Sonoma County is a land of sprawling beauty. Vineyards and wineries abound, as do secret, forested hideaways with pot farms. It is a place of rivers and redwoods, mountains and warm inland valleys, and a rocky, rugged coastline where cool fog and winds blow in from the Pacific.
Less than an hour from San Francisco, it boasts a number of charming small towns of rural flavor—Sonoma itself, Glen Ellen, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Bodega Bay—each with its own unique history and virtues. There are Michelin-starred restaurants, sidewalk cafés, hipster bistros, tasting rooms, brewpubs, organic fruit and flower marts, gardens galore, oak-laden parks, and lots of cute shopping streets filled with boutiques of every kind.
It’s an awesome place to spend a day, or a week, or however long you have. Here is a quick peek at a few of Sonoma’s many pleasures:
Every visit to Sonoma should begin, in my view, with a walk around Sonoma’s downtown plaza. The center of the plaza is a large and lovely park with shade trees, benches, a children’s play area, and the striking architecture of Sonoma City Hall. This is the spot, in 1846, where a group of rowdy and rambunctious American rebels planted the flag of the Bear Flag Republic, declaring California to be an independent state no longer tied to Mexico. A patriotic statue and boulder mark this epochal moment in California and American history.
Around the plaza are more historical sights—most notably, Sonoma Mission, one of the original missions founded by the Spanish friars during the Spanish colonial period. Inside the mission are a museum and an ancient Catholic chapel as beautiful as it is simple. Walk around General Vallejo’s old adobe—he oversaw the area until those pesky Bear Flag rebels came to town—and the Sonoma Barracks grounds.
The Sebastiani Theatre, also historic, having been built during the Depression, is an independent movie house that hosts old-time films and other events. On and around the plaza are boutiques, cafes, tasting rooms. The Basque Boulangerie Café has delicious fresh baked goods. The Girl and the Fig, El Dorado Kitchen, and Café La Haye are all highly recommended restaurants.
Because of its central location, the plaza area is a prime spot for visitors to stay. Check out Sonoma vacation rentals for vacation homes and villas in the Sonoma-Napa area; there are some spectacular hillside and vineyard properties.
VINEYARDS AND WINERIES
Sonoma County has hundreds of wineries and is one of the world’s great regions for the cultivation of the grape. One of the oldest wineries, established in 1857 not long after California became a state, is Buena Vista Winery. It’s tucked into a hideaway location not far from downtown and its two-story tasting room has the good-timey feel of an Old West saloon. Wine caves, a champagne tasting cellar, a museum of antique French winemaking tools, and other entertainments can be found there. Try the JCB sparkling wines, said to be excellent.
B.R. Cohn is in Glen Ellen, just outside of Sonoma, as you head north in the Sonoma Valley. Founded by Bruce Cohn, the former manager of the Doobie Brothers, this white farmhouse-style estate has a room devoted to rock memorabilia with guitars autographed by the band. Take a stroll down to the amphitheater of the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard (it’s truly lovely), while sipping an Olive Hill Cabernet with its rich plum and berry flavors. Olive oil, made from the olive groves on the property, is available for tasting, too.
Further up the valley on Highway 12 is Chateau St. Jean, whose Mediterranean-style villa is as picturesque as any you’ll see in all of wine country. The gardens are lush and lovely, and a small demonstration vineyard lets you see, up close, some of the vines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Sirah—that you see from the road as you drive around Sonoma. Chateau St. Jean was the first Sonoma winery to win “Wine of the Year” honors from Wine Spectator, with its 1996 Cinq Cepages.
If you’re coming to Sonoma from San Francisco, Viansa Sonoma is at the gateway of the valley. Built in the style of a Tuscan villa, it is perched on a hill that overlooks vineyards and wetlands. Sit in the warm shade of the terrace, order a glass of Sangiovese or Nebbiolo—Viansa is known for its Italian varietals—and watch birds glide above you in the sky. Be sure to rub the snout of the boar statue in the gardens; it will bring you good luck.
