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.
Spotlight: Sonoma County
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 the 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 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. 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.
You’ll find more wild, untrammeled land on the Sonoma Coast than towns, shops, or services—and that’s why it’s so appealing. Unplugging is easy here—after a few minutes gazing at the Pacific’s endless rolling waves, your cell phone seems irrelevant. But the action is always “on” at 17-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Park, a protected string of isolated beaches separated by grassy headlands. Wind-whipped waves crash against offshore rocks. Murrelets, cormorants, pelicans, and gulls soar above the surf-splashed headlands. The shimmering Pacific extends as far as your gaze can follow.
On the park’s north side, the seafaring hamlet of Jenner clings to the cliffs above the Russian River. Here, the river ends its ocean-bound journey, forming a massive sand spit at its mouth, which serves as breeding grounds for hundreds of Pacific harbor seals from March to July. To see them, drive to Goat Rock, a bulky offshore outcrop accessed by a narrow, paved road. Then park your car and stroll the brayed tan sand, gaining views of neighboring Arch Rock’s perfect crescent of sandstone. From Goat Rock Beach, you can observe the seals’ antics—a mish-mash of barking, slumbering, basking, swimming, mating, and raising their young.
During the seal pupping season, volunteers set up spotting scopes and binoculars on the beach. You can walk within 50 yards of the seals, but if you want to see them even closer, paddle a kayak. On a guided tour with WaterTreks EcoTours, even beginners can get up close with the fascinating wildlife of the Jenner estuary.
After your paddle, you’ll need sustenance. Head to Café Aquatica for a Dungeness crab sandwich or a steaming latte. If the weather’s nice, sit outside and watch the kayakers float past. Wander into the next-door Jenner Visitor Center, set in a worn-shingled boathouse, where docents provide information on the area’s natural history. A few steps to the north, the River’s End restaurant serves up outstanding local cuisine and breathtaking Pacific sunsets. Book in advance to reserve a coveted window table.
Jenner’s overnight options include Wright’s Beach campground, which offers beachfront sites on a long stretch of sand ideal for kite-flying. Or reserve a cozy bed at the mid-century modern Timber Cove Resort, perched on an ocean bluff. For a memorable splurge, book a king room with a private hot tub at Fort Ross Lodge, then scan the sea for passing gray whales as you soak.
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6 Fun Activities in Wine Country
Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center
Peanuts characters are alive and well at this Santa Rosa institution, which celebrates the life and legacy of Snoopy creator Charles M. Schulz. The museum was founded in 2002 by Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, and today it houses the largest collection of original Peanuts artwork in the world. Permanent exhibits include a look at some of Schulz’s original comic strips, as well as a recreation of his art studio. There’s also a tile mural composed of 3,588 different comic strips. Temporary exhibits change throughout the year. The museum also has an outdoor area with sculptures that depict iconic moments from the cartoons (such as Charlie Brown with a metal kite stuck in a real tree) and a theater that screens documentaries on a loop. If you’re traveling with children, the best part of the museum is the laid-back-but-hands-on education room, where docents help visitors learn how to draw specific characters. Also worth exploring with kids: the Redwood Empire Ice Rink, located across the street. Schulz loved skating at the rink, which is open to the public. Skate rentals are available, and a café serves breakfast and lunch daily.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve
Grays and greens abound in this public conservation tract in the tiny town of Guerneville along the Russian River. The area predates logging in the northern part of the state, so the preserve is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees in Sonoma County—one, the Parson Jones Tree, is more than 310 feet tall. Not coincidentally, the park is also a popular place for weddings; go on a weekend and you’re practically guaranteed to see one. As far as public parks are concerned, Armstrong Redwoods is more accessible than most. The main sections of the reserve are relatively flat, and there are ample picnic areas for hikers of all abilities. There’s also a self-guided nature trail just behind the visitor center. On foggy summer mornings, the damp pathways inside Armstrong are great places to spot banana slugs—just one of a few attributes that makes the park kid-friendly. With more than 30 miles of trails, the park offers plenty of longer hiking or running options, too. When you’ve had your fill of nature, head down the hill to downtown Guerneville for an ice cream cone at Nimble & Finn’s, inside the Guerneville Bank Club.
