Natalie Cilurzo will never forget the day everything changed for the Russian River Brewing Company. It was February 5, 2010—the first Friday in February—and as she and her husband Vinnie walked up to their cosy brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa they noticed a long line of people waiting to get in. Bewildered, they approached the crowd.
“Vinnie asked them, ‘What are you here for? What are you waiting for?’ Natalie recalls. “And they said, ‘For your beer.’”
“Vinnie said, ‘We don’t open for four hours.’
“And they said, ‘Don’t you know that Pliny the Younger has been rated the best beer in the world?’”
Unbeknownst to the Cilurzos, 100-point scores from BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com had transformed their limited-release triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, into a craft beer phenomenon. The lines have only grown since that day, and now thousands of people line up to sample Pliny the Younger during a two-week window each February. The couples’ flagship double IPA, Pliny the Elder, has received similarly exalted reviews and draws visitors to the pub year-round.
“We got schooled pretty quickly at how to manage large crowds at our pub and we’ve been refining it every year,” Natalie says. “We’ve become a destination.“
This year alone the Cilurzos have poured Pliny for patrons from 48 states and more than 40 different countries, including China, Guam, India, Japan, Norway, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Thailand, and Venezuela.
Plans are underway to open a second pub in Sonoma County, where the couple has lived for more than 20 years, but until then the long lines are likely to remain. (Pro tip: Go on Valentine’s Day or during the Super Bowl, when many beer fans have other obligations.) We asked Natalie to take the California Questionnaire and she gladly obliged.
Where do you live? Santa Rosa
Why there? Sonoma County has everything anyone could ask for! We moved here 20 years ago from Southern California and never looked back. It’s beautiful, has great weather, world-class wine and beer, dozens of local producers of dairy, meat, and produce, and the people are fun and interesting. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Who or what is your greatest California love? I love the fall in Northern California. The sun is lower in the sky casting a warm light on the vineyards and trees turning autumn colours. The coast is often warm and clear with sightings of grey whales migrating south for the winter. It’s the most beautiful time of year.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we all eat granola, smell like patchouli, and smoke pot! And if you are from California you must live in L.A.—I never understood that one.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? Californians are generally easy-going, casual, and friendly. We went to a beach wedding last summer in San Diego. The groom’s family was from New York and the bride’s family from California. The New Yorkers wore suits and cocktail dresses; the Californians wore shorts and sandals. A great time was had by all, but it was a very typical California wedding.
What is your favourite Golden State splurge? Long weekend getaways with my husband at some charming inn on the California coast with no computer or cell reception.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? I would start at the coast here in Sonoma County and head up to the Eastern Sierra by way of the Yosemite Valley. One of the most amazing things about California is the proximity of the Pacific Ocean to the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. And I would do this trip in middle-to-late spring when the mountain passes are open. It is the best time of year to catch all the beautiful wildflowers and flowing waterfalls. I have always appreciated the almost desolate beauty on the eastern side of the Sierras where the mountains and the high desert collide. It’s such a magical place and well worth the eight-hour drive.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Lightly battered, pan-fried abalone caught fresh that day off the coast of Mendocino, served by the campfire on a paper plate at Van Damme State Park with a tasty California craft brewed IPA. And we must start with a small wheel of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog cheese and a delicious sour beer.
Best California song? California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas. This song truly captures a moment in history and a growing vibe in California leading up to the Summer of Love.
How would your California dream day unfold? When my husband and I have a rare day off, we like to start our day at Willie Bird’s restaurant with a late brunch. Then we head toward the coast. Our drive takes us through Sebastopol, then to the tiny historic hamlet of Freestone and a stop for a treat at Wild Flour Bakery.
