If a genie was to grant you three wishes and you chose great food, great wine and gorgeous surroundings, you’d land in California’s Sonoma County. An hour north of San Francisco, with an enviable coastline to the west, Napa Valley to the east and rugged Mendocino County to the north, there’s no better place to indulge your hedonistic tendencies. Sonoma County produces some of the New World’s best cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Rhône-inspired wines, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Its bounty of local fare ranges from oysters and Dungeness crab to spring lamb and Liberty duck, while the county can grow everything: fruit, vegetables and herbs. If that weren’t enough, the region also has a longstanding reputation for fine artisan cheeses.
Where to Dine
Perpetual Michelin-starred restaurants Madrona Manor and Farmhouse Inn are the top choices for gourmet fare, while longstanding local favorite Zazu Kitchen & Farm has recently moved into swanky new digs. In Healdsburg, don’t miss either of chef Ari Rosen’s Italian eateries: Campo Fina for lunch and bocce on the outdoor patio, Scopa for dinner and Winemaker Wednesdays. Nearby Barndiva celebrates the best of fresh, locally sourced food with an equally inspired cocktail list.
Where to Stay
The largest concentration of upscale digs is in Healdsburg. Within walking distance are the eco-luxurious choices of sister properties, the h2hotel and Hotel Healdsburg, both with restaurants. Just outside of town, Madrona Manor has gorgeous gardens and a classic Victorian vibe, while the Farmhouse Inn will provide refined accommodations after a big-time meal. In Jack London’s backyard of Glen Ellen, the Gaige House is an Asian-inspired hideaway with full spa services.
With tall mountains, rivers and an enviable stretch of coast, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities here. Sonoma County Regional Parks is a good resource for all of them, including campsites run by Caryl Hart, wife of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Both the towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma feature friendly downtown squares, offering free concerts, farmers markets, arts and crafts shows and a great spot for picnics. They also serve as good distractions for the kids.
When to Go
Blessed with good weather much of the year, the real magic happens during harvest, typically August through October.
Local in the Know
Bill Price, a prominent local winery owner and investor, says, “The first place I always send people is one of our terrific vineyards, like Durell, Hyde, Monte Rosso or Gap’s Crown—they are the source of Sonoma’s greatness, and beautiful to boot. Kistler, Kosta Browne, Chateau St. Jean and Gary Farrell offer superb wine-tasting opportunities. For food, I love the Glen Ellen Star, Stark’s, Girl and the Fig and local spots like the Fremont Diner and Juanita Juanita.”
Where to Taste
The Wine Road unites wineries in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley. The Russian River Valley’s Westside Road makes a good starting point: consider Arista, Rochioli, Thomas George Estates and Porter Creek. Along Highway 116 near the tiny towns of Occidental and Graton are Iron Horse, Paul Hobbs, Merry Edwards, Red Car and Dutton-Goldfield. In downtown Sebastopol, find tasting rooms at The Barlow, Kosta Browne, Wind Gap, Freeman Winery, La Follette, Marimar Estate and MacPhail Wines, while Spirit Works Distillery produces handcrafted gin and whiskey. Experience the true Sonoma Coast in Fort Ross-Seaview, one of Sonoma’s newest appellations, by visiting Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery for ocean-enabled Pinot Noir and Pinotage, or the wilds of remote Hirsch Vineyards (by appointment). Slightly further inland, check out Littorai (by appointment) for a single-vineyard tasting or tour. Further north in Dry Creek Valley, it’s worth tasting Zinfandel at Dry Creek Vineyard, Lambert Bridge, Pedroncelli, Ridge Lytton Springs, Mauritson Wines and well-loved A. Raffanelli (by appointment).
Sonoma County is a wine wonderland. It’s blessed with such diversity in soils and microclimates that it can grow nearly every grape variety well, from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. But the real beauty of Sonoma County zeroes in on cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The two varieties define the growing world-class reputations of the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross-Seaview and Carneros AVAs. In Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel is the standout, so much so that a higher-elevation outcrop north of the valley, Rockpile, earned its own AVA designation in 2002. Farther inland, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley produce distinguished Cabernet Sauvignon.