On this whirlwind, all-too-brief tour of the Sonoma wine scene, consider a trip out to the coast to Bodega Bay. This small, beautiful coastal town was where Hitchcock’s masterful 1963 thriller, “The Birds,” was filmed. As you’re heading into town on Highway One, stop at the Sonoma Coast Vineyards tasting room on the left. SCV makes a superb Pinot Noir which, generally speaking, is also what Sonoma County does very, very well. That, and Chardonnay. Dining tip: The Spud Point Crab Co. on the harbor has terrific fresh crab sandwiches. Seagulls travel from all over to taste them.
Wherever you go in wine country, the best way to go may be to hire a limousine service to let someone else do the driving. Beau Wine Tours is one of several excellent tour services in the valley.
If your interests are movies and wine, point your vehicle toward Francis Ford Coppola Winery, owned by the five-time Academy Award winning director of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” Displays there include the desk that Marlon Brando, aka Vito Corleone, sat in for “The Godfather,” mock skulls used in the jungle settings for “Apocalypse,” a gleaming red Tucker automobile in “Tucker,” and more. There is a restaurant and a gorgeous resort-style swimming pool perfect for catching some rays. The bars serve Director’s Cut and other Coppola wines and mixed drinks.
Coppola Winery is in Geyserville in the vineyard-rich Alexander Valley, just north of Healdsburg on Highway 101. Healdsburg should be on your to-do list as well. It’s a cute (perhaps overly cute, some would say) small town spilling over with restaurants, wine bars, shopping, and art galleries.
Like Sonoma, Healdsburg has a grassy central square although it’s much smaller. In it are lovely monuments dedicated to America’s fallen war veterans and the city’s agrarian past. Around the square are numerous delights, including not one but two bookstores, the upstairs Bob Johnson Art Gallery and if you’d like to try a different kind of drink for a change, taste a flight of craft brews at the Bear Republic Brewing Co. The Shed is a very pleasant market, café, kitchen wares shop, and event space.
HOMES OF GENIUSES
For families with small children, the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa is dedicated to the life and work of Charles Schulz, the “Peanuts” cartoonist who created such comic immortals as Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Lucy. This was where Schultz lived until his death in 2000. One exhibit recreates his office with the actual desk he drew his cartoons on. For the kids, there is a clever labyrinth outside and lots of things for them to do inside.
Speaking of geniuses, Luther Burbank lived and worked in Santa Rosa too. One of the world’s most influential horticulturalists created hundreds of varieties of plants, including the Shasta Daisy, Burbank potato, spineless cactus, and many types of fruits, nuts, vegetables. See his former home and the magnificent gardens and his burial site under the Cedar of Lebanon tree in his front yard.
Jack London was the swashbuckling author of the epic “Call of the Wild” and other adventure stories. He once wrote a novel called “Valley of the Moon,” which is another name for Sonoma Valley, which is where London himself lived. On a sunny day, of which there are many in Sonoma during the summer, the Jack London State Historic Park is an ideal spot for a picnic. Don’t miss the ruins of Wolf House, which burned down in 1913 just before it was completed. It was to be London’s private home, but he didn’t have the money to rebuild it and so he lived nearby in a small cottage.
Another famous Glen Ellen resident: M.F.K. Fisher, the venerated food and wine writer whose Last House, as Fisher fittingly called it, is on Audubon Canyon Ranch. It’s currently being restored and there is limited public access to it.
Finally, why not end your Sonoma tour by swinging through the redwood trees? Sonoma Canopy Tours in the tiny, secluded town of Occidental has multiple zip lines, sky bridges, a spiral staircase, and a rappel to the forest floor. My son and I rode the long and exciting zip lines across the “forest flight” course, and of all the pleasures to be found in Sonoma County, it may be the most exhilarating.—Kevin Nelson