CIA at Copia (The Culinary Institute of America)
Consider the Culinary Institute of America at Copia the center for continuing education about food and wine. The facility—which in its first iteration was bankrolled by the late Robert Mondavi—offers to the public a host of cooking classes, wine and beverage explorations, chef demonstrations, and more. Situated next to the Oxbow Public Market on the east side of the Napa River, CIA at Copia also has expansive chefs’ gardens and an on-site restaurant. Most of the programming involves education, with classes ranging from demonstration-style to hands-on. Some, such as one on how to make ice cream, are family-friendly. Others, like sabering a bottle of champagne, are geared distinctly toward grown-ups. Private classes for groups of 10 to 20 people are also available. Throughout the year, CIA at Copia also hosts a number of regular events such as a seminar series, as well as the popular Easter Egg Hunt, Bud Break Festival, Summer Luau, Ciderfest, Oktoberfest, and Holiday Marketplace. There’s even a store on-site, which is stocked with kitchen tools, hard-to-find ingredients, cookbooks, and housewares.
Yes, the Hess Collection in Napa makes wine and sells it under the same name. But really, the brand is about something equally wonderful in entirely different ways: modern art. Owner and entrepreneur Donald Hess began collecting art in the 1960s, and the collection on display at the Mount Veeder winery and tasting room represents a small portion of the pieces he’s amassed since then. The three-story gallery is open to the public for free and displays work from artists Franz Gertsch, Francis Bacon, Leopold Maler, and others. Despite the high caliber of work on display, the Hess Collection gallery is relaxed and without pretense. Visitors can take self-guided strolls through the collection or sign up for a formal docent-led tour. This latter option provides guests with insider information about the art, and follows the tour with a private tasting of Hess Collection wine. Housed in a circa-1903 stone winery originally constructed by Colonel Theodore Gier, the building evokes the grandeur of yesteryear—especially in summer, when ivy covers the stone walls of the gallery.
Yes, this Rutherford-based agricultural operation sells wine. But what sets Round Pond apart from just about every other Napa Valley winery is its olive mill. Through tours and tastings, visitors get an intriguing behind-the-scenes look into the world of olive oil. Tours wind through the olive orchard while guides explain the process of harvesting. Tastings take place inside the mill; you smell the oil first and then taste it with different vegetables, breads, meats, and cheeses. With the exception of a few reserve samplings, most wine tastings at Round Pond occur on the second-story tasting lounge and covered terrace, a space with panoramic views of the estate and the palm-lined driveway. To combine both sides of the house, try the Il Pranzo tasting, which includes wine and food on the winery side and olive oil and food on the olive mill side. What’s more, for an unparalleled winery visit, book a spot at the weekly garden-to-table brunch, a four-hour experience that includes a tour, a harvesting session in the winery garden, a cooking class, and a farm-to-table meal served in the garden itself.
Napa Valley Paddle (NVP) rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and inflatable paddleboards by the hour, day, and weekend. But the company—based on the Main Street Dock at Riverfront Plaza—also offers guided tours that offer a completely different perspective on a part of wine country that so many visitors see only by land. There are four such trips, including a two-hour paddle around the Oxbow River in downtown Napa; a four-hour fishing excursion from downtown Napa to the top of San Pablo Bay; and a day-long adventure through the marshlands south of Napa and the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge (both are prime spots for bird-watching). Tours include all equipment (including a personal flotation device and a waterproof bag to keep wallets and cell phones dry), as well as a brief safety lesson. NVP can also orchestrate casual “unguided” tours of downtown, complete with maps and gourmet picnic lunches, or family-friendly excursions on inflatable stand-up paddleboards that are big enough for six paddlers at once. All tours and rentals are subject to weather conditions, so it pays to call ahead.
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Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
Stately and historic, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa brings a European vibe to its 13 acres at the northern edge of Sonoma. It also brings thermal waters up from 1,100 feet below the surface to feed the resort’s pools, making it one of the few luxury spa resorts in America with its own source of thermal mineral water.
