Lush green rolling hills filled with vineyards, historic small towns, and 50 miles of stunning Pacific Coast—this is Sonoma County. Chardonnay and pinot noir reign supreme here in a climate blessed with ample days of sunshine and cooling sea breezes. Less touristy and less congested than its famous neighbor, Napa County, Sonoma has long been one of my favorite wine regions.
But after recent wildfires devastated the region, Sonoma County has earned an unfortunate reputation as “Fire Country.” Although wildfire season is over and wineries are open, the fires have created a ripple effect on tourism. Tourism brought in more than two billion dollars last year and is an integral part of Sonoma’s economy. Many of the 22,000 people who work in the hospitality industry here were impacted by the wildfires. Now Sonoma County tourism officials are trying to lure visitors back.
So for all you wine lovers out there, it’s time to plan your trip. Come explore what this wonderful wine region has to offer. Sonoma County needs our love, people!
Sonoma County Wine Region
Sonoma’s vast wine region is home to more than 425 wineries and 18 distinct AVAs. But with so much to choose from, planning a trip can be a little daunting. As one who has explored my fair share of Sonoma, here are a few recommendations.
Sbragia Family Vineyards
Sbragia Family Vineyards, north of Healdsburg in Dry Creek Valley, features breathtaking views of Lake Sonoma. The exceptional wine and culinary experiences Sbragia offers make this winery a special place to visit. Guests can explore Sbragia’s legacy wines, add a charcuterie board to a wine tasting, book an estate lunch, or learn more about wine through a sensory tasting.
I opted for the sensory tasting. Guided through a sommelier-like experience with my knowledgeable host, Andrew, I learned to identify common aromas in six different varietals. With each wine, I tasted, sniffed, then wrote down what I thought I smelled. Andrew would identify what the actual scent was. Then I would smell a vial containing that scent from the La Nez Du Vin aroma kit. With most of my guesses wrong, this valuable exercise taught me how much I don’t yet know about wine tasting!
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens
Kendall-Jackson is a big wine producer with large holdings, but each property is unique and retains its own personality. Their home base, just a few short miles north of Santa Rosa, is no exception.
This grand estate on sprawling grounds is surrounded by colorful landscaping and demonstration vineyards. A water fountain bubbles out front. Inside the spacious tasting room, the sounds of happy wine lovers fill the space. Knowledgeable employees serve Kendall-Jackson wines that are not commercially available. But it’s the Kendall-Jackson gardens that I find so intriguing.
White and Red Wine Sensory Gardens
A wander through the sensory gardens is more than just a visual experience, it’s a sensory experience. Designed by the well-known Tucker Taylor, the gardens provide fruit, vegetables, and herbs for the estate’s restaurant, and they also feature a white wine and red wine sensory garden.
In the white wine sensory garden, each corner represents a white wine varietal featuring chardonnay, viognier, gewürztraminer, and sauvignon blanc. Herbs and plants designed to bring out the nuances of orange blossom, lemon, pear, peach, and olive are planted in each quadrant to help visitors detect the aromas in their wine.
As you sip on a glass of pinot noir in the red sensory garden, aromas of strawberry, blueberry, and violets emerge. Reach down and take a pinch of the chocolate mint plant. Vigorously rub the leaves between your fingers, smell them, and taste your red wine again. Sip, taste, smell, and repeat as you wander from plant to plant and tree to tree.
Beyond the sensory gardens, there are rows of seasonal produce, flowers planted solely for beauty, a demonstration beehive, and a chicken coop. Biodynamic farming here is impressive. But you’re here to drink wine. A four-course food and wine pairing on the shaded patio is a perfect way to sample the best of what’s produced in this impressive operation.
Sonoma County is sizeable, and a person could spend a year sampling all the wineries here. A visit to the historic town of Sonoma provides an efficient way to sample some of the best from the county. Surrounding the town plaza and within a block are more than 30 tasting rooms. Named as one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America” by Budget Travel, Sonoma is also a foodie’s delight.
Where to Taste
For an elegant wine tasting experience, visit Pangloss Cellars. Enjoy a relaxed, seated experience at its tasting bar set in the middle of its spacious, opulent tasting room or request the more private tasting at a nearby table with a cheese and charcuterie board.
More intimate tastings are available at the nearby Bennett Valley Cellars. Owned and operated by 5th generation Italian winemakers, Bennett Valley Cellars’ tasting room is small but comfortable. The winery makes a classic Sonoma County Chardonnay with aromas of pear and tropical fruit, finished with light toasty notes.
Highway 12 Winery, named after the famous wine road that runs through Sonoma Valley and the Carneros Wine District, shares its wine tasting bar with a small retail shop. But don’t let that fool you; their wines are knock out. I love their Highway 12 Sonoma Red Blend, perfect for any meal!
Where to Eat
Where there’s good wine, there’s bound to be good food, and small-town Sonoma offers plenty of choices. The famous Girl and the Fig, a French country restaurant with an extensive wine list, is a longtime favorite with visitors.
Sonoma Grille and Bar, popular with locals, is known for its seafood, steak, and lots of Sonoma County wine.
La Salette, featuring gourmet Portuguese cuisine, offers an optional wine pairing with dinner. Generous pours perfectly paired with appetizers, entrees, and dessert, enable you to sample more Sonoma County wines in a relaxed, comfortable setting.
If You Go
Most out-of-state visitors fly into San Francisco International Airport and make the easy 90-minute drive up to Sonoma County. Or fly into Sonoma County Airport on Alaska Airlines. On Alaska, you can check a case of wine for free on your return flight home.
I hope I’ve whet your appetite and convinced you, as a dedicated wine lover, to visit this beloved wine region. Pack your bags and book your trip. Sonoma County needs you and your love!