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 20 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 more than 400 wineries and approximately 60,000 acres of vineyards, growing 10-plus wine grape varietals. 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 15 grape-growing appellations. If you're seeking a romantic and luxurious stay, Forestville's Farmhouse Inn offers several impressive spa packages including the popular Playful Passion — a scrub, soak and massage treatment for couples. Likewise, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa offers many luxury spa treatments and geothermal mineral pools. Four blocks south of historic Sonoma Plaza is MacArthur Place, a hotel that is a veritable village unto itself, comprised of dozens of Victorian-style cottages surrounded by over 100 species of trees and immaculate rose and lavender gardens. Many of the rooms are outfitted with outdoor showers and teak tubs in private tree-lined patios. Inside the large yet cozy rooms are spa-tubs with shutters that open onto the main room. If you're inclined to experience wine country's quintessential, small-town appeal, consider the Healdsburg Hotel, smack dab on the charming, historic Healdsburg Plaza.
DAY 1: Matanzas Creek Winery, Petaluma and Bodega Bay
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." To wit, brunch at the fig café in nearby Glen Ellen is also a worthy excursion. 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, St. Jorge cheese, applewood-smoked ham, Mornay sauce and a fried egg, you'll know it was worth the leisurely drive. The gluten-free pancakes — with seasonal berries, vanilla cream, mint syrup & cocoa nibs atop — are a sweet way to welcome your stomach to Sonoma County. (Look out for Bernstein's latest endeavor, Suite D, near downtown Sonoma, designed as a creative pop-up community restaurant and industrial-chic event space.)
From Glen Ellen, take the 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 4,500 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 at 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 — apart from a spate of recently constructed luxury lofts, a town that has retained its mid-20th century charm. 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 towards a downtown turnabout a block past Western Avenue. Astute cinephiles may also recognize the intersection from its cameos in "Basic Instinct," "Inventing the Abbots" and the 1990's remake of "Lolita."
Dividing Petaluma into east and west sides is the Petaluma River (although 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 a crossroads of two artisan craft beer empires: TAPS Beer Co & Kitchen and Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery. TAPS boasts one of Sonoma County's largest artisan craft brew collections on tap. While sipping a cold pint on their outdoor, river-side deck, partake from six different styles of saucy-rubbed buffalo wings, or for the heartier appetite, indulge in a Kansas City-style, house-smoked pulled pork sandwich. Similarly, Dempsey's bustling brew pub and brasserie serves a number of award-winning house-brewed ales and traditional pub grub. Try their Cuban sandwich with slow-cooked brisket and Caggiano ham, fresh avocado, jack cheese and house-made aioli and pair with a crisp Petaluma Strong Ale. You can't go wrong with either choice, no matter which direction you head.
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.
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."
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, golf, kite flying, gallery-gazing and wine tasting at Gourmet au Bay, an intimate wine shop overlooking the Bay, serving wine flights, local brews and nibbles to keep your palate fresh. On your way out, grab a bottle of wine for dinner as most restaurants in Bodega Bay will waive corkage for bottles purchased at the local wine shop. Immediately next door to Gourmet au Bay is the local landmark Candy and Kites. Be sure to stop in and revisit your childhood memories by filling up a bag of brightly-colored and flavored salt water taffy — a snack that will come in handy during the rest of your journey.
For dinner, a refreshing stop at Terrapin Creek Cafe is a must-do on your list. Chef-owners Andrew Truong and Liya Lin have created a coastal neighborhood gem. The relaxing atmosphere and award-winning Mediterranean-inspired cuisine thrills both locals and visitors, with dishes such as pan-roasted Maine scallops over sunchoke puree, shaved apples, arugula and shiitake mushrooms or the braised rabbit with pioppini mushrooms and lightly-sauteed spinach atop fresh house-made potato gnocchi. Wines are thoughtfully chosen and skew Sonoma local.
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 McNear's 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, as well as the colorful and energetic 80s-tribute band Wonderbread 5.