Formal touches grace the Spanish Mission-style inn, like the lobby’s exposed-beam ceiling and large fireplace, and extend to the accommodations, where you’ll find marble baths and Provence-style furnishings. Many of the rooms, renovated in 2017, include fireplaces, and some suites have four-poster beds, balconies, or sunken Jacuzzi tubs.
The resort’s dining experiences are helmed by chef de cuisine Andrew Cain, an alum of The French Laundry. His signature restaurant, Santé, has become a destination of its own by incorporating high-quality local ingredients into its haute cuisine. Savor your way through the always-changing seven-course tasting menu, or sample entrees that may include diver scallops in a bacon-scented coconut lobster or a ribeye of wagyu beef. Finish your night at 38º North, the hotel lounge pouring more than 50 wines by the glass.
Also flowing here are those ancient thermal waters—most strikingly at the highly rated Willow Stream Spa. The 40,000-square-foot space takes full advantage of the healing waters in five unique pools. It’s here you can experience the spa’s signature Watsu, or floating massage. You can also select treatments like a lavender bubble bath or a grape seed and rosehip body wrap.
Once refreshed, take on the 18-hole championship golf course at the adjacent Sonoma Golf Club (open only to members and hotel guests), play tennis, or join one of the daily complimentary hikes and fitness classes. Then wind down with the daily afternoon wine tasting—this is Sonoma, after all.
6 Awesome Sonoma County Wine Tasting Experiences
Rodney Strong, a former professional dancer, opened this pioneering winery in 1959. Today, in addition to a traditional tasting room, the winery has added more sophisticated options on the Terrace, an outdoor lounge that looks out on vineyards. Here, the menu offers seated wine flights that incorporate the Davis Bynum, Upshot, and Rowen labels and seated wine-and-food pairings that include cheese and charcuterie and poached lobster. Pro tip: Be sure to ask your server for a special pour of single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon or some of the winery’s popular port. During the summer, Rodney Strong hosts a concert series and brings in food trucks to cater the events. The winery also offers free guided tours daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; these hour-long strolls take visitors from the vineyard into the production area and back again, providing a crash-course in everything from growing grapes to crush, fermentation, and bottling.
Pairings are everything at Ram’s Gate, one of the first wineries on the drive to wine country from San Francisco. First is the combination of sights: the wonders of architect Howard Backen’s open-concept tasting room in a refurbished barn and the panoramic vistas of Carneros and San Pablo Bay. Next is the marriage of wine and food—winemaker Jeff Gaffner’s single-vineyard designate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs matched perfectly with seasonal small bites from executive chef Taylr Behnam Cuneo. The most popular tasting is called “Palate Play,” which marries five wines with five dishes from the kitchen. For a truly unparalleled afternoon, book the three-hour Vineyard Table experience, an immersion for four to 10 people that includes a glass of bubbly, a guided tour of the winery and on-site gardens, and a custom-designed meal with wine pairings served at a table in the vineyard. There are other, less involved ways to experience Ram’s Gate: seated wine tastings, stand-alone site tours, and picnics down by the pond. Whatever your fancy, just be sure to make a reservation before you go.
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
The perspective from Gary Farrell Winery, on the outskirts of Healdsburg, is distinctive. Perched high on a ridge above Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, you get a sense of the fog that makes this growing region so perfect—the clouds trap cool air and moisture down below, enabling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to mature slowly. This general understanding of the microclimate only enhances your enjoyment of the wine itself, which winemaker Theresa Heredia has made with a deft touch since 2012. After extensive renovations to the main tasting salons in 2017, the visitor experience at Gary Farrell now ranks as one of the best in the county, especially if you reserve a spot on the covered patio outside. All the tastings are seated; the Inspiration Tasting matches six wines with three small bites from chef Didier Ageorges, while the Exploration Tasting includes a tour, five wines, and a cheese-and-nuts plate. Both experiences take about 90 minutes and reservations are suggested. In case you’re wondering, although his name is still on the wine and the winery, Gary Farrell himself—a true pioneer of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley—hasn’t been involved in day-to-day operations since he sold the winery to the Vincraft Group in 2004.
