Napa and Sonoma: Places to Explore

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Sonoma Valley

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Although the Sonoma Valley may not have quite the cachet of the neighboring Napa Valley, wineries here entice with their unpretentious attitude and, in some cases, smaller crowds. Sonoma's landscape seduces, too, its roads gently climbing and descending on their way to wineries hidden from the road by trees.

That's not to suggest that the Sonoma Valley, the birthplace (in the mid-1800s) of California wine making as we know it, is exactly undiscovered territory. On the contrary, along the main corridor through the Sonoma Valley, Highway 12 from the town of Sonoma to the city of Santa Rosa, you'll spot sophisticated inns and spas between the ubiquitous wineries. In high season the towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood are filled with well-heeled wine buffs. Still, the pace of life is a bit slower here than in Napa—on some days you'll see as many bicyclists as limo drivers zipping from one winery to the next. And the historic Sonoma Valley towns offer glimpses of the past. The town of Sonoma, with its atmospheric central plaza, is rich with 19th-century buildings. Glen Ellen, meanwhile, has a special connection with the author Jack London.

Bounded by the Mayacamas Mountains on the east and Sonoma Mountain on the west, this scenic valley extends north from San Pablo Bay nearly 20 miles to the eastern outskirts of Santa Rosa. The varied terrain, soils, and climate—cooler in the south because of the bay influence and hotter toward the north—allow grape growers to raise cool-weather varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other heat-seeking vines.

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