Spanning more than one million acres from the Pacific Ocean to the rugged Coast Range, Sonoma County defies typecasting. Yes, it's increasingly famous for its premium wines, sharing the pedestal with Napa Valley for luxury cult collectibles like the wait-list-only bottles from Kistler Vineyards, A. Rafanelli, and Cirq. But in Sonoma County you’re just as likely to stumble across extraordinary wines being crafted out of a backyard setup. Take Forestville’s Joseph Swan, which has been around since 1967 and still serves its award-winning wines out of a tasting room that’s really an old wood-barrel barn. Intimacy abounds at Sonoma County wineries. Often, it will be the actual winemaker who’s filling your glass, with his or her faithful winery dog sitting nearby.
Start your explorations with a quick geography lesson (the Sonoma County Visitors Bureau has an interactive map to help you get your bearings). There’s the town of Sonoma, with its historic Sonoma Plaza. Then, there’s Sonoma Valley, referring to the area between Santa Rosa and the town of Sonoma (and known as the Valley of the Moon), featuring individual wine regions such as Kenwood and Glen Ellen. And then there’s the entire region encompassing it all, officially known as Sonoma County.
An easy hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the journey through Sonoma County begins in the historic town of Petaluma, with its classic stone buildings. You could zip straight up U.S. 101 to arrive at the county’s northernmost town, the poshly perfect Healdsburg, but that would be missing the essence of this nook-and-cranny wine region—like the towns of Sonoma, Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, and Guerneville. It’s all about slowing down here, mingling with winemakers and locals, and knowing that it doesn’t get much better than this.
When to visit Sonoma County? Until a few years ago, agriculture-rich Sonoma County was primarily a summertime destination. But now the towns buzz year-round, thanks in part to festivals like January’s month-long An Olive Odyssey olive festival, the Sonoma County Fair, spring’s winery open houses, and autumn’s harvest events. Another year-round draw is the Sonoma Raceway, about a dozen miles south of downtown Sonoma, which is one of the few places in the state that hosts NASCAR races. Or come during the holiday season and you can ring in the New Year at boisterous parties at the county’s restaurants, wineries, and storybook inns.