Se avete preso parte a una degustazione di vini nel cuore della Contea di Sonoma, probabilmente prima o poi vi capiterà di sentir parlare del “Petaluma Gap”. Si tratta di uno strano termine, dato che ci sono poche aziende vinicole a Petaluma(Keller Estate e Kastania Vineyard ne sono degli esempi), ma la particolare geografia della regione conferisce a molte delle sue aziende vinicole una famosa caratteristica distintiva. Il “gap”, ampio circa 24 km, scorre dall’oceano tra la Tomales Bay e la Bodega Bay, passa attraverso le catene montuose sul litorale costiero, per sboccare nella baia di San Francisco, incanalando vento, nebbia e nutrimento per il suolo delle viti locali.
Come città, Petaluma fu costruita su un fiume; questo ha facilitato il trasporto di prodotti quali i suoi polli e le sue uova, famosi in tutto il mondo, verso Oakland e San Francisco. Petaluma è ancora oggi nota per i suoi prestigiosi cibi, richiesti in tutto il paese, come ad esempio il formaggio del caseificio Cowgirl Creamery, l’olio d’oliva del McEvoy Ranch e inoltre ROCKY e ROSIE, i polli da allevamento biologico(entrambi provengono dalla Petaluma Poultry, azienda fondata nel 1969 e ancora immensamente popolare).
Per lo stesso motivo, non c’è da meravigliarsi se i ristornanti del centro storico di Petaluma siano così stimati (vedi: Central Market, Cucina Paradiso, e lo stellato Risibisi). Molti ingredienti a chilometro zero troneggiano sui piatti dei tanti ristoranti della città: pollo arrosto, avocado, mozzarella, verdure miste su pane casereccio cotto al forno nella deliziosa panetteria artigianale Della Fattoria.
La vita notturna è un altro elemento caratteristico in quest’area della terra dei vini, di solito sonnecchiante, per i suoi prestigiosi birrifici artigianali come Lagunitas Brewing Company, The Block Petaluma, un mercato di food-truck con 30 birre e pizza cotto nel forno a legna sul posto, o lo storico McNear's Mystic Theatre, famoso per la sua musica dal vivo. Ma prima di tutto questo, andate a fare shopping nelle boutique di antiquariato pregiato, le cui vetrine costeggiano Petaluma Boulevard. Controllate Visit Petaluma per gli eventi in programma.
Quando visitate l’area non mancano i posti in cui soggiornare. Se volete essere in comunione con la natura, nelle vicinanze vi sono diversi campeggi, incluse sedi KOA e alcuni che offrono un’esperienza di glamping più comoda.
Con un’estensione di oltre 400.000 ettari, dall’Oceano Pacifico fino all’aspra Catena Costiera, la Sonoma County va al di là di qualsiasi schema. Certo, è sempre più famosa per i suoi vini di qualità, contendendosi il podio con la Napa Valley per i lussuosi cult collezionabili, tra cui le pregiatissime bottiglie di Kistler Vineyards, A. Rafanelli e Cirq. Ma nella Sonoma County è possibile anche che vi imbattiate in vini straordinari, prodotti artigianalmente nei giardini sul retro delle case. Prendete ad esempio Joseph Swandi Forestville, che è attivo dal 1967 e continua a servire i suoi vini pluripremiati in una sala di degustazione allestita a partire da un vecchio granaio con botti in legno. Nelle aziende vinicole della Sonoma County regna un clima di intimità. Spesso sarà lo stesso viticoltore a mescere il vino, con il suo fedele cane accucciato lì accanto.
Date il via alla vostra esperienza con una rapida lezione di geografia (il Sonoma County Visitors Bureau ha una mappa interattiva per aiutarvi a mettervi a vostro agio. Cominciamo dalla città di Sonoma, con la sua storica piazza, Sonoma Plaza. Poi, continuiamo verso la Sonoma Valley, un’area che va da Santa Rosa alla città di Sonoma (nota anche come la Valle della Luna), dove incontreremo regioni vinicole esclusive come Kenwood e Glen Ellen. Successivamente, ci concentreremo sulla regione che abbraccia questi luoghi, conosciuta ufficialmente come Sonoma County.
Nella Sonoma County, spesso è lo stesso viticoltore a mescere il vino, con il suo fedele cane accucciato lì accanto.
