Northern California’s Napa Valley has long been considered one of the world’s premier wine-making destinations. But when considering a visit, don’t discount its more rustic neighbor to the west, Sonoma County. In fact, Sonoma boasts over 60,000 acres of vineyards compared to Napa’s 43,000 and actually hosts more tourists each year.
So it’s no surprise that Sonoma County is the perfect spot for a solo trip, girlfriends’ getaway, or romantic vacation. With its 18 distinct wine regions, a host of great restaurants, cool lodging options, and world-famous wineries, Sonoma truly can’t be beat. Implement these tips for the ultimate wine lover’s experience in this lovely place, and your trip is sure to be a memorable one!
1. Be Sure To Arrange Transportation
Sonoma’s vineyards are very spread out, as this wine region is sprinkled over more than 1,500 square miles in the county. As such, it’s important to arrange reliable transportation for your party between wine tastings well ahead of time. While samples are not a full glass of wine, they can add up quickly, and buzzed driving is not a good choice. Luckily, there are some solid options to ensure your safety in Sonoma County. If you’ve rented a car or driven your own, Wine Tour Drivers will provide a designated driver and complementary route planning. Other great options for drivers are Destination Drivers or booking a limo service recommended by Wine Country Getaways. Please note that Lyft and Uber availability is sporadic, so these will not assure you a safe ride to your home-away-from-home in the rural Sonoma region.
Additionally, members of your group could take turns being designated drivers.
2. Avoid Peak Tourist Season
With over $2 billion spent by tourists in Sonoma County during 2018 alone, the area is a popular location for wine tourism. Unfortunately, that can mean increased traffic, longer wait times at wineries, higher nightly lodging rates, over-crowded restaurants, and more. To combat this, it’s best to avoid the so-called “high season” which falls between June and October and encompasses the popular harvest period (also known as crush). For more manageable crowds and lower rates, visit between November and May, as vineyards are generally open all year long. The weather is still pleasant, yet your wineries of choice won’t be teeming with other visitors. Experiencing a trip during low season makes for a much more relaxing and enchanting experience.
3. Stay In Santa Rosa
For a first-timer, Santa Rosa, the largest city and county seat of Sonoma County, provides an excellent base of operations for a visit to the area. It is located near the middle of the large county, making access to the different wine areas very convenient. It’s only a 40-minute drive to Sonoma (the city), 30 minutes to Guerneville, 20 minutes to both Healdsburg and Kenwood, and 15 minutes to Sebastopol. Plus, there are wineries right in and directly around the city for even closer imbibing options. Numerous accommodation options exist in Santa Rosa, including hotels, motels, Airbnbs, and even glamping spots, which offer a more luxurious form of camping well-suited to a wine country trip.
4. Choose Vineyards That Boast More Than Tastings
There are hundreds of wineries to choose from in Sonoma County. So how do you even begin narrowing down that intimidating list to decide where to spend your time?
Well, some spots offer more than just wine sampling. Matanzas Creek is a deserving favorite in the Bennett Valley. They are most well-known for their merlot and sauvignon blanc but also produce other varietals. Plus, they are home to a bocce ball court, lavender fields, artisan cheese tastings, and picnicking opportunities. There’s even something called a “black glass tasting” which is a guided sampling that explores how sight affects wine tasting as wines are poured into dark glasses instead of the traditional clear ones.
Another fun vineyard that offers more than sips is the Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. They offer a stunning mountaintop wine tasting experience as well as guided hikes through the 1,850-acre estate. One of the hikes is even designed for you plus a furry (dog) friend. Kunde also offers complimentary tours of their wine cave, usually at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. daily. While there, be sure to try the barbera, zinfandel, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc varietals.
Sonoma County is known for producing great sparkling wine, so it makes sense to visit a vineyard that specializes in effervescence. Try Iron Horse near Sebastopol -- a hilltop property that offers traditional tastings, plus an outdoor experience under the trees, weekly truck tours of the winery, and picnics. Be sure to book ahead of time at Iron Horse as they are by appointment only. While you’re there, enjoy the pinot noir rose and the huge variety of bruts, cuvees, and blanc de blancs.
5. Fly Into Sacramento Or Santa Rosa Airport
Unless time enjoying San Francisco is built into your itinerary, it’s best to avoid the congested mess of a city and its two airports, SFO and Oakland. Instead, consider flying into Sacramento International Airport. It’s located almost directly east of Santa Rosa and is roughly a two-hour drive with much less traffic. Other transportation options abound, including buses, trains, or private drivers if you prefer not to rent a car. Also, some flights land directly in Santa Rosa during certain times of year. This is an even more convenient option, but can be pricey.
6. Take A Break From Wining
While wine tasting is the key experience during a Sonoma getaway, don’t neglect the other activities Sonoma County has to offer. The Russian River Brewery’s original location in Santa Rosa can add a hoppy element to your grape-heavy trip. Or, check out their new Windsor, California, location for a full brewery tour. Be sure to try the coveted IPA, Pliny the Elder, for a special treat. Lagunitas Brewing Company is also nearby in Petaluma, California. Before partnering with Heineken, Lagunitas was one of the largest craft breweries in the country. They offer multiple types of tours daily and provide a fun, laid-back ambiance.
For more outdoorsy activities, there are eco-centric kayaking tours available in Jenner and Russian River rafting near Healdsburg. Both experiences can center around self-guided or guided tours based on your group’s preference. Or, drive to Bodega Bay to see where Hitchcock’s eerie The Birds was filmed. Visitors can wander around the small town and down to the docks to see fishermen haul in their catches of the day.
7. Don’t Forget To Eat
Sonoma County has a bevy of incredible dining options for locals and travelers alike. After all, nothing pairs better with wine than a great meal. For an old-school Italian haunt, complete with handmade pastas, try Catelli’s in Geyserville. A classic bistro and perennial Sonoma favorite is the girl & the fig; this charming French spot is especially delicious for a Saturday breakfast or Sunday brunch experience. Another delightful option, especially for a group, is Bravas in Healdsburg. This Spanish establishment offers the finest tapas in the area and is extra fun to share and sample with friends. Another wonderful spot, The Spinster Sisters, is centrally located right in Santa Rosa. This cafe serves up local cuisine for all three meals and has good, cheap wine available on tap.
Note that even during the off season, it’s helpful to have dining reservations. At the very least, call ahead to inquire about the wait time so you can plan your day accordingly.
8. Let’s Get Sustainable
Another great way to narrow down which vineyards to visit is to focus on eco-friendliness. There are celebrated green wineries located all over the county. Scribe Winery is a favorite owned by two charmingly laid-back brothers. The vineyard occupies a former turkey farm and is rejuvenating the property with sustainable winemaking methods.
Santa Rosa’s own St. Francis Winery & Vineyards is also making impressive strides in sustainability. In fact, their bottles are comprised of half recycled glass, they are Certified California Sustainable, and the property composts all food scraps.
Overall, it’s easy to see that a trip to Sonoma County California offers so much to visitors. From incredible wines to lovely restaurants, outdoor adventures, and more, Sonoma truly has it all.