Suddenly Sonoma

050324_sonoma_wideA vineyard in spring
Timm Eubanks / Sonoma County

A vineyard in spring

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.

Picnicking is one of Sonoma's favorite pastimes, so if the sun is shining, grab a basket (or ample-size bag) and load up on gourmet provisions and head to Sonoma's plaza, the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park, or a winery, and settle in for lunch this bucolic corner of the world. Few things are more enjoyable than sipping a good wine and nibbling on stinky cheese and crusty bread among the grapes in a sun-dappled vineyard.

There are numerous places to stock up on edibles, and they're ready-made for hungry picnickers. Sonoma Cheese Factory (home to Sonoma jack cheese, and it also sells hearty deli sandwiches to go) is a good bet and located on the plaza. (Just a word of note: Lines at the Sonoma Cheese Factory can snake out the door, so be sure to grab a number before you shop.) Alternately, try the Cheesemaker's Daughter or Vella Cheese (in business since 1931), and Artisan Bakers for chewy sourdough baguettes and other breadstuffs. Near the southern gate to the Sonoma Valley (Arnold Drive) sits Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace, another ideal stop for lunch provisions. It sells all kinds of Tuscan treats, including homemade focaccia.

Where to wine

Everyone loves the Gundlach Bundschu Winery. This old (and legendary) winery is located just a few miles from downtown Sonoma, and in the free spirit of Sonoma, its staff pours without pretension (its reds are best, try its 1995 Cab Franc), and more than a few rowdy sippers have been known to ignite impromptu parties in the tasting room. Its vineyard is laced with paths for strolling, and there are ample spots for picnics.

There's a welcome trend in Sonoma to make sampling and learning about wine fun. Charles Creek Vineyards has a tasting room right on the historic Sonoma plaza (483 First St; open daily from 11am - 5pm) that, in addition to some terrific vintages, also features a rotating exhibit of works by local artists. And Castle Vineyards (122 West Spain St. in Sonoma) invites visitors to play pétanque in its garden while they sip a pinot. Roshambo Winery (in Healdsburg, in Sonoma County) also pairs art and award-winning wines, and its conceptual contemporary art exhibits are anything but run-of-the-mill. It even once featured a Shrinky Dink installation.

Super-friendly, down-home Ravenswood Vineyards (known for its bold zinfandels) allows you to "blend your own no wimpy wine" for $25 and take the bottle home. And, on weekends between Memorial and Labor days is serves up BBQ and live music. End (or begin) your tipple tour of Sonoma by swinging by the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves for a glass of one of its famed sparkling wines--they've earned over 100 gold medals in the last five years alone. (Note: The price of tasting room pours can range from free to a $5 flight of samples to $15 for four generously filled glasses.) And although it runs counter to common sense, it can often be more expensive to purchase bottles at the winery. It's only worth buying bottles and lugging them home if you've fallen in love with a wine that you know won't be likely to find at your local liquor store.

Where to sleep

For better or for worse, Sonoma is not over-run with hotels. There seem to be just enough places to stay for those who visit, and enough variety to match. If you'd like to stay in the town of Sonoma, you're your best bet is the charming Sonoma Hotel, perched right on the leafy central square. Housed in an 1880 building, this property smartly blends history with modern amenities. Extra niceties include complimentary coffee and fresh-from-the-oven pastries in the morning, and wine tastings in the evening. Its restaurant, the girl & the fig, is one of the valley's best. Doubles start at $110 in the warmer months, and less in the off-season. Down the road on East Napa street is the Victorian Garden Inn, a B&B that prides itself on its turn-of-the-century touches and springtime blooms. It's cozy and comfortable with an inviting wraparound porch. Rates start at $139, and include a continental breakfast. Finally, just outside of town, lies the Pink Lady, the grand dame of Sonoma accommodations--the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.

It's difficult to imagine a visit to sybaritic Sonoma