A un’ora di macchina a nord di San Francisco, il viaggio nella Sonoma County comincia nella storica cittadina di Petaluma, con i suoi tradizionali edifici in pietra. Potreste percorrere la U.S. 101 da cima a fondo per raggiungere direttamente la città più nordica della regione, la vezzosa e perfetta Healdsburg, ma così facendo vi perdereste l’essenza di questa regione vinicola piena di luoghi nascosti tutti da scoprire, per esempio le città di Sonoma, Sebastopol, Santa Rosa e Guerneville. Qui tutto ciò che dovete fare è rallentare, confondervi con i vignaioli e gli abitanti del posto, per rendervi conto che, dopo tutto, il bello di questo viaggio è tutto qui.
Quando organizzare lavisita? Fino a qualche anno fa, la Sonoma County, con la sua ricchezza agricola, è stata principalmente una meta estiva. Ma adesso le città brulicano tutto l’anno, grazie in parte a eventi quali il festival delle olive, An Olive Odissey, che dura per tutto il mese di Gennaio, e il Sonoma County Fair, le aziende vinicole aperte al pubblico in primavera e agli eventi autunnali legati alla mietitura. Visitando la regione durante le vacanze di fine anno potrete partecipare al veglione di Capodanno e alle vivaci feste nei ristoranti, nelle vinerie e nei favolosi alberghi della regione.
Sonoma County offers travelers an embarrassment of riches but until recently gourmands seeking a world-class dining experience often felt compelled to venture east to the 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 upscale five-room inn, received three stars from Michelin and is worthy of making a special trip to Healdsburg.
The evening begins on the rooftop garden, where snacks are served, beverages are poured, and the day’s stresses soon melt away. From this vantage point, just one block off 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 bites—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 California product 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 go for $155 and $295. (The wine program features many local favorites, including some hard-to-find bottles, and is worth every penny.) You’ll want to book your reservations 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, heated floors, 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 candies 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 60-plus grape varietals 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 425 wineries across 18 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, characterized 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 a cue from the area’s early Italian settlers by using sustainable, organic, and biodynamic grape-growing methods, all similar to what those 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, go to 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 spot, home to the 1,200-acre Jordan Vineyard & Winery. The stone and stucco castle focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, served with small bites from estate chef Todd Knoll and showcasing 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 a satisfying of the palette, but the right place to stay is important, too. With its varying array of landscapes, Sonoma County offers lodgings that range 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 historic 1881 Victorian mansion modernized with plush suites, Michelin-starred dinners, and extravagant service—all befitting its setting on eight acres of English gardens and wooded hillside. Take your gourmet buffet breakfast in the estate parlor, 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 spots like the Raford Inn, an 1880 Victorian plantation where breakfast brings stuffed French toast soufflé, and evenings glide in with complimentary wine tastings from neighboring wineries.
The spa treatments at Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn use herbs and heirloom cider apples grown right 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 fed by farm-fresh food. Its seasonally inspired spa uses massage oils enriched by herbs and even heirloom apples grown right 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 southwest of Forestville, offers a luxury escape, in snug rooms with fireplaces, down comforters, and private balconies for stargazing. But plan 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 trails. 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 40,000-square-foot spa built atop 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 the California 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 Beerfest, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa is your chance to sip some of Northern California’s finest brews and ciders from more than 60 breweries and cideries.
Sonoma County locals haven’t forgotten how to celebrate some of their more humble exports though, or the fact that sometimes you just have to turn up the volume. They celebrate a local apple varietal 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 the Taste of Sonoma, when thousands of guests join chefs, wineries, and artisan food purveyors for three full days of wine tastings, elaborate meals, and the Sonoma County 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 (early September through mid-November) is a popular time 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, and tourism is at its peak as well, so take that into consideration when timing your trip. 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.
During the holiday season, enjoy wine, food, and live music in the courtyard of the Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma as you witness the Lighting of the Snowmen. Also in December, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens gets in the holiday spirit with spiced tea and other holiday treats. Tour the home, greenhouse and gardens of the famous horticulturalist while it’s decked out in its holiday finest, amidst reveling carolers.
Tour companies abound in Sonoma County, which are great for helping you visit a variety of wineries, with knowledgeable guides at the wheel who can pepper your journey with insights and fun tidbits.