Back on the road, we drive down Bohemian Highway and finally reach the charming town of Occidental. At the stop sign in town we hang a left onto a very narrow and windy road through beautiful redwoods and farm pastures. A hand-painted sign on a fence says “Ocean” with an arrow pointing west. When we crest the top of the hill, the grand Pacific Ocean floods our view from north to south. We make our way down the very steep and curvy road and finally hit Highway 1 and the ocean. We turn south toward Bodega Bay, made famous by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock with his movie The Birds. Our journey ends at Bodega Head, a huge bluff that juts out into the ocean and a perfect spot for whale-watching.
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 waiting-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 in someone's backyard. Take Forestville’s Joseph Swanwinery, which has been around since 1967 and still serves its award-winning wines out of a tasting room that’s really an old wooden-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, which refers to the area between Santa Rosa and the town of Sonoma (and is also known as the Valley of the Moon), which features individual wine regions such as Kenwood and Glen Ellen. And then there’s the entire region encompassing it all, officially known as Sonoma County.
In Sonoma County, it’s often the actual winemaker who’s filling your glass, with the faithful winery dog sitting nearby.
An easy hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the journey through Sonoma County begins in the historic town of Petaluma, with its classical stone buildings. You could whizz straight up US 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 are abuzz 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. Or come during the Christmas season and you can ring in the New Year at boisterous parties at the county’s restaurants, wineries and picturesque inns.
Sonoma County offers travellers an embarrassment of riches but until recently gourmands seeking a world-class dining experience often felt compelled to venture east to Napa Valley or south to San Francisco. Thanks to Kyle and Katina Connaughton, those days are over. The husband-and-wife team—he’s the executive chef; she’s the head of culinary gardens and farm manager—opened Single Thread in late 2016, instantly transforming the local food scene with their exquisite take on farm-driven, Asian-inspired haute cuisine. The 52-seat restaurant, which also features an upmarket five-room inn, received three stars from Michelin and makes it worth a special trip to Healdsburg.
The evening begins on the rooftop garden, where snacks are served, drinks are poured and the day’s stresses melt away. From this vantage point, just one street away from Healdsburg Plaza, you can see where the farm is located—about 10 minutes away on the banks of the Russian River. You are then escorted to the downstairs dining room, a stylish space that provides foodies with a clear view into the kitchen and offers design aficionados a master class in understated elegance. From the hand-carved wooden spoons to the custom sake cups (you get to pick your own!) to the Zalto stemware, every detail oozes excellence.
And then the food begins to arrive. Single Thread features three 11-course tasting menus—vegetarian, pescatarian and omnivore—and the Connaughtons’ love of Japanese culture shines throughout. The first course is a collection of intricately crafted single mouthfuls—hyper-local selections of impeccably plated vegetables and seafood. The bulk of the seasonal menu is constantly in flux but Dungeness crab, Mt Lassen trout, Monterey Bay abalone, Sonoma grains and assorted treasures from the Connaughtons’ farm feature prominently. Every bite marries Californian produce with Japanese technique, and the results are uniformly magnificent without being the slightest bit fussy.
Excellence comes at a cost, of course. Dinner will set you back $225 per person, exclusive of service, and head sommelier Evan Hufford’s two wine-pairing options are $155 and $295. (The wine programme features many local favourites, including some hard-to-find bottles, and is worth every penny.) You’ll want to book at least several weeks in advance of your visit; new seats are released on the first of each month.
For the full Single Thread experience, book one of the rooms upstairs ($700–$1,000 per night) where you’ll find the latest Teforia tea system, Matouk linens, underfloor heating and a Japanese toilet that may startle you the first time you encounter it. You can help yourself to the goodies in the room, which include sweets created in the restaurant below and even a bottle of Pliny the Elder, the acclaimed (and hard-to-find) double IPA brewed down the road in Santa Rosa. Best of all, your overnight stay includes a high-end breakfast that somehow manages to build on your dinner experience from the night before and will prompt you to plan a return visit.
Given Sonoma County’s broad range of soils and microclimates, a most amazing thing happens here: roughly 40 grape varieties thrive. If there’s dirt, it seems, a hardy and ambitious grapevine will find a way to make its home there.
