Running roughly north and south just “over the hill” from Napa Valley to the east, Sonoma County has long been in the shadow of its better known more bustling neighbor. It doesn’t boast as many wineries, multi-million dollar visitor centers, or fine dining establishments as Napa, but rewards visitors with a more relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to see what California wine country was like before rampant commercialism turned it into a tourist attraction. It’s by no means neglected or ignored, an estimated seven million visitors come to Sonoma County every year. Among their options are 250 wineries, 120 small farms, 40 spas, 18 golf courses and some 500 restaurants!
Lying roughly an hour north of San Francisco, most visitors will fly to San Francisco or Oakland airport where they will pick up a car and head north, traveling either east or west of San Pablo Bay to reach the southern end of the region.
When to visit
Visiting Sonoma County is best during the late summer and early fall. This is harvest time when there is much activity in the vineyards and wineries. With crush going on the aroma of wine is in the air. Many of the wineries have special harvest tours that allow you to watch the grapes coming in and see them being crushed. These tours are usually by reservation so call ahead of time. April through October boasts mostly days of sunshine which makes it ideal for exploring the Sonoma countryside.
The Regions and Towns
The major wine regions in Sonoma County, running from North to South, are Rockpile, Dry Creek, Alexander, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley, and Los Carneros/Sonoma. The wines they produce are distinctive reflections of their microclimates.
The oldest town in the Wine Country. Center of this town is its eight-acre, park-like plaza surrounded by historic adobe buildings that house boutiques, antique stores, restaurants, food shops and several renovated Gold Rush-era hotels. These adobes are the largest group of old adobes north of Monterey. A town’s Spanish colonial past is today the center for the famed Sonoma Valley Appellation and home of the nationally recognized Sonoma Valley Film Festival.
In Sonoma Valley many of the wineries, shops and hotels center around Glen Ellen. Truly a one street town, the downtown appears like a small village. But it is only a part of the area of Glen Ellen which spreads for miles. Once a booming lumber town, now famous for being the home of Jack London. A must see is the Jack London State Historic Park where the remains of his Wolf House is nestled within the forest. The town has excellent restaurants, and a wonderful grocery store for picnic fixings.
The largest city in the heart of the wine country and famous for being the home of the late Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts.” Historic Railroad Square, just west of the freeway, has restored 19th century buildings filled with antique shops, stores and restaurants. Most of Santa Rosa was flattened during the 1906 earthquake. One area that survived, McDonald Street, has wonderfully restored Victorian houses with the highlight being the McDonald mansion. From May to September every Wednesday night Fourth Street comes alive. This is the Santa Rosa Farmers Market with music, street food, arts and crafts and entertainment attracting thousands.
Sebastapol is yippie/hippie kind of town with a lively arts scene and reputation for being environmentally correct. It has even declared itself a nuclear-free zone! It has wonderful shops and is especially known for its antique collectives making it an antique lovers MecCA Also famous for its bumper crop of apples each year.
This small but quaint town is off the beautiful Bohemian Highway just west of Sebastopol. In the 19th century this was a logging area and an important stop for the Northern Pacific Coast Railroad. Today it has an intimate charm with historic buildings that contain a few art galleries, craft stores, clothing boutiques and restaurants. The town is a popular stopping point for a day trip to the coast. The Union Hotel Restaurant and Negri’s are Italian family style restaurants very popular in the area, but as one local puts it their more about quantity then quality.
One of the main towns in the Russian River Valley. It is a two block historic Victorian resort town. Stroll around and visit the shops and restaurants. Nearby is Armstrong Woods which is a must for nature lovers. Some of the country’s oldest trees are there.
A charming example of Victorian shops, Bodega is famous for being the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “The Birds.” This area is where you can whale watch between November and March. The whales pass by the Bay on their annual migration to and from Baja California.
This town recently redeveloped its downtown around an area they call “The Windsor Town Green.” Check out the shops and restaurants. During the summer months free entertainment takes place on “The Green.”
A favorite destination for locals as well as tourists just celebrated its 150th year anniversary. Healdsburg is a town known for its wine tasting rooms, shops, restaurants and lodging. The center of activity revolves around the newly restored Healdsburg Plaza. The Plaza is like a park landscaped with Palm and Oak trees where people picnic and during the summer on Tuesday nights listen to music. This town is located near three famous viticultural regions, the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys providing wine-country visitors with many exciting and interesting travel experiences.