- Distance from San Francisco: 45 miles
- Best time: April to November
- Best for: Girl's GetawayFood and WineOutdoor
One of California's premier wine regions, Sonoma County is shining brighter than ever these days. In the past several years, a bumper crop of award-winning restaurants have popped up, further elevating Sonoma's reputation as a culinary epicenter and attracting the attention of in-the-know foodies from California and beyond. Of course, there's the world-class wine, too, with the addition of two new growing regions in 2012, for a total of 15 distinct viticultural areas.
The county is dotted with quaint towns, each with its own unique flavor, but for a wine-centric getaway with a day of exploration via two wheels, we recommend Healdsburg as a home base. After all, there's no better way to really experience the essence of wine country than riding through—and you'll be working off some of that wine along the way. Here, our recommendations to soak up the best that Sonoma has to offer. –By Blane Bachelor
Sonoma Cheat Sheet
View a printable list of all sights, restaurants, entertainment, and hotels from this itinerary. View
1. On your way north up U.S. Highway 101, stop in the quaint town of Petaluma at the Seed Bank, a haven for gardeners and artisan food aficionados, with its 1,200 varieties of seeds, plus gardening goods and food items, all housed in a majestic bank built in the 1920s. While you're there, pick up a loaf or two of gourmet bread at bakery/café Della Fattoria—think kalamata or currant walnut—as an on-hand snack to carry along for the weekend.
2. In Healdsburg, grab a cocktail in the airy bar of Spoonbar, which is part of the eye-catching restaurant that also serves as the lobby for the h2hotel. Before you leave, take a peek at the pool out back, which shimmers like a gem against the seductively-lit interior.
3. Mosey over to Barndiva for inventive cuisine and seasonal cocktails served in an impossibly hip setting: a renovated barn with sleek but unstuffy design, which consistently draws a hip crowd. In warm weather, angle for a spot on the patio.
Did You Know? While wine drinking has become much less elitist in recent years, knowing a few industry terms always comes in handy. One that's especially useful in tasting rooms: Ask to "revisit" a certain offering if you like it or are considering buying a bottle. Most tasting rooms will waive tasting fees with a purchase, and you should also consider sharing a tasting if you're planning on hitting several wineries in one day.
1.Mingle with locavores at the Healdsburg Farmers' Market, held every Saturday from May through November from 9 a.m.-12 p.m., one block west of the town square. Make a meal of the samples alone, or dig into delectable, Yucatan-influenced goodies like huevos rancheros at Mateo Granados, a food stand where Chef Mateo himself may be whipping up your breakfast.
2.Saddle up for a two-wheeled excursion through the gorgeous countryside of Dry Creek Valley, where farms co-mingle with some of Sonoma's top wineries. Pick up your bike at Healdsburg's Wine Country Bikes, which supplies rentals, helmets, maps, and bike-mounted wine bottle carriers for your bounty. Newbies should consider a guided tour, but experienced riders can venture out on their own. An excellent, not-too-ambitious route is north along West Dry Creek Road, which has less traffic than Dry Creek Road.
3.Your first stop: Procuring a picnic lunch at the inimitable, circa-1880s Dry Creek General Store. You'll beat lunchtime crowds at this wooden-floored general store-cum-deli, whose gargantuan made-to-order sandwiches and artisan snacks never miss. Though it might be too early to start drinking (or not), be sure to check out the historic bar, full decades-old memorabilia, where both beer on-draft and live bait are sold.
4.From the general store, it's on to Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, with spectacular views and a unique tasting room inside man-made caves where barrels are stored. Bella lives up to its name, with delicious wines in a beautiful setting—don't miss its Lilly Hill Pinot Noir. You've already passed biodynamic winery Quivira, a farm-and-winery operation that sources ingredients to area restaurants, but feel free to circle back to enjoy its umbrella-topped tables alongside the vines—an idyllic spot for a picnic lunch. Other notable nearby wineries to consider: Preston and Dry Creek Vineyards.
5.Return the bikes and shake off any saddle soreness with a quick stroll to your final tasting of the day at nearby Hudson Street Wineries. Toast your athletic prowess with great wines at equally great price points (some from just $15) from six different wineries. Hudson Street often features work from local artists in its barrel room and hosts events that are free and open to the public.
5.Savor a well-deserved dinner at Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, a longtime local hotspot. Order up several the Latin-leaning dishes, which are designed for sharing—be sure to try one of the inspired ceviches and the renowned Dungeness crab cake—and indulge in one of the area's most extensive cocktail menus.
1.Head to the center of Healdsburg at the Downtown Bakery and Creamery for a quick sticky-bun or exciting twists on bigger breakfast staples: poached eggs on polenta or even a bacon-and-egg pizza. They use local ingredients in their pastries and breads. If you're craving something sweet, we recommend the canelé, a French-style pastry with a soft custard center surrounded by a dense caramel crust. (308A Center St., at North St. Healdsburg, CA 95448)
2.Your journey home highlights the off-the-radar gems of west Sonoma County. From Healdsburg, head west along scenic Westside Road (note: roads sometimes have several names, so be sure to consult a map or GPS), through bucolic countryside and off-the-beaten-path vineyards. After Westside Road turns into River Road, stop at the picturesque Korbel Champagne Cellars, which features enchanting gardens, a deli, and a historic tasting room, with tours available. Well-known for its sparkling wine, Korbel also produces some outstanding non-sparkling varietals. If it's available, make sure to try the Blanc de Noirs Reserve.
3.Continue through centuries-old redwood forests along River Road to reach Bodega Bay, where your final taste of Sonoma County awaits at Spud Point Crab Company. This family-owned fishing venture serves up scrumptious chowder and seafood sandwiches in a tiny waterfront joint as boats dock with their bounty. (On the way home, follow CA-1 east toward US 101 to return to the city.)
Where to Stay
Where to stay: The newest—and coolest—kid on the block is the swanky and eco-friendly h2hotel (rooms from $285/night), where every room has a balcony and bikes are on hand for guests' use. For a more intimate experience, bed down in one of four Healdsburg Modern Cottages (cottages from $275/night), nestled along a small creek that runs through downtown, featuring chic design and a private pool, plus use of bikes.
When to Go
Sonoma wine country is bustling during "crush," the industry term used to indicate the season when grapes are picked and crushed—usually September or October, depending on the weather. From September through November, the area is alive with various street fairs and festivals, the granddaddy of which is the Sonoma County Harvest Fair with its renowned grape stomp on the first weekend in October.
Throughout the year, a Sonoma-based cooperative of wineries called the Wine Road hosts several events that offer tastings from dozens of vineyards, often accompanied by small bites, for about $30. They're hugely popular events—and a great value—but those who prefer a less crowded experience should plan to visit on other weekends.
High season is generally considered as April through November, and lodging and dinner reservations can fill up quickly on weekends, so book as far in advance as possible.
How to Get There
By car from San Francisco: Some parts of Sonoma County are about a 30-minute drive from San Francisco via Highway 101. Healdsburg is about an hour and half, accessible via Exit 503, which takes you right into the downtown area.
Traffic Tip: Southbound traffic heading into San Francisco on Highway 101 on Sunday afternoon can get thick, so sometimes taking U.S. 1 into the city or crossing the Bay Bridge via I-80 can be a quicker route.