As a result, there are more than 400 wineries covering 17 appellations in Sonoma County. While wine grapes may not grow on the rock cliffs that line the Pacific coast of Bodega Bay, you will find superb Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir at the chilly, fog-enshrouded Peay Vineyards estate just four miles from the ocean. You can taste wines surfside too, at Gourmet au Bay overlooking Bodega Bay, with flights of boutique wines served on a little wooden surfboard.
In any tasting-based travels around Sonoma County, you’ll quickly encounter the Wine Road. It’s not actually a road in the sense of a single, continuous stretch of highway, but rather an association of wineries that dates back to 1976 and now boasts nearly 200 estates nestled among the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.
The Dry Creek Valley climate is Mediterranean, characterised by hot, dry summers with cool nights.
While Dry Creek Valley is home to more than 30 grape varieties, it’s best known for its Zinfandels, the black-skinned grape that brings hints of big brambly blackberry, blueberry, tobacco and cracked black pepper. The climate here is Mediterranean—hot, dry summers with cool nights—which is a lot like the Italian peninsula. As a result, the local winemakers have taken their cue from the area’s early Italian settlers by using sustainable, organic and biodynamic grape-growing methods, all similar to those the pioneers once used. You can taste the results at Papapietro Perry Winery’s tasting room and winery in Healdsburg, whose grapes are sourced from several nearby vineyards in Sonoma County.
For a taste of the famed Russian River Valley, visit the MacRostie Winery and Vineyards, which salutes owner Steve MacRostie, a legend for his superb wines from his original Wildcat Mountain Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast. This estate winery and tasting room is set on a Healdsburg hillside and channels Sonoma County’s luxurious side with its polished oak tree trunk stools, leather chairs and spaceship-globe chandeliers.
Alexander Valley is another must-visit, home to the 1,200-acre Jordan Vineyard & Winery. The stone and stucco castle focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which are served with small bites from estate chef Todd Knoll that showcase the property’s culinary garden.
Indeed, a lot of good Sonoma wineries make food a prime part of the wine tasting experience. In Sonoma Valley, Hamel Family Wines impresses with sophisticated small bites and cave tours, while St Francis Winery offers a sumptuous multicourse small-plate lunch with guided wine pairings. And the Palate Play immersion at Ram’s Gate in Carneros-Sonoma is nearly a full meal, beginning with a backstage tour of the Howard Backen–designed winery and followed by a seated, guided pairing of wines and dishes.
A sojourn in California wine country is virtually guaranteed to result in the palate being satisfied, but finding the right place to stay is important, too. With its varying landscapes, Sonoma County offers accommodation that ranges from luxury resorts to quaint B&Bs, all framed by spectacular surroundings. Consider these, listed roughly from north to south.
Seventy miles north of San Francisco, Healdsburg is home to Madrona Manor, which is a modernised historic 1881 Victorian mansion with plush suites, Michelin-starred dinners and extravagant service—all befitting its setting on eight acres of English-style gardens and wooded hillside. Take your gourmet buffet breakfast in the estate's parlour, if you can bear to leave your room outfitted with antiques, pillow-top mattresses and feather-soft linens.
If a quaint, historic B&B or private bungalow is more your style, you’ll find joy amid the vineyards outside Healdsburg at places like the Raford Inn, an 1880 Victorian plantation where breakfast brings stuffed French toast soufflé, and evenings glide in with complimentary wine tastings from neighbouring wineries.
The spa treatments at Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn use herbs and heirloom cider apples grown at the resort.
A dozen or so miles to the south, Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant offers a ravishing mix of gorgeous guest rooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant supplied with farm-fresh food. Its seasonally inspired spa uses massage oils enriched by herbs and even heirloom apples grown at the inn.