This small-production and boutique winery near downtown Sonoma has achieved cult status in recent years for the exclusivity of the experiences that owners (and brothers) Andrew and Adam Mariani have put together. Standard tastings run about 90 minutes and include four current-release wines paired with four food courses served family-style. On sunny days, the tastings unfold on open-air patios in the shade of big white umbrellas; when the weather is less than stellar, guests are greeted and served in one of the many rooms of the circa-1858 hacienda. Reservations are only accepted by phone and often book out weeks in advance, especially in summer. For an even more intimate experience, reserve seats for one of the many pop-up dinners pairing Scribe wines with multiple courses prepared by visiting chefs who come in for brief residencies. The Marianis espouse organic and biodynamic farming methods and non-interventionist winemaking techniques, which translates into distinct fruit-forward estate wines that rarely overpower. Pro tip: Most visits don’t include tours, but if you book an early morning tasting midweek, you might get the chance to explore the hacienda before the formal visit begins.
Entering the reservations-only Williams Selyem winery may feel like a walking into a wine barrel—and that’s by design. The architects incorporated wood from old redwood wine tanks for a more authentic feel. Wine lovers call the facility the “Palace of Pinot” because it’s where the label’s legendary Pinot Noir is blended. Williams Selyem is home to the first Wine Enthusiast 100-point Pinot Noir in North America; the winery also makes Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and a host of late-harvest wines as well. During a standard seated tasting, visitors sample at least five or six different wines from the cellar; there could be even more if hospitality associates have others open and are willing to share. Most tastings are preceded by a tour of the facility’s cellar, winemaking facilities, and tank rooms, showcasing the components of the architecture that make the place special. Technically, you have to join the winery’s list to schedule a visit, and in busy years it can take up to nine months to have the option to get on the calendar. But if you love the subtlety of Bordeaux-style wines, the upscale experience is well worth the wait.
Visitors to this modern Russian River Valley winery receive a personal greeting and a glass of sparkling wine as they walk up—an appropriate welcome for a relaxed-yet-sophisticated few hours. Most tastings take place in the comfortable and airy Estate House, where all guests enjoy seated tastings under soaring wood ceilings, or outside, on one of three patio terraces overlooking 13 acres of vineyards. Some tastings feature only wine; others incorporate a tour and food and chocolate pairings. Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen specializes in Bordeaux-style varieties, which means she only makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Year after year, the wine earns high scores from experts, and the winery garners accolades for mixing estate-grown grapes with some of the best fruit the Russian River Valley has to offer from farming families such as the Duttons, Sangiacomos, Martinellis, and Bacigalupis. The highlight of the in-person experience is the view; the Estate House sits atop a hill, offering visitors panoramic vistas of Sonoma County in just about every direction. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount St. Helena, more than 40 miles east. On gray days, you can look into the fog—the natural feature responsible for keeping temperatures cool and making Russian River wines so good.
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Charles M. Schulz Museum
The iconic characters of the Peanuts comic strip may have lived somewhere around Minnesota, but their creator, Charles Schulz, lived for decades in Santa Rosa—and the large Charles M. Schulz Museum is a testament to the comic strip’s deep California roots.
Charles Schulz first moved to Sonoma County in 1958, and his studio sat on what became the site of this museum, which opened in 2002, two years after his death. One focal point of the museum is a re-creation of that workspace where Schulz penned so many comic strips, but the museum’s collection also includes thousands of original artworks, along with related photographs and letters. There are also tribute pieces, like the huge tile wall by a Japanese artist—depicting Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown—and an array of Peanuts memorabilia, such as the first Snoopy plush dolls from the 1950s. (Of course, you can buy contemporary memorabilia in the on-site gift shop.)
The museum is home to a 100-seat theater that shows short films about Schulz, though most of the theater schedule is devoted to the deep inventory of Peanuts specials, from seasonal holiday classics to evergreen specials like Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown. Check the museum’s events page for hands-on activities, like craft-making for kids, or animation workshops for all ages.
