I'm not saying that Sonoma is the new Napa, but it is a big swath of vineyard-covered land to discover in one go. Nearly 400 wineries dot Sonoma's landscape and they sit in such varied terrain, that mere miles can mean wildly different grapes and wines. So how to feel like you saw it all without actually seeing it all? Bite off more manageable bites in smaller winemaking areas within Sonoma. My recent trip saw us, ambitiously, in the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Russian River Valley, focusing on just a few wineries in each. I tasted all manner of wines, saw them from every different vantage point, and ate really well along the way.
Insider Tip: Create a custom map of the wineries you're dying to visit (and new discoveries) with the Wine Road, a Sonoma institution. They create itineraries based on your wine wants and knowledge, so whether you're a vineyard vet or are looking for a wine education, they'll point you in the right direction.
Where there is great wine, you will find great food. And Healdsburg is no exception. Start with a stop at the ultra-cool SHED for breakfast or to find the perfect gourmet gift. Their daily changing menu highlights local ingredients and you can slide up to their fermentation bar to try homemade kombucha and cider. Have dinner nearby at Chalkboard, which took over the old Cyrus space, or at Forchetta/Bastoni, a restaurant split into two halves that specialize in Italian and Asian street foods, respectively. Or make your way to the one-stoplight-town of Geyserville for fantastic pizzas, pasta, and farm fresh appetizers at Diavola.
Nurse your wine hangover at Costeaux French Bakery, where you'll thank us for pointing you in the direction of the amazing croissant breakfast sandwich.
Insider Tip: If you're renting a house in the area (or know someone who is), stop into Costeaux's to get freshly made pizza dough to throw on the grill.
One of the coolest things about this area is the sheer array of wineries, big and small, making wines that are all about a sense of place and still taste totally different. On one hand, you've got big producers sold across the country and on the other, you've got tiny producers making wines you've only heard stories about. Like Kachina Vineyards. The husband and wife team operate their Dry Creek Valley winery entirely on solar energy and, during our tasting, poured a taste of their charbono—a difficult grape to grow and a wine not often found on wine lists.
Insider tip: Book their Tuscan lunch for a taste of their wines paired with a light Italian lunch on their lovely terrace. ($50/person)
Get up close and personal with the grapes on the Motorized Estate Tour at Michel-Schlumberger, also in the Dry Creek Valley. The winery is known for Bordeaux varieties, which you'll get to taste (alongside fantastic rosés) after they truck you around the estate in a golf cart, teaching you an incredible about their wines, techniques, and terrain. Try to stump the driver, just try. It's impossible.
If you're looking for the tasting room experience, one of the best in Healdsburg is Williamson Wines. You'll try their award-winning wines paired with well-curated bites on the house. Think cabernet sauvignon paired with blue cheese topped with honey and sparkling wine with Brillat-Savarin cheese.
Check out the Views
In wine country, the best views come with a glass of vino. Scope out awe-inspiring views of northern Sonoma at Iron Horse and Lynmar, and they'll come with award-winning sparkling wines and chardonnay, respectively. Iron Horse's tasting room (er, walk-up bar) is one of the most inviting, if only because before you someone is pouring fantastic sparkling wines and behind you is a sweeping panorama of the Russian River Valley. At Lynmar, stroll through expansive gardens, gape at gorgeous views, and stay for lunch on the shaded terrace.
For the best view of the Alexander Valley, stop at Jordan Winery. The lush estate matches their long-loved, elegant wines, and come September they'll debut a visitor experience that takes the cake—the Estate Tour and Tasting ($120/person). A fully-stocked Mercedes van shuttles you and your friends around the property, stopping at five viewpoints to talk grapes and terrain while you taste wines paired with homemade bites. The views from each stop are better than the last, surveying their expansive vineyards and the valley beyond.
Hit the Town
Healdsburg Plaza is the place to be on Tuesday evenings in the summer. The downtown park fills up with locals who bring the most gourmet picnic setups you've ever seen to enjoy weekly live music concerts with bands that run the gamut from classic rock to the West African Highlife Band. Look around and you'll find low-key locals sitting on the grass sipping high-end wines probably made on their own property (or their neighbors').
Not far from town, pull over at the Jimtown Store, a charming Alexander Valley institution that offers gourmet boxed lunches as well as gift baskets, wine (of course), and sweet treats. In a solid one-two punch, you'll find the Hawkes Tasting Room next door, with inviting Adirondack chairs painted in bright colors on the patio and a long list of fantastic wines to taste. Believe me, go for the Vin Gris (the rosé). Throughout the summer, Hawkes' tasting room also plays host to Summer Nights, low-key events with live music, lawn games, great local eats, and of course delicious Hawkes wines.
Insider Tip: Stop into the Jimtown Store for a bag of biscotti and then pop into Hawkes and ask to taste their Semillon. They encourage dipping, and we do too—the hard cookies dipped into the sweet wine are a mouthwatering combo.
Wine people drink well, eat well, and they host visitors very well. Take the Honor Mansion. It looks like a small B&B, but walk outside and prepare to have your mind blown. First up? The pool with cabanas, as well as private spa pavilions and a cool-beverage-stocked fridge. Continue on and you'll find their huge lawn, outfitted with croquet courts, bocce courts, tennis and basketball courts, and, ya know, some Zinfandel vines. Splurge on a Vineyard Suite to feel like you've got a little Sonoma pied-a-terre.
For something more modern, you can't beat the Hotel Healdsburg. It just invites you to lounge and feel at home, with a big fireplace in the comfy lobby-meets-living room and Adirondack chairs in their backyard. Even if you don't stay at the hotel, though, you'd be wise to book an appointment at the spa.
Photo credits: SHED courtesy of Nicole Campoy; Michel-Schlumberger courtesy of Nicole Campoy; Jordan Winery courtesy of Nicole Campoy; Hawkes Tasting Room courtesy of Hawkes Tasting Room; Honor Mansion courtesy of Honor Mansion