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Sonoma County, California 72-Hour Vacation

No Longer the "Other Wine County"
Epicurean Treats and Fabulous Wines
By Daedalus Howell

Vineyard in Bloom
Vineyard in Bloom

Sonoma County has long-endured the ignobility of being the "other wine county," next to the entertainment-industrial complex known as Napa. This could be due to a variety of reasons, not least of which being the relatively recent surge in the quality of the region's wine production. In the past twenty years, however, Sonoma County has gone from the jug to juggernaut with an impressive array of wines, restaurants and hotels.

Sonoma County, or as the local tourism bureau refers to the region, "Sonoma Country," boasts 250 wineries and counting. Touring the county by car in a series of day trips is the best way to experience the region since, at its furthest points, the county can be crossed in a hour and a half. Another option is to take the self-guided vineyard tours titled Sonoma Vineyard Adventures. They are currently offered at four wineries including Mantanzas Creek Winery (Bennett Valley), Paradise Ridge Winery and Balletto Vineyards (Russian River Valley) and Mauritson Winery (Dry Creek Valley).  The tours give visitors an in-depth understanding of the grape-growing process by exploring the vineyards and tasting the wine cultivated there.  Sonoma Vineyard Adventures are free, but tasting fees may apply.

Lodging options are as varied as the county's thirteen grape-growing appellations. If you're seeking a luxury spa experience, Sonoma's MacArthur Place offers such amenities as a Chardonnay bubble bath. Likewise, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa boasts geothermal mineral pools. If you're inclined to stay in the heart of the action, consider the rustic Swiss Hotel on the Historic Sonoma Plaza.


Spa Suite at MacArthur Place
Spa Suite at MacArthur Place

In recent years, Sonoma County has been heralded as much for its epicurean treats as for its wine. With a critically lauded cookbook and three outstanding Sonoma County eateries, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein is leading the charge. Bernstein's whimsically-named the girl & the fig and its sister restaurant, the fig café, both serve "country food with a French passion" (her latest endeavor, Estate, specializes in Northern Italian cuisine). To wit, brunch at the fig café in nearby Glen Ellen is a worthy excursion with which to begin your day. The 15-minute drive from Sonoma along picturesque Sonoma Highway takes you through what author Jack London called the "Valley of the Moon." Once you bite into the "croques madame," composed of brioche, Comté cheese, jambon, Mornay sauce and a poached egg, you'll know it was worth the leisurely drive. Ditto, the café's signature brunch pizza—fontina cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and a poached egg rest atop a thin crust—a savory way to welcome your stomach to Sonoma County.

From Glen Ellen, take the charming, if winding, 20-minute drive west on Warm Springs Road to the Bennet Valley grape-growing appellation for a tasting at Matanzas Creek Winery. Not only does the winery make a delicious Chardonnay redolent of white peach and nectarine, it's also awash with over 4500 lavender plants that annually produce approximately two million stems of lavender per year. When in full-bloom (usually June), it's an impressive sight and showcases the winery's annual Days of Wine and Lavender Festival, an afternoon celebrating wine, food, music and, of course, lavender.

Back in the car, head west on Crane Canyon Road and witness first-hand the real-time transformation of Sonoma County from rural, agricultural region ringed by a verdant greenbelt to an emerging vinicultural superstar. The aromatic cow pastures and newly planted vineyards leading to Petaluma Hill Road serve as a visual reminder of where the county has been and where it is going. Follow Petaluma Hill Road past Sonoma State University and into downtown Petaluma which, apart from a spate of recently constructed luxury lofts, has retained its mid-20th century charm.

Petaluma River
Petaluma River

Now it's time to park your car, take a stroll and get ready for your close-up. Downtown Petaluma has been the scene of dozens of film locations including American Graffiti, director George Lucas' pre-Star Wars paean to coming-of-age in 1962. Before city officials deemed cruising illegal in the late 1980s, Petaluma Boulevard was the site of an ever-winding motorcade of teenagers and young adults inching toward a downtown turnabout a block past Western Avenue. Astute cinephiles may recognize the intersection from its cameos in Basic Instinct, Inventing the Abbots and the 1990s remake of Lolita.

