprey and turtles. May through October is the best time to visit; $60 per canoe.
Elegant Ramekins offers all kinds of regular cooking classes and demonstrations, but new this year is a series of fourday, farm-fresh culinary retreats, including a Sonoma Artisan Retreat and Sonoma French Retreat. Winemakers, sommeliers and wineries like Opus One provide oenophiles education on winemaking, tasting and food pairing.
A shallow inlet just past Bodega Bay Harbor, Doran is a two-mile stretch of sandy beach ideal for kite flying, camping, having a picnic or walking your dog. A $6 day parking fee is charged per car. Nearby Bodega Head is the go-to lookout spot during whale season, usually winter and early spring.
This picture-perfect farmers’ market could have jumped out of a movie set. In addition to produce grown mostly within 10 miles of town and pasture-finished meat, eggs and wild fish, the market also serves great coffee, pastries and Rosso Pizzeria pizza. May through November, starting at 9 am, or Wednesday from 4–7 pm, June through October.
Soar quietly over the Russian River, vineyards, redwood forests, Geyser Mountains and all of Sonoma County wine country in a hot-air balloon, followed by a Champagne brunch.