Napa County generates a lot of global buzz, but neighboring Sonoma County (sonomacounty.com) is hardly the “Rhoda” of wine country. Less gimmicky than its celebrated neighbor, Sonoma County offers a mom-and-pop approach to experiencing wine country, heavy on the artisanal wineries and light on the pre-packaged tour buses. In addition to its (literally) intoxicating world of vineyards, Sonoma County flaunts the landscapes of storybooks - miles of rugged rock-hewn coastline, towering Redwood Trees, and picturesque sleepy towns along the Russian River, each one more charming than the next. Unconventional eateries and roadhouse restaurants rock the farm-to-table movement, often cultivating products on-site and serving up some experiential eats and of course, perfectly matched wines.
The journey through Sonoma usually begins in Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, just over an hour from San Francisco. Santa Rosa’s gentrified historic Railroad Square is the heart and soul of Sonoma Valley’s foodie scene, with design-driven restaurants like Petite Syrah (707.545.6900, petitesyrah.com), dishing out succulent “urban wine country dining” and old school coffee shops like A’Roma Roasters, where the personalities of patrons run stronger than the brews.
Fans of the famed cartoonist Charles Shultz rejoice in the artist’s tangible legacies adorning his former hometown, snapping Twit-pics with dozens of life-sized Peanuts statues that are just about everywhere. Stumbling distance from the bars, the century-old, certified National Trust Historic Hotel of America, Hotel La Rose (707.579.3200; hotellarose.com) commingles elegance and comfort in both its cozy historic building and the residential-style Carriage House.
With tours originating in Railroad Square, Ace it Bike Tours (707.688.4063; aceitbiketours.com) is the superlative way to dive – or shall I say bike – head first into Sonoma’s scintillating wine country. Oenophile and outdoor enthusiast Frieda Lewis leads small groups through nature trails and country roads for an unforgettable day of biking and wine tasting. Traversing over 18 miles along the Santa Rosa Creek and vineyard-clad rolling hills, Frieda’s 5 hour bike tour stops at several artisanal producers, such as Pellegrini and Hook & Ladder, where the group receives bespoke tours of the distilleries and sensationally fun private tastings. The wineries roll out the red carpet for the fabulous Frieda and friends, offering 15-20% discount on purchases and pours so heavy, you’ll have to shy away from a glass or two!
There’s no better way to end a perfect Sonoma day than venturing to Zazu (zazurestaurant.com), the beloved restaurant and farm of celebrity chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart. Zazu elevates the farm-to-table experience using its own backyard produce in masterfully created and executed dishes like Chocolate Eggplant Caponata, Beet Caviar, Black Pig Bacon Burger, and Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwiches. The food here is so sublime that it’s that rare occasion where a restaurant will headline your conversations for weeks, if not months, to come. (I’m salivating just thinking about it!)
Another happy ending waits further afield in Geyserville at Rustic, the acclaimed restaurant of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery (707.857-1485; franciscoppolawinery.com). Rustic showcases Coppola’s classic Italian family recipes alongside grilled favorites from an Argentine parrilla best appreciated at sunset in the al fresco setting overlooking adjacent vineyards. To drink? Well Coppola’s forty plus wines, all produced on-site, are all on offer as well as an avant-garde cocktail menu. Those wanting more than dinner should arrive early to tour the state-of-the-art wine making facility and admire the Academy Award display and movie memorabilia in the winery.
Traveling west along the Russian River Valley deeper into rustic Sonoma County, each hairpin turn ends in yet another picturesque panorama of multi-hued, tiered vineyards, bursting with award-winning Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes. Nearing the enchanting town of Guerneville, the Sonoma Orchid Inn (888.877.4466; sonomaorchidinn.com) is the ideal base from which to explore the county’s more remote and serene pockets. Longtime partners Brian and Dana have completely reinvented this 1906 farmhouse into a modern, nine-bedroom bed and breakfast, including two luxury suites in an annex next to the main house. Taking immense pride in welcoming visitors from near and far to their B&B, these consummate hosts eagerly present their insider knowledge, while keeping guests well fed with sumptuous breakfasts and fresh-baked cookies and well-entertained with old fashion pastimes like cards and conversation.
Within a short radius of the Sonoma Orchid Inn, California’s dreamiest and most iconic landscapes beckon. At Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (707.869.2015; www.parks.ca.gov), trails wind through majestic, primeval redwood forest, teeming with centuries-old redwoods standing hundreds of feet tall. Past the quaint town of Duncan Mills (population: 85!), the mist swallows the ocean, and then rises to reveal mile-upon-mile of craggy coastline and beautiful beaches. Alfred Hitchcock fans will recognize The Tides Wharf in Bodega Bay as the backdrop for scenes from his film classic, The Birds, as well as the Potter School House in Bodega proper, safe house for the bloodthirsty birds gone wild.
Amazing food and drink opportunities also abound in small-town coastal and inland Sonoma County. In Freestone (population: 32!!), Sonoma County's first historic district, the Wild Flour Bread Bakery gives new meaning to the term “carb coma.” Wild Flour bakes an ever-changing assortment of irresistible, ingredient-rich breads, like the “Egyptian” with fig, pear, and ginger and “Green Goat” with goat cheese and green onion. Howards Station Café in Occidental (population: 200) serves legendary organic breakfast, namely the mouth-watering Crab, Salmon, and Veggie benedicts. Nearby, check out of one of the numerous artisanal wineries, like Dutton-Goldfield (duttongoldfield.com), producer of such renowned liquid delicacies as the 2009 Freestone Hill Pinot Noir, or pick up the perfect picnic pairing for your Wild Flour breads at the family-run Quivira Vineyards & Winery (quivirawine.com).
Few visitors leave the region without exploring the small city of Sonoma proper and passing through its historical downtown square lined with eclectic boutiques, popular restaurants, and family-run wine and cheese shops. The true Sonoma experience, however, peaks in the aforementioned rustic countryside, where the best of California unites for an unforgettable wine country sojourn.
For more information of Sonoma County visit sonomacounty.com