Dividing Petaluma into east and west sides is the Petaluma River (though technically it's a tidal estuary, the serpentine body of water was declared a "river" by an act of Congress in the 1950s so that local government could obtain federal dredging monies). Park the car and take a stroll over the elegant footbridge that links Water Street to the river's eastern banks and you will find yourself at Dempsey's Ale House and Sonoma Brewing Company. The bustling brew pub and brasserie boasts a number of award-winning ales and excellent pub grub, including a savory pork chop best paired with the crisp Petaluma Strong Ale, which makes for a hearty late lunch.

For a glimpse of Petaluma's colorful cultural history, consider taking a 10-minute walk back across the river and a few blocks due west up Washington Street. There, you will see the historic Phoenix Theatre, the site of punk rock revel, where bands such as Green Day honed their chops before they were of age to venture into the "speakeasy" in the rear of Volpi's Ristorante across the street.

Fishing boats at Bodega Bay Harbor
Fishing boats at Bodega Bay Harbor

A classic Italian deli for the better part of a century, Volpi's began serving hearty, family-style, rural Italian fare in the 1980s and remains a favorite with locals and travelers alike. However, the prohibition era speakeasy tucked into the restaurant's backroom has been a celebrated watering hole for decades. Once the site of the extinct Petaluma Press Club and one of many local haunts visited by late "peopleologist" and newspaper columnist Bill Soberanes (who holds a world record for having had his photograph taken with the most celebrities), the speakeasy regularly features the accordion stylings of siblings John and Sylvia Volpi. On the weekends, the duo often plays through the afternoon and evening. Dancing to their interpretations of classics and standards is encouraged, as is affixing one's business card and a dollar bill to the ceiling, which literally ripples with paper currency. Stay for a pint, but not too long - you don't want to miss the sunset over Bodega Bay.

Take your car west up Washington Street, which turns into Bodega Highway about a mile outside of town. Give your inner salt-dog a preview of what's to come by rolling down the window and taking in some of the salt air wafting from Bodega Bay, a five-mile stretch of Sonoma Coast with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and a thriving spa trade. Once the home of the Native American community known as the Coast Miwok, historians still debate whether the area is the so-called Nova Albion claimed by Sir Francis Drake for England in the late 1500s. Film historians, however, have no doubt that the area was claimed as a film location by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock who used the scenic beach head for his tale of avian horror, The Birds.

Artist In Sonoma Valley
Artist In Sonoma Valley

Perch yourself on the coastal cliffs along the highway where there is plenty of parking and an endless view of the horizon and enjoy the waning rays. Or, if you happen to get to Bodega Bay early, there is a range of activities to experience including surfing (gear and lessons are available from the Bodega Bay Surf Shack), kayaking, kite flying, gallery-gazing and wine tasting (test your acumen as a sommelier by pairing a coastal pinot with local landmark Candy and Kites' fresh salt water taffy).

For dinner, add the Duck Club Restaurant at the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa to your to-do list. Executive chef Phil Wright has created a "Chef's Menu" of "California Contemporary cuisine" based upon a garrison of locally-produced artisanal cheeses, such as the grilled Hagemann Ranch pork chop with warm apple, beet and celery root slaw served with a baked California Daisy cheddar truffled macaroni gratin. It goes without saying that the seafood is fresh as can be. And, of course, all of the Wright's dishes are paired with hand-selected Sonoma County wines.

On the way back to Sonoma from the coast, you will again pass through Petaluma, which has a rich and varied night life with dozens of bars and clubs lining the downtown streets. A popular spot for those who enjoy live music and dancing is the majestic Mystic Theatre, a former single-screen cinema transformed into a popular live music venue. Recent live acts have included actor-turned-crooner Billy Bob Thornton's musical act The Box Masters and Los Angeles-based up-and-comers Lily Pond Lane.


* Vineyard in Bloom image courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. Bodega Bay by Garry Gay, Artist In Sonoma Valley by Robert Janover. Small balloon image by by Up & Away Ballooning.

(Updated: 02/05/10 SG)

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