No longer Northern California's "other" wine country, this laid-back valley is coming into its own. Go for a weekend, and discover what makes it so special
Forget Napa. These days, it's all about Sonoma. This magical wine-producing valley sits to the west of the Mayacamas Mountains an hour north of San Francisco, and shines like a beacon to those seeking excellent and unusual wines, awe-inspiring landscapes, and good old-fashioned peace and quiet. Even though Napa is a short, half-hour drive away, it's worlds apart, less crowded, and much more affordable. Unlike its corporate-owned neighbor, many of Sonoma's wineries are smaller and family owned. You're guaranteed to see more pick-up trucks than Hummers in Sonoma, and blue jeans not baubles are the norm.
"While Napa was busy becoming the wine capital of California, Sonoma's smaller vineyards were quietly vinting away, making great wines but just not shouting as loud about it," says Katharine English a wine collector and former Bay Area resident. "I've always preferred going to Sonoma."
Sonoma Valley makes an ideal getaway for lovebirds, true escape artists and all those smitten by the grape. It's even worth traveling cross-country for a long indulgent weekend among the vines, or the redwoods. Because Sonoma and its elevations range between 800 to 1,200 feet, it's possible to travel through fog, sun, forest and valley meadow in just a few short miles. The region's cooler micro-climes have served well for producing certain varietals, especially pinot noirs.
Harvest time (September and October) is when Sonoma kicks into high gear, but the truth is, it's beautiful any time of year. Springtime is still considered "off season" but it's an excellent time to visit. Not only are plum trees, quince, and yellow wild mustard flowers in bloom, you're almost certain to land a good deal at an area hotel. And there's plenty to do year-round. Like sister its regions in Spain and Italy, Mediterranean-like Sonoma also produces olive oil. The Olive Press (14301 Arnold Road in Glen Ellen) is a terrific spot to learn about the pressing process (and to sample the goods). The recently renovated Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (551 Broadway, Sonoma) shows works in a variety of mediums by locals and world-renowned artists. And, Bacchus Glass (21707 Eighth St, Sonoma), which uses traditional glass-blowing methods from Italy, is worth a stop, if only to watch a nail-biting studio demonstration. It's quite a colorful spectacle. And then there are spas, many of which take advantage of local hot springs and veins of therapeutic mineral waters that flow underground.
Sonoma's annual film festival is in its eighth year. Scheduled to take place on the near horizon--from March 31 - April 3, it celebrates indie film, food, and wine. Not surprisingly, it was named one of the "Top Vacation Festivals" by the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. This year Aidan Quinn and James Woods are among the tribute honorees. (Visit Cinemaepicuria.org for the lowdown on festival passes and details about special festival lodging and restaurant promotions.) For more information on the valley's best attractions and goings-on, stop by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, housed in the Carnegie Library on Sonoma plaza (open daily from 9am to 5pm).
The bustling town of Sonoma is one of the valley's most popular enclaves, and reminiscent of small-town Mexico. Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who oversaw the town in the mid-1800s, made sure of that. A picturesque central plaza ringed with historic sights, boutiques, tasting rooms, and gourmet food shops drives home the Old World feel. Pick up a Sonoma Walking Tour map (available for $2.75 at the Mission) and set out on foot to take the town in.
Where to dine, inside and out
Ask anyone where to eat in the valley, and you'll surely get one consistent response--the Girl & the Fig. It's conveniently located right in downtown Sonoma, and serves California country cuisine dressed up with French accents. Black mission figs are well-represented (warm fig and thyme crisp with port ice cream, anyone?), along with garden-fresh vegetables and local meats. Dinners run $30 per person (without wine), and its passionate owner, Sondra Bernstein, makes expert wine suggestions. If you want to keep it casual, head to the Black Bear Diner in Sonoma--in addition to its heaping portion and affordable prices, there's a jukebox chock full of oldies. Another valley favorite is the welcoming and more upscale Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant. Its wine cellar is stocked with 550 bottles from Sonoma and Napa valleys.