Or perhaps the ocean is calling, in which case Bodega Bay Lodge beckons as the only AAA Four Diamond hotel on the Sonoma Coast. The seaside perch, about 33 miles south-west of Forestville, offers a luxury escape, in snug rooms with fireplaces, feather duvets and private balconies for stargazing. But make time to dine too, at the resort’s Drakes Sonoma Coast Cuisine (the seafood on the menu comes from the same ocean glittering outside the windows). Or indulge in a sea-inspired spa treatment like the massage using warm tiger-clam seashells.
About 23 miles inland, at Santa Rosa’s Vintners Inn, a 78-room hotel nestled amidst 92 acres of Sonoma farmland, guests can luxuriate in spa treatments and ramble along two miles of paths. And a short drive further east, at the Landmark Vineyards Cottage in Kenwood, there are two private cottages built on the edge of the vines to choose from, and happily they both overlook an award-winning winery estate in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Another notable retreat less than 10 miles down the road is the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, with its 3,700-square-metre spa built over a natural underground hot spring.
Every weekend, it seems, there’s another terrific festival or flat-out party going on in Sonoma County. One of the best comes in March, when Petaluma hosts California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, featuring farm and creamery tours, hands-on lessons in cheesemaking, and tastings of local cheese, wine, beer, and cider.
In May, you can feed your appetite for art with open studio tours during the annual Salmon Creek ArtWalk in Bodega Bay. And in June, the annual Days of Wine and Lavender, at Matanzas Creek, invites you to experience the fragrant plants in full bloom across the 100-acre Bennett Valley estate, with lavender-scented spa and culinary products available for purchase and chefs cooking up lavender-infused dishes for you to sample.
Sonoma County locals don’t require that all of their festivals be so fancy, though. They celebrate local fruit at August’s Gravenstein Apple Fair with tractor rides and pie eating, and rock out at September’s Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival, held at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville.
All year long, different Sonoma County wine regions hold open houses, such as April’s Passport to Dry Creek Valley, and Taste Alexander Valley in May. For the crown jewel, visit over Labor Day weekend for Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, when thousands of guests join chefs, wineries, and artisan food purveyors for three full days of wine tastings, elaborate meals, and the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction.
Harvest time is one of the best times to visit a winery, to embrace the energy of sorting, stemming, and wine-crafting.
Still, harvest season is one of the best times to visit Sonoma County, when you can embrace the energy of sorting, stemming, and wine-crafting—and sometimes even participate in grape stomps. During this time of year, workers converge on the vineyards from dawn to dusk in late summer and early fall. For many wineries, the work actually runs around the clock, with innovators like Jordan Winery in Healdsburg picking fruit through the chilly nights. After all, keeping grapes cold protects their delicate flavors, as well as the pristine skin and pulp.
Some wineries celebrate the season by hosting pre- or post-crush parties with wine tasting, food, and live music. The Dry Creek Valley region hosts a slew of classy tastings and events, such as the Wine and Food Affair, when more than 100 wineries pair special wines with dishes they prepare and serve on-site. To really dive in, Sonoma Valley Crush invites guests to get hands-on over a September weekend at 15 area wineries, with one-of-a-kind, behind-the-scenes looks at every aspect of winemaking, from picking grapes and juicing to fermentation.
Tour companies are plentiful in Sonoma County, which is great for helping you visit a variety of vineyards with knowledgeable guides who can pepper your journey with insights and fun facts.
Yet Sonoma County encompasses such a broad range of terrains that the mode for exploration happily goes beyond a mere shuttle bus or even a limo. For instance, you can go horse riding at Chalk Hill Winery or along the cliffs of Bodega Bay at Chanslor Ranch. For more speed, zip-wire through the redwoods with Sonoma Canopy Tours, hike or cycle with Getaway Adventures or Sonoma Valley Bike Tours, or kayak along the Russian River.