The museum complex is not just about exhibits, either. Go across the street and tie on some ice skates at Snoopy’s Home Ice, the indoor rink that predates the museum by decades—Schulz had it built in 1969. Sip some hot cocoa at the rink’s Warm Puppy Café, or stroll the neighboring Snoopy Labyrinth, a contemplative path in the shape of the beagle’s head.
Peanuts fans can see statues of Snoopy and the gang scattered around the town of Santa Rosa (there are four at the local airport, also named after Schulz). In Southern California, meanwhile, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park has its own Peanuts connection, with a Camp Snoopy section of little-kid-friendly rides, a Snoopy HQ gift shop, and Snoopy-themed live shows—which are often on ice.
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.
Russian River Brewing Company
Hopheads the world over revere Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder double IPA, and thousands line up around the block each February for a chance to taste the limited-edition Pliny the Younger triple IPA. Before there was Pliny, however, there was Blind Pig.
Vinnie Cilurzo brewed America’s first double IPA, appropriately named Inaugural Ale, at Temecula’s Blind Pig Brewing in 1994. A few years later he closed Blind Pig, moved to Northern California with his wife, Natalie, and began brewing at Russian River Brewing Co., which was owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars at the time. When Korbel decided to get out of the beer business in 2002, the Cilurzos bought Russian River and in 2004 opened their Santa Rosa brewpub.
Pliny the Elder still accounts for most of the brewery’s sales, but other Russian River beers of distinction such as Temptation, a wine-barrel-aged sour, and the Brett (a type of yeast with particularly vivid characteristics)-fermented Sanctification have loyal followers of their own.
Russian River’s downtown brewpub seats fewer than 200 people, so scoring a table or a seat at the bar can be challenging. But the place more than compensates for the lack of elbow room with friendly patrons, delicious beer, and a casual dining menu. There’s also a happy hour weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and all day Sunday. In 2018, the Cilurzos opened a larger brewery and brewpub in nearby Windsor. It features the same great beer along with a new menu, outdoor seating, tours, and an expansive gift shop.
Sonoma County Wines & Wineries
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.
Sonoma County Luxury Lodgings
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.
Sonoma County Annual Events
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.
This Russian River Valley resort is famed for its Michelin-starred restaurant, Farmhouse, which attracts an international following of farm-to-table foodies. Inside a restored 1873 weatherboard farmhouse, executive chef Steve Litke creates dishes made from picked-at-their-peak produce from Sonoma’s agricultural bounty.
But the Farmhouse Inn offers much more than fine dining: This resort checks all the boxes for a luxury getaway. Twenty-five elegant rooms, including eight cottages with dry saunas, are gussied up in woodsy-chic style with white linen furniture, freshly cut flowers, private patios, and two-way gas fireplaces that warm indoor and outdoor spaces. The concierge-to-guest ratio is one to five, so your every whim will be catered to. (Ask your personal sommelier to stock your in-room fridge to suit your palate.) The inn’s Sonoma connections are strong—Farmhouse is owned by fifth-generation members of the Bartolomei winemaking family—so you’ll be welcomed like a VIP at 23 partner wineries. Need a driver for a wine-tasting excursion? Send a text and a driver will pick you up in a Tesla.
If you’d rather not leave the property, that’s completely understandable. Choose from an array of complimentary artisan soaps at the front office, then luxuriate in your room’s jetted tub, or melt away your cares in your steam shower or sauna. Make an appointment at the full-service Spa at Farmhouse, which offers a range of organic treatments using herbs, honey, and apples harvested on the six-acre property. Feeling weary? Get a micro-current eye lift, then take a biotic nap, which simulates four hours of sleep in 30 minutes.
Once you’re refreshed, go for a dip in the heated pool or meander through the inn’s flower-covered grounds. In the evening, feel free to linger by the fire pits while you roast dark chocolate s’mores, but don’t overdo it. Save room for what might be the world’s best chocolate-chip cookies, delivered to your room at turndown.
Special Tours & Tastings Around Sonoma County
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.
Sonoma County State & City Parks
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.
Family-Friendly Sonoma County
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.