With its gently rolling hills, misty ocean breezes, rushing rivers, meandering streams and ancient redwood forests, California's Sonoma County has it all. Yes, it's one of California's premier wine regions, with 425 wineries dotting the picturesque landscape, but it's so much more-having been blessed with Mother Nature's extraordinary and diverse bounty.
Situated just 30 miles from San Francisco, Sonoma County encompasses six geographic regions, each unique and magnificent in its own right. Home to some of the best winemakers, brewers, cheese-makers, artisans and culinary specialists, our weekend only touched the surface of all there is to experience here. But it was a phenomenal sampler that only makes us want to come back for more.
Where to Stay in Wine Country
Located in eastern Sonoma County, the spectacular Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa was the ideal place for our home base. Nestled in the heart of the valley, the luxurious yet unpretentious historic resort delights its visitors with its exquisite accommodations, stunning grounds, five-star service and an impressive list of amenities.
Native Americans first discovered the underground hot mineral waters at the hotel site. A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the Spanish-style mission inn built in 1927 was an exact replica of a previous hotel earlier destroyed by fire. And it's regarded as one of the finest hot springs resorts in America.
Our Mission Suite featured a four-poster king bed, fireplace living area, two-person Jacuzzi tub and balcony with French doors opening to a picturesque courtyard with fountain.
The idyllic grounds feature an outdoor heated pool and on-site Willow Stream Spa set atop an ancient thermal mineral stream. The spa includes outdoor heated mineral pools, an indoor Roman mineral bath, herbal steam room and an outdoor Watsu treatment pool. More than 50 revitalizing and relaxing treatments and mind-body programs are available.
Restaurants on site ranging from Sante's premier dining room to more casual 38-Degree North provide opportunities to sip and savor fine foods and wines. Each afternoon, guests are invited to the lobby for complimentary wine tastings and optional artisan cheeses that showcase the region's finest wineries.
Sonoma lends its name not only to the county but also to a valley in the country's southwest region and to the valley's major community. Sonoma Valley is the birthplace of California's wine industry. Within the 17-mile span, there are more than 100 premium wineries, running the gamut of castles perched atop a mountain and garden chateaus to rustic organic ranches.
A visit to Buena Vista Winery is a must, for it's truly a walk through California winemaking history. Founder, Agoston Haraszthy, the self-proclaimed "Count of Buena Vista," emigrated from Hungary and settled in Sonoma in 1840. In 1857, Buena Vista became the first premier winery in California (selling and distributing wines).
In 2011, it was purchased by Burgundy's French wineries owner Jean-Charles Boisset, who restored the property to its past glory. Buena Vista is now a California historic landmark offering top-quality award-winning wines.
The property itself is magnificent, but the real treasures lie within the walls of the historic Press House and Champagne Cellars. From the eccentric Cave of Curiosities to the eclectic tasting rooms and fascinating wine history museum, it's truly a unique winery experience.
Sonoma's historic downtown Plaza is ringed with tasting rooms, cheese and olive oil shops, charming restaurants and boutique stores. French-inspired The Girl and the Fig serves up an array of creative delights, many made with figs, of course, and featuring local cheeses. OSO's urban tavern with its touch of rustic modern interior specializes in amazing locally-sourced small plates.
Santa Rosa and Highway 101
Plopped right in the middle of the otherwise fairly rural Sonoma Wine Country, Santa Rosa is home to more farmers markets than one can count. Old Courthouse and Railroad Squares seem to perfectly meld history with family-friendly urban growth. Antique shops and boutiques with a decidedly urban flare all have their place here. And these easily walkable side-by-side squares make exploring the vibrant area convenient and fun.
Neighborhood restaurants celebrate Sonoma wines and highly skilled chefs in places like Perch and Plow turn the natural bounty from the farms and nearby coastal waters into culinary magic. Their outstanding poke and pork belly dishes attest to this.
Route 101 heading out of Santa Rosa leads to the spectacular wine region of northern Sonoma County. Picturesque and historic, Healdsburg and Geyserville are home to world-renowned vineyards such as Clos du Bois and Francis Ford Coppola.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery offers private tours and tastings at its verdant picturesque property tucked among the rolling hills of the region's Alexander Valley. With more grapevines than the eye can see, this French-inspired chateau winery sports 18 acres of olive trees, two lakes along with donkeys and goats grazing in pastures. Three-fourths of its scenic estate is set aside for natural habitat. But it's not just all eye-candy here, for Jordan is renowned for their incredible Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Russian River and Western Sonoma County
No visit to the Sonoma region is complete without heading to the land with an ancient redwood forest, rushing Russian River, lazy winding roads, rural farmlands, and small-town gems.
Western Sonoma County is likely the most diverse region as it's not only dotted with wineries and vineyards, but historic bridges hover over its famous river meandering through charming towns like Guerneville and Forestville. Guerneville's main street is small-town U.S.A. at its best, with a smattering of shops, restaurants, galleries and tasting rooms.
A mere five minutes outside of Guerneville sits the majestic towering redwood-studded forests of Armstrong Redwoods State Preserve. It's worth the 10-dollar parking fee for a chance to walk through the serene ancient groves of magnificent Sequoias, some towering over 350-feet.
No time for a park visit? You can still surround yourself with redwoods while sampling some top varietals at KORBEL Champagne Cellars. There is no tasting fee here as KORBEL responsibly limits its visitors to three ample-sized champagne or wine tastings.
Established in 1882, the winery celebrates France's time-honored Méthode Champenoise process in which the champagne is fermented in the bottle itself. KORBEL offers a range of dazzling and tantalizing champagnes including at least five varietals that can't be purchased outside the cellars.
Tours of the winery and gardens are available by reservation and visitors are welcome to stroll the awe-inspiring historic property with its vine-covered bricked buildings and flower-filled walkways. A market on site carries an array of cheeses and deli sandwiches, perfect with an accompanying glass of wine on a picturesque outdoor deck overlooking the vineyards.
A 10-mile journey on the Bohemian Highway through forested canopies, rolling pastures, rocky ravines and more charming towns was the icing on the cake to our spectacular Sonoma weekend. We knew we'd only scratched the surface of what this splendid region has to offer. But that only gives us reason to go back.
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