Plenty of folks, of course, would rather just explore and taste on their own (to peruse tasting opportunities and schedule your itinerary, consult this downloadable winery map). Five minutes from Sonoma’s town square is Buena Vista Winery, where the historic Press House is open for tastings year-round. The free Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures programme offers no-appointment, self-guided vineyard tours at top wineries. Check its site for options and pick up a map at participating wineries. Options include Matanzas Creek Winery, with its blooming lavender fields, or the 156-acre Paradise Ridge Winery and its stunning sculpture gardens. Happily, the walks typically end at a tasting room, where you can toast your enhanced appreciation of the great outdoors.
Insider tip: wine tastings in Sonoma County don’t have to be pricey. Here’s a list of wineries that offer them for $10 or less.
Run hand-in-hand on the beach. Wander across grassy meadows. Savour a picnic in a mountaintop forest. Such fantasies can easily become reality in Sonoma County. An oasis stretching from the gorgeous Mayacamas mountain range to the Pacific Ocean, the region boasts so many parks, reserves, beaches and vast open agricultural areas that you’re never more than a few minutes away from another outdoor adventure.
Salt Point State Park, for instance, located about 94 miles north of San Francisco, features a marine conservation area and 20 miles of walking paths along the rugged coastline, making it a prime spot to watch grey and blue whales. Grab a perch at Ocean Overlook to see the gentle giants travelling south to Baja California in January, heading from the Chukchi Sea near Alaska—then watch them travel back north in April or May for the summer feeding season. Salt Point has two campsites, one atop the cliffs on the ocean side of Highway 1 and one on the eastern side of Highway 1.
Head inland about 60 miles to Glen Ellen’s Jack London State Historic Park, and you’ll see history, romance and nature intermingle so harmoniously that it’s no surprise that the famous author called the area his 'Beauty Ranch'. Walkers and horse riders share the 26 miles of paths to a 2,000-year-old redwood tree and the centuries-old terraced gardens (the original version of sustainable farming). Don’t miss the ruins of the huge Wolf House that the London family had built, but which burned down before they could move in.
Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa offers more than 40 miles of paths for walking, cycling or horse riding.
Less than five miles north of Glen Ellen, in Kenwood, you’ll find Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, home of the headwaters of Sonoma Creek. Climb the 832-metre summit of Bald Mountain, and on a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge. Sugarloaf also has the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which provides year-round astronomy education with the help of some of the largest telescopes dedicated to public use.
Even Sonoma County’s largest city, Santa Rosa (with fewer than 200,000 residents), is anchored by an enormous park. Annadel State Park spreads out over more than 5,500 acres of rolling hills, lakes, streams, meadows and woodland. Walkers, equestrians, mountain bikers and runners are all drawn here for the more than 40 miles of paths. Keep your eyes peeled for a sight of the rare California red-legged frogs, popularised in Mark Twain’s short story 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'. In Guerneville, you can walk the paths at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, home to a grove of majestic coastal redwoods—including one tree that is taller than an American football field is long. And in the city of Sonoma itself, Sonoma State Historic Park, which consists of six central locations each featuring a historic attraction, and Depot Park both offer facilities for outdoor fun and relaxation such as bocce courts, picnic tables, playgrounds and cycle paths.
This relaxed stretch of California wine country can be a surprisingly family-friendly getaway. For starters, a number of wineries, including the sprawling Francis Ford Coppola Winery near Geyserville and Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves in Healdsburg, not only welcome children but offer fun activities for them too.
Sonoma Valley’s family-friendly attractions go well beyond wineries, too. Grab a few paddles at Burke’s Canoes in Guerneville for a day trip down the Russian River, with redwood-shaded picnic spots along the banks. Smaller children, or grown-up train fanatics, love Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, a 10-acre park with quarter-scale replicas of classic locomotives and train carriages. A 20-minute journey on the train will take you through tunnels and over bridges and finishes near the park’s petting zoo and six fairground rides.
Other favourites for children include General Vallejo’s 1836 working ranch at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, where special events include sheep-shearing days and living history performances about pre–Gold Rush California. (Check the park’s schedule for details.)