Yet Sonoma County encompasses such a broad range of terrains that the mode for exploration happily goes beyond a mere shuttle or even a limo. You can go horseback riding, for instance, at Chalk Hill Winery or along the coastal bluffs of Bodega Bay at Chanslor Ranch. For more speed, go zip-lining through the redwoods with Sonoma Canopy Tours, hiking or biking with Getaway Adventures or Sonoma Valley Bike Tours, or kayaking 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 plaza square is Buena Vista Winery, where the historic Press House is open for tastings year-round. The free Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures program offers no-appointment, self-guided vineyard tours at top wineries. Check its site for options, then pick up maps 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 strolls 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 a pricey. Here’s a list of wineries that offer them for $10 or less.
Romp hand-in-hand on the beach. Stroll across grassy meadows. Savor 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, preserves, 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 hiking trails along the rugged coastline, making it a prime spot to watch gray and blue whales. Grab a perch at Ocean Overlook to see the gentle giants traveling 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 coastal bluffs 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 the famous author called the area his “Beauty Ranch.” Hikers and horseback riders share the 26 miles of trails to see a 2,000-year-old redwood tree and the centuries-old terraced gardens (the old-style 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 ever move in.
Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa offers more than 40 miles of trails for walking, biking, or horseback 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 2,729-foot summit of Bald Mountain, and on a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge. Sugarloaf also has 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. Hikers, equestrians, mountain bicyclists, and runners are all drawn here for more than 40 miles of trails. Keep your eyes peeled for a sight of the rare California red-legged frogs, popularized in Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” In Guerneville, you can hike the trails at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, home to a grove of majestic coast redwoods—including one tree that is taller than a football field is long. And in the city of Sonoma itself, Sonoma State Historic Park, which consists of six midtown locations each featuring a historic attraction, and Depot Park both offer facilities for outdoor fun and relaxation such as bocce ball courts, picnic tables, playgrounds and bike 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 kids but offer fun activities for the smaller set.
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 kids, or grown-up train fanatics, love Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, a 10-acre park with quarter-scale replicas of classic locomotives and train cars. A 20-minute ride on the train travels through tunnels and over bridges and finishes near the park’s petting zoo and six carnival rides.
Other kid favorites include General Vallejo’s 1836 working ranch at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, where special events include special 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 longtime home of celebrated Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz—let the kids clamber onto statues of Snoopy and his pals on the grounds of the Charles M. Schulz Museum. Inside, kids (and grownups) 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 theater. Afterward, strap on some skates and take a spin at the adjacent Snoopy’s Home Ice, a Swiss chalet–style ice rink (be sure to have a cocoa at the rink’s Warm Puppy Café).
Also in Santa Rosa, consider a visit to the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where kids can smell roses, learn about growing vegetables, and look for birds in the famed horticulturist’s one-acre homestead.
If you’re wine tasting in central Sonoma County, you’ll likely hear the phrase “Petaluma Gap” at some point. It’s a curious term, since there are only a few wineries in Petaluma—like Keller Estate and Kastania Vineyards—but the unique geographic region 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, then blows 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, sought out all over the country, like 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 downtown Petaluma 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 in this stretch of normally sleepy wine country; check out top-rated craft brewpub Lagunitas Brewing Company, The Block Petaluma, a food-truck market with 30 taps and onsite 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 campgrounds in the vicinity, including both KOA sites and ones that offer a more cushy 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 can 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 artifacts like an 1800s horse 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 bites like caviar, Cowgirl Creamery crème fraîche, and capers on crackers. And don’t miss Bartholomew Memorial Park nearby, 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.
The culinary scene in Sonoma far exceeds what anyone might expect from a town with a population hovering around 10,000. Café La Haye is widely considered the best bet for dinner, serving expertly conceived dishes that showcase local product and make the most of an impeccable wine list. Visitors also flock to The Girl and the Fig for its duck confit and crispy chicken thighs, as well as the sun-dappled outdoor patio.
Other great options on or near the plaza include Tasca Tasca, a Portuguese tapas spot that stays open late; Oso, which features bold flavors and an inventive young chef; and El Dorado Kitchen, a vibrant spot inside the El Dorado Hotel that offers a people-pleasing menu and a scenic outdoor space. For bubble fans, Sigh Champagne Bar showcases an amazing collection of sparklers.
A more immersive dive into Sonoma’s past will be rewarding for history buffs 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 U.S. government and the State of California took over the territory not too long after that, you can still sense its heritage. The centerpiece of 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.
