Lovers of wine, food, and romance head to the Sonoma Valley, just an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although the Bible counsels, “Be not among wine-bibbers,” Bay Area weekenders, nonetheless, seek out the picturesque charm and laid-back ambience of this nearby wine region. Sonomans are proud of their unruly, often humorous approaches to the mystique of winemaking. Unlike Napa’s reputation for opulence and glamour, hi-jinks and practical jokes are on the menu at the annual Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction. A few years ago, a masked gang of Sonoma Valley winemakers hijacked the Napa Valley Wine Train, handing out flyers that read, "Come to Sonoma, where the wines are fine, the sampling is still free and the prices do not rob your children of a college education."
Visitors are welcomed to the mostly small, family-owned establishments in three main areas of Sonoma Valley: the Spanish mission town of Sonoma, the south end of the Carneros appellation along Highway 121, and around the villages of Glen Ellen and Kenwood.
Gateway to Sonoma Valley
Along Highway 121, the route into the valley from the Bay Area, the first stop is a new, architecturally stunning compound on a hilltop, Rams Gate Winery. A sophisticated, tapas-style menu and memorable chardonnays, pinots and syrahs are enjoyed on the terrace (call ahead).
On the next hilltop, at the end of an olive- and cypress-lined drive, a red-tiled, terra-cotta-colored, flag-flying villa is Viansa Winery and Marketplace, perched above a vast wetlands on the north end of San Francisco Bay. Here you can buy picnic items to eat at tables under the trees, shop for foodstuffs, cookbooks, and Italian-made ceramics, and try some lesser-known Italian wine varieties.
On down the road, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards floats over the valley like a mirage of a Spanish hacienda––the perfect venue for Catalan cooking classes, Flamenco shows, and other Spanish-oriented events held throughout the year. Linger here on the terrace to sip from flutes of sparkling bubbly.
Around Sonoma Plaza
Anchored by a grassy, tree-shaded plaza surrounded by a glorious collection of architecture from the Spanish, Mexican, and Victorian eras, the town of Sonoma was the birthplace of the California wine industry. You can stroll and stop in at several tasting rooms around the plaza, and wander on quiet country roads to historic wineries. In 1904, Samuele Sebastiani acquired the original Spanish mission vineyards and built a stone winery that stands today as Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. Notice the stained-glass window depicting Samuel’s son, August, in his wide-brimmed hat and overalls. Behind the parking lot, you can picnic in the vineyards. Walk from here up Gehricke Road to get a postcard-perfect view of the vineyards of Ravenswood Winery, best known for zinfandel; their motto: “No Wimpy Wines.”
Founded in the 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, known as the Father of California Viticulture," Buena Vista Winery lies in an enchanted setting of gardens and vine-covered stone buildings. Picnickers linger in an oak grove with glasses of medal-winning cabernets, pinot noirs and chardonnays. A replica of Haraszthy’s rather odd Pompeian villa is on view at Bartholomew Park Winery, where a Spanish colonial-style building houses a tasting room and museum.
Backroads lead to Gundlach-Bundschu Winery, established in 1858. The founders’ great-great-grandson, Jim Bundschu (rumored to be one of the masked men who poured Sonoma wines into the glasses of passengers on the Napa Valley Wine Train), with his sons, now runs the winery. In the summertime on an outdoor stage, Shakespeare’s plays, Mozart, and film festivals, concerts, and more annual events take place.
On one curvy road below a deeply forested mountain, Glen Ellen is comprised of a few stone and clapboard buildings from the late 1800s, mossy oaks hanging over a creek, and a huddle of small cafes. Above the village, Benziger Family Winery is unique for its biodynamic vineyards, an art gallery, leafy picnic grounds, and an open-air tram that takes visitors for narrated rides through the vineyards.
A few minutes away on Madrone Road, Valley of Moon Winery in a 19th-century, creekside stone building has tall windows framing gardens and an old zinfandel vineyard. A 300-year-old bay tree stands in silent splendor.
A little Southern Pacific train station from the 1880s, the Kenwood Depot and a white steepled church are the icons of tiny Kenwood, home base for world-famous wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, to which oenophiles make pilgrimages for the highly-rated wines; Cinq Cépages––“Five Varieties”––was named in 2003 as one of the best wines in the world. A tasting room in a 1920s-era mansion, formal gardens, and a redwood-shaded picnic area make this a nice stop.
In Kenwood is the Tuscan-style, VJB Cellars complex of tasting room, gourmet deli, and an outdoor café offering wood-fired pizza, Enrico’s ribs, and Italian sausage sandwiches. Two generations of the Belmonte family are jolly hosts who will even fill up the jugs you bring.