In Santa Rosa—which was the long-time home of celebrated Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz—let the kids clamber onto statues of Snoopy and his pals in the grounds of the Charles M. Schulz Museum. Inside, children (and grown-ups) can enjoy thousands of original sketches and cartoon strips, sign up for special lessons on how to draw cartoon characters, or watch screenings of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts classics in the museum’s cinema. Afterwards, strap on some skates and take a spin at the adjacent Snoopy’s Home Ice, a Swiss chalet–style ice rink (make sure you have a cocoa at the rink’s Warm Puppy Café).
Also in Santa Rosa, consider a visit to the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where children can smell the roses, learn about growing vegetables and look for birds on the famed horticulturist’s one-acre homestead.
If you’re wine tasting in central Sonoma County, you’ll probably hear the phrase 'Petaluma Gap' at some point. It’s a curious term, since there are only a few wineries in Petaluma, which include Keller Estate and Kastania Vineyards, but the unique geography here gives many surrounding vineyards a famous, distinctive character. The 15-mile-wide 'gap' flows from the ocean between Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, through the coastal range mountains and into San Francisco Bay, delivering wind, fog and soil enrichment to the local grapevines.
As a town, Petaluma was built on its own river, which made it easy to deliver goods, like its world-famous eggs and chickens, to Oakland and San Francisco. Today, it’s still known for world-class food, such as Cowgirl Creamery cheese, McEvoy Ranch olive oil, and both ROCKY the Free Range Chicken and ROSIE the Original Organic Chicken (both from Petaluma Poultry, founded in 1969 and still immensely popular).
By the same token, it’s no wonder central Petaluma's restaurants are held in such high esteem (see Central Market, Cucina Paradiso and the Michelin-starred Risibisi). Locally produced ingredients star on plenty of restaurant plates around town, like the roasted chicken, avocado, mozzarella and mixed greens on hearth-baked pain de campagne at the beloved Della Fattoria’s artisan bakery.
Nightlife is another hallmark of this stretch of normally sleepy wine country; check out top-rated craft brewpub Lagunitas Brewing Company; The Block Petaluma, a food-van market with 30 taps and on-site wood-fired pizza; or the historic McNear's Mystic Theatre, famous for its live music. But first, spend a day shopping at the top-notch antiques stores lining Petaluma Boulevard. Check Visit Petaluma for upcoming events.
There’s no shortage of places to stay when visiting the area. If you’re looking to commune with nature, there are several campsites in the vicinity, including both KOA sites and ones that offer a cushier glamping experience.
The best way to get better acquainted with the city of Sonoma, in the heart of Sonoma County, is through its wine. But you also get a sense of the past—just for good measure—at the tasting room of Three Sticks Wines at The Adobe: it’s actually set inside the historic 1842 Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe home, and features artefacts like an 1800s riding stirrup, delicate china and tools. The nearby Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge, meanwhile, revels in a historic stone property built over a century ago, offering wine flights paired with snacks such as caviar, Cowgirl Creamery crème fraîche and capers on crackers. And don’t miss the nearby Bartholomew Memorial Park, home to Bartholomew Park Winery: its on-site museum details the long history of Sonoma winemaking since the park’s first villa was built in 1861, and features a display of primitive agricultural tools.
For a wine-infused dinner, try a classic venue, such as B&V Whiskey Bar & Grille, which creates delights like an American Kobe brisket that’s been smoked over French-oak wine-barrel staves for 12 hours. For more contemporary fare, check out OSO, offering eclectic dishes such as pickled prawns tossed with kale-spiced peanut slaw and tomato and horseradish aioli.
Sometimes tasting pairs well with shopping too. Highway 12 Vineyards & Winery is tucked inside a home-accessories boutique, so you can sample Carneros Chardonnay while browsing hand-stitched stuffed toy dogs and embellished picture frames.