Be sure to take one of the cool historic tours of still-standing monuments. For starters, explore the parish-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 center of West Sonoma County. Its hotspot is The Barlow, a $23.8 million culinary, wine, and arts center that spans 12.5 beautifully landscaped acres. You can explore its wine tasting rooms, craft breweries, art galleries, and even 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 and used in the restaurants’ food and cocktails.
This is still a small town too, with a downtown area just a few blocks long and a scattering of outlying antique, ranch, and clothing stores where all the owners (and most of the customers) are straight from the neighborhood. Residents are fiercely proud of the offbeat nature of their intimate burg, evidenced by spots like Cali Kind Clothing Co. (known for elaborate tie-dyes) and the California Carnivores nursery, whose wondrous insect-eating plants add flair and function to any home.
Other things to do include taking a stroll down a three-block stretch of Florence Avenue, where you can check out 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.
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 where you come for restaurants that offer inventive, handcrafted, and sustainable dining, like Ramen Gaijin and the French-meets-hyperlocal K&L Bistro, where most ingredients are from Sebastopol. Vegetarians and vegans, meanwhile, will love Slice of Life, where such specialties as the Cali Reuben with tempeh and their gluten-free pizza have earned it a faithful following.
On Sunday mornings, be sure to wander the downtown farmers market. The year-round affair held in the sun-dappled Sebastopol Plaza (see the market’s site for a map) is always jazzed up with live music and plenty of prepared foods for noshing. Some of the best growers and food producers set up shop, presenting beautiful fruits, vegetables, flowers, homemade pasta, and artisanal foods. Woodleaf Farm, one of the oldest organic farms in California, has heavenly peaches; and Middleton Farm's strawberries are so sweet, you'll swear they were dipped first in jam. Another item any visitor should keep an eye out for is Gravenstein apples. If you’re visiting during the summer, sample one of these red-speckled beauties while you can; they are much harder to find outside of Sonoma County because their thin skins make them difficult to ship without bruising.
With nearly 180,000 residents, this is Sonoma County’s largest commerce hub, but even so, Santa Rosa still feels pretty cozy. Its small-town heart prides itself on a rich agricultural heritage, burgeoning arts and brewpub scene, and two famous native—a horticulturalist and a cartoonist.
Experience the city’s casual-warm vibe at the welcoming Railroad Square Historic District. Once the home of bootleggers and ladies of ill repute, the square now hosts 40-plus shops and eateries clustered around the restored 1903 Northwestern Pacific Railroad train depot. Every day the SMART train heads south to Marin County, but there are plenty of reasons to stay right here. Wander the square and admire Santa Rosa’s early 20th-century brick buildings. Order a demitasse of Espresso No. 9 at Flying Goat Coffee. Pop in for breakfast at Omelette Express. Browse through vintage dresses, hats, and period costumes at Hot Couture, or marvel at delicate china teacups perfect for pinky-lifting at Whistlestop Antiques. Have dinner or spend the night at the stately Hotel La Rose, built by Italian stonemasons in 1907.
Santa Rosa’s under-the-radar SOFA arts district (South A Street) is a fashionable home for creative types. The Santa Rosa Arts Center and neighboring art studios sponsor events, classes, and concerts. Entrepreneur and chef Liza Hinman has transformed an aging building into the ultra-hip, mid-century-modern Astro Motel, a sister endeavor to her Spinster Sisters restaurant, where nightly specials include eggplant croquettes, roasted bone marrow, and Moroccan-style carrots. A few footsteps away, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens honors the self-taught horticulturist Burbank, who took advantage of Sonoma County’s rich soil to develop the Shasta daisy and Santa Rosa plum. Take a home or garden tour and visit the Carriage House Museum at this registered National and State Historic Landmark.
All around town, you’ll notice larger-than-life statues of Snoopy, often accompanied by Charlie Brown, Woodstock, and Lucy. Cartoonist Charles Schulz lived and worked in Santa Rosa from 1969 until his death in 2000, claiming Sonoma County as an inspiration for his iconic Peanuts comic strip. At the Charles M. Schulz Museum, visit a re-creation of the artist’s studio to see his sketches, then head next door to Snoopy’s Home ice rink for year-round skating.
Santa Rosa’s brewpub culture thrives at Plow Brewing Company, Third Street Aleworks, and Russian River Brewing Company, where innovative brewing methods are creating some of California’s most coveted beers, like the triple IPA Pliny the Younger. And you can’t forget you’re in wine country—tasting rooms are located right in the city’s heart. Santa Rosa Vintners Square makes sipping-and-sampling neighbors out of D’Argenzio Winery, Topping Legnon Winery, and Fogbelt Brewing Company—all dotted around a lovely terrazzo-like outdoor setting.
Not long ago, Guerneville was a sleepy forested hideaway best known for spectacular natural wonders like majestic redwood trees and the meandering Russian River. Today, the tiny town 90 miles/145 kilometers north of San Francisco remains one of Sonoma County’s natural jewels and a prime example of the region’s accepting West Coast vibe—but it’s also become a cutting-edge dining destination and burgeoning resort retreat.
Boon hotel + spa, for instance, is an intimate, eco-chic lodging run by local chef-entrepreneur and celebrity Crista Luedtke (she was named Triple Grand Champion on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Guy’s Grocery Games). Her other local endeavors include farm-to-table bistro Boon eat + drink and the modern Mexican cantina El Barrio, which brings tequila, mezcal, and bourbon to wine country. Luedtke’s culinary empire also includes Big Bottom Market, famous for its biscuits (they’re an Oprah favorite), and the modern Bavarian beer hall Brot.
Despite the fancy food scene, you won’t find fancy attitudes: The town’s heart is still an eclectic mix of atmospheric but convivial taverns, so-tacky-they’re-fun souvenir shops, and quirky art galleries frequented by modern hippie-types looking to escape the big city.
There’s also plenty of flair from the drag queens and alt-lifestylers who’ve made Guerneville their home. For decades, the town has been the San Francisco Bay Area’s LGBTQ getaway, earning it the nickname “the Gay Riviera.” You can always find a party at the landmark Rainbow Cattle Co., where patrons have been living it up since 1979, or the Bar at the R3 Hotel, another longtime favorite.
For romantic lodgings to share with any partner, book a stay at the luxurious, Mission Revival-style Applewood Inn, or dine in its firelight-lit restaurant (the wine list is a stunner). For a down-to-earth stay, Highlands Resort’s wide array of homey cabins and suites provide an “unplugged” approach to relaxation. Just outside town is the Russian River location of Autocamp, a stylish collection of tricked-out Airstream trailers and posh canvas glamping tents. The luxuriously woodsy accommodations offer a photogenic mashup of Mother Nature and retro-chic, sure to blow up your Instagram account.
On summer days, kick back with the locals at Johnson's Beach, a slip of sand beneath Guerneville’s entryway bridge with rentable beach chairs, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats. Or rent a canoe at Burke’s Canoe Trips—a local classic for decades—then zigzag down the easy-to-paddle Russian River. Any season is perfect for hiking or forest-bathing beneath the canopy of giant redwoods in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, or wandering trails through oak forests and meadows at adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area.
To see how down-to-earth Guerneville culture translates into wine, schedule a tasting of certified biodynamic vintages from mountainside Porter-Bass Winery, inhabited by winemaker and earth-child Luke Bass, along with his heritage chickens and adorable canines. Add some indulgence to your day with wine or champagne tasting at Korbel California Champagne, or follow country roads south towards Healdsburg, sampling acclaimed Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels at countless wineries along the way.
The flawless-at-every-turn town of Healdsburg, at the north end of Sonoma County, was recently listed as the No. 2 “Best Small Town to Visit” in the U.S. 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 like the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Les Mars, local celebrity chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in the heralded Hotel Healdsburg, and Valette restaurant from local hero chef Dustin Valette
Still, even with some relatively recent arrivals, like The Gallery Barn & Bistro at Studio Barndiva—there are longtime favorites. Downtown Bakery & Creamery, for instance, has been a staple for savory breakfasts since the café opened in 1987, and still attracts a loyal following for its sumptuous sticky buns, jam pockets, donut 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, lined with dozens of tasting rooms, each with their own vibe. Check out the big-city chic Cartograph with wines on tap, the stylish funky Banshee with its record player spinning vinyl, and the groovy Thumbprint Cellars with for-sale artwork on nearly every inch of wall. Looking for a local cold one to call your favorite? Sample craft beer from some of Sonoma County’s acclaimed breweries at Barrels, Brews & Bites or The Wurst Restaurant.