If Napa County is the heart of the California wine country, Sonoma County is its soul. Sonoma County is the northernmost of the nine Bay Area counties and takes in over eight million tourists a year. The county is mainly known for excellent wines, but this uniquely diversified area offers more to experience than you could ever imagine. Each region has its own distinct flavor: stunning natural beauty, foodie paradise, artsy communities, wonderful people, and of course, lots of wine, and then some more wine. So let’s dive right into it.
Northern Sonoma County
World famous Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots are king in this northeast Sonoma County wine region. This picturesque valley has viticulture dating back to 1843 and is home to the beautiful little towns of Cloverdale, Geyserville, and Healdsburg. Morning fog from the nearby Russian River, followed by very hot days and cool nights, makes the climate perfect for Cabs and Merlots.
Drop into the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville for a classic setting with iconic movie relics. Another fantastic winery here is Medlock Ames, with a stylish venue and fun events. This new type of “hipster” eco-friendly winery has become very popular with younger wine tasters.
Experience everything the wine country has to offer in Healdsburg: small-town charm, exciting history, pampering spas, inspiring art of all types, intriguing shopping, and superb wines. There are dozens of incredible wine tasting rooms scattered throughout the downtown area, making it easy to enjoy great wines from the region without having to drive.
If fine dining is your thing, Healdsburg has got you covered. The Single Thread is California’s only restaurant to make the Michelin Guide’s Top 50 Restaurants in the World. The Single Thread is renowned for its luxurious dining. Experience flawless service, highlighted by a Japanese cuisine theme comprising over a dozen courses of culinary heaven. Prices range from $325 to $500, and book out months in advance, but it’s worth every penny.
Dry Creek Valley
This classic wine region, now a top California wine destination in North Central Sonoma County, has a generational wine heritage going back 140 years. The region is only 16 miles long and barely a mile wide, but don’t be deceived by its compact size. This valley has 9000 vineyard acres with over 60 wineries and is known for some of the most robust Zinfandel wines in the World. The scenic beauty of row after row of vines covering the rolling hills is a sight to behold. The cool morning fog and warm days make it Zin heaven.
Russian River Valley
Russian River Valley is a heart-shaped valley 15 miles wide and tall near the center of Sonoma County. Proximity to the Pacific Ocean generates fog that keeps the mornings cool. While the Alexander Valley to the east has already got hot, the Russian River Valley remains a little cooler into the afternoon, creating a lovely location to grow the world-renowned Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that the Russian River Valley is famous for. Kendall Jackson Winery and Korbel Champagne Cellars highlight the many wonderful wineries in the area.
Sebastopol is a little town in The Russian River Valley known for its artsy community. You can easily spend a day in the 12.5-acre outdoor artisan marketplace known as The Barlow, watching cheesemakers and distillers display their crafts and enjoy lots of wine tasting. Then head to Claypool Cellars at Pachyderm Station for some Pinot and bubbles. The cozy atmosphere, great staff, laid-back vibes, and delicious wines and champagnes highlight this unique experience. Talented frontman of the band Primus, Les Claypool, and his wife Chaney run the winery.
Guerneville is a quirky river town known for its liberal environment, proximity to nature, and popularity as an LGBT resort town. The town has become touristy in recent years but has not lost its small-town charm. Food, drink, and good times are aplenty in this free-spirited town.
Downtown Guerneville features a unique assortment of art galleries, clothing stores, fascinating eateries, and wine tasting. The Brot restaurant has delicious German classics in a Bavarian-type setting. Head to Johnson’s Beach for a perfect spot to lounge and play in the Russian River. Floating downstream in an inner tube or kayak is so much fun.
The largest city in the California Wine Country is Santa Rosa, fifty-five miles north of San Francisco. Proximity to many wineries, a variety of nice lodging, and a lot of fun activities make Santa Rosa a great place to set up base camp for a weekend exploring Sonoma County.
Obviously, the most popular thing to do in the region is wine tasting, and while trying to decide amongst the over 400 wineries within an hour’s drive of you, relax with some top-notch craft beers at the Russian River Brewery or The Third Street Aleworks, both located in Santa Rosa’s rejuvenated downtown district. Or maybe try your luck at the nearby River Rock, Graton, or Twin Pines Casinos.
African Safari in the wine country? That’s precisely what you’ll experience at Safari West. Giraffes, zebras, cape buffalos, rhinos, and wildebeest are just some of the 90 animal species roaming free on this 400-acre preserve outside Santa Rosa. Spending the day in this Sonoma Serengeti setting is fun for the whole family.
Don’t miss the Charles M. Shulz Museum, a magical tribute to the creator of the beloved Snoopy and the Peanuts gang. The museum is a dedicated memorial to this Santa Rosa resident and his nearly 18,000 comic strips, with many exhibits and galleries highlighting the hometown cartoonist’s work, an amazing experience for those of us who grew up with his characters.
Southern Sonoma County
The town of Sonoma is at the heart of the Sonoma Valley wine region. The lovely setting of this picturesque town, nestled in a valley surrounded by lush rolling hills, will make you lose your mind. Downtown Sonoma is quaint but never dull and centered around its colonial-era Sonoma Plaza, featuring art galleries, good eating, and of course, excellent wine tasting. After taking in the plaza, head to Lou’s Luncheonette for a delicious burger or chicken sandwich. Visit the tiny Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen to view the gravesite of the great American author, Jack London.
Sonoma offers many great historic wineries, but these two, founded in 1857, are worth checking out: Buena Vista Winery is a registered historical landmark and the first premium winery in California. Gundlach Bundschu, specializing in Dry Gewurztraminer, is still owned and operated by the founder’s heirs and is now in their sixth generation.
Petaluma is the southernmost town in Sonoma County and was once known as the “Egg Basket of the World” due to its thriving poultry industry. Today, this historic riverside town has maintained its agricultural roots while incorporating an eclectic mix of shops, boutiques, art galleries, and wine tasting. There is a wide array of excellent lodging in Petaluma, from brand-name hotels to charming Inns. Two historic hotels worth checking in to are the Metro Hotel and Hotel Petaluma. For great dining, head to the Bodega Bay Oyster Company, where they pair local wine with fresh oysters for a bay-to-bottle experience. The grilled oysters are out of this world.
Sonoma County Coast
Scenic outlooks, picturesque villages, and epic photo-ops will entice you to get out and explore the Sonoma Coast. The county’s 55-mile contribution to California’s iconic Highway 1 coastline will delight your senses with unforgettable memories and deserves its own road trip.
The tiny coastal village of Sea Ranch, situated in the north county, is known for its beautiful beaches; Shell Beach and Tide Pool Beach are natural marvels at low tide. A half-hour south, you come upon the beautiful small town of Jenner, resting at the mouth of the Russian River, and Fort Ross, a nineteenth-century Russian-era fort and National Historic Landmark that is very cool to visit and explore. Timber Cove Resort and Restaurant in Jenner is one of the best upscale hotels on the Sonoma Coast. Enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean from your own private patio.
The famous village of Bodega is the largest town on the Sonoma Coast, but don’t expect to find any big-name coffee shops here. The lovely small-town charm makes this a must-visit. It is still one of the last operating small fishing villages on the California Coast. It now also has a reputation as an excellent escape for Bay Area residents who need a little R&R in its world-renowned local spas and Zen Gardens. Stuff your face with outstanding seafood, having lunch at the Spud Point Crab Company or a full dinner at the Drake Sonoma Coast.
You might also remember this town for the iconic horror film The Birds, filmed here in 1961.