A more immersive dive into Sonoma’s past will be rewarding for history enthusiasts or fans of Old West culture. In the mid-1800s, the town of Sonoma was just a collection of ranchos, governed by Mexico. Even though the US government and the State of California took over the territory not too long after that, you can still sense its heritage. The centrepiece of the town, Sonoma Plaza, is still anchored by the northernmost Franciscan mission in California—and it’s even the birthplace of the California State Bear Flag, created by Americans rebelling against Mexican rule.
Make sure you take one of the cool historic tours of the still-standing monuments. For starters, explore the church-turned-museum Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the Sonoma Barracks military post and cannon arsenal, and the former home of Lieutenant Colonel Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commander general of the Northern Alta California's frontier forces and founder of the town of Sonoma.
Once considered just a 'hippie' town, Sebastopol is now arguably the arts and creative centre of West Sonoma County. Its main hotspot is The Barlow, a $23.8 million culinary, wine and arts centre that spans 12.5 beautifully landscaped acres. You can explore its wine tasting rooms, craft breweries, art galleries and even some innovative, garage-style restaurants. But Sebastopol still has its earnest hippie soul, so banish any thoughts of chains: all tenants must be locals, making their own products. It’s so producer-driven that even much of the landscaping is edible, used in the restaurants’ food and cocktails.
This is still a small town too, with a central area just a few streets long and a scattering of outlying antique, ranch and clothing stores where all the owners (and most of the customers) are locals. Residents are fiercely proud of their off-beat and intimate town, evidenced by elements like the tie-dyes of Cali Kind Clothing Co. and the wondrous insect-eating plants found at the California Carnivores nursery (the hungry flowers add flair and function to any home).
Other things to do include taking a walk down a stretch of Florence Avenue, where you can see the various 'trash art' sculptures made from random discarded items by a local team of creatives. Or learn about the history of western Sonoma County at the West County Museum, which is housed in a restored 1917 railway depot. If visiting in the summer, for a truly local culinary experience you must try a Gravenstein apple. They’re famous in these parts but are difficult to find elsewhere in the country due to their soft skins; they do not travel well.
Otherwise, small-production wineries and vineyards sit amid the maritime-fog-enveloped hillsides here, like Kosta Browne, Iron Horse, Dutton Estate Winery and Cirq. A day of tasting is like a celebrity tour, sampling the works of big-name but tiny-production vintners such as Paul Hobbs, Merry Edwards and O’Connell (the latter the winner of the acclaimed 2016 Pinot Cup for its stellar Pinot Noir).
Sebastopol is also the place to come for restaurants that offer inventive, handcrafted and sustainable dining, like Ramen Gaijin and the French-meets-hyperlocal K&L Bistro, where most ingredients come from Sebastopol (on Sunday mornings, make sure you take a wander around the central farmers' market). Non-vegetarians, meanwhile, will love Zazu Kitchen + Farm from The Next Iron Chef contender Duskie Estes, who offers up bacon, bacon and more bacon—all from her own sustainably raised pigs.
Even though this is Sonoma County’s largest city (with 174,000 residents), Santa Rosa still feels pretty friendly. Certainly, you'll never forget you’re in wine country, with tasting rooms in the heart of the city. One good place to start is Santa Rosa Vintners Square, a collection of wineries set in an industrial area on Cleveland Avenue next to US Highway 101. It’s home to outlets such as D’Argenzio Winery, Sheldon Wines, Krutz Family Cellars and Fogbelt Brewing Company—all set around a lovely playground.
The SOFA arts district on South A Street is another under-the-radar gem, which has developed into a fashionable area for creative types, including chef Liza Hinman and her Cal-Mediterranean Spinster Sisters restaurant (think ricotta-nettle gnocchi with black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms, prosciutto and green garlic). Wander around the historic neighbourhoods here too—such as McDonald Avenue, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Shadow of a Doubt in the summer of 1942.
Wander around the historic neighbourhoods, such as McDonald Avenue, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Shadow of a Doubt in the summer of 1942.
This is also where you’ll find some of Sonoma County’s best shopping. The Railroad Square Historic District sits to the west of Highway 101, stretching from the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country to the ranch supply shop West End Farmers Market, and is centred around the restored 1903 Northwestern Pacific Railroad train depot. Browse long-standing favourites like Hot Couture, with its vintage ballgowns, or the delicate china teacups perfect for sticking out your little finger at Whistlestop Antiques.
You’ll also notice several larger-than-life statues of Snoopy around town, as well as ones of Charlie Brown, Woodstock and Lucy. That’s because Charles Schulz lived and worked in Santa Rosa from 1969 until his death in 2000, claiming Sonoma County as one inspiration for his iconic Peanuts comic strip. At the Charles M. Schulz Museum, you can see the comic-strip artist’s studio and countless sketches, and watch cartoon screenings.
Back in 2008, Guerneville was a sleepy Russian River hide-away best known for its spectacular natural wonders like the primeval redwood forests, year-round waterfalls and the back-country wilderness spanning the nearly 6,000-acre Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Today, the tiny town of less than 5,000 people is still a shining jewel of Sonoma County's West Coast vibe, but it’s also become a hip dining destination and a burgeoning resort retreat.
Boon Hotel + Spa, for instance, is an intimate, eco-chic retreat on the edge of the 805-acre Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve. Its sister restaurant Boon Eat + Drink sits a short walk away on Main Street, near Big Bottom Market (best biscuits ever) and El Barrio bar, which brings tequila, mezcal and bourbon to wine country. But don’t think there are fancy attitudes: the town’s heart is still an eclectic mix of dimly lit but convivial bars, so-tacky-they’re-fun souvenir shops, quirky art galleries and modern hippie types looking to escape big-city bother. There’s also plenty of flair from the drag queens and alt-lifestylers who’ve made Guerneville their home.
To see how down-to-earth culture translates into wine, taste the certified biodynamic wines from the mountainside Porter-Bass Winery, run by winemaker and Earth child Luke Bass, with his heritage chickens, tail-wagging coonhound and saluki dogs. Before you leave town, relax with the locals at Johnson's Beach, a slip of sand that beckons beneath Guerneville’s entryway bridge, with beach chairs, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats for hire.
The flawless-at-every-turn town of Healdsburg, in the north of Sonoma County was recently listed as the no. 2 'Best Small Town to Visit' in the US by Smithsonian magazine. Indeed, Healdsburg is a pretty small town with a population of a little over 11,000, but many of the names here have become pretty big. Take, for example, the lavish luxury lodgings found at the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Les Mars, local celebrity chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in the heralded Hotel Healdsburg, and Valette restaurant of famous local chef Dustin Valette
Still, even with some relatively recent arrivals, like market SHED- a modern 'grange' for farmers there are long-standing favourites. Downtown Bakery & Creamery, for instance, has been a staple for delicious breakfasts since the café opened in 1987, and still attracts a loyal following for its sumptuous sticky buns, jam pockets, doughnut muffins, and cheddar cheese and thyme scones. Another excellent breakfast option is Singletree Cafe, home to a $4.95 breakfast special of eggs, potatoes and toast, and its lunch menu features a burger that Charlie Palmer has called the best anywhere.
It’s easy to spend an entire day just wandering the environs of Healdsburg Plaza, which is lined with dozens of tasting rooms, each with their own atmosphere. Take a look at the big-city chic Cartograph with wines on tap, the stylish and funky Banshee with its record player spinning vinyl, and the groovy Thumbprint Cellars with for-sale artwork on nearly every inch of the wall. Sample some of Sonoma County’s acclaimed craft beer at Bear Republic Brewing Co., which has a brewpub on the Plaza and is known for its hoppy and full-bodied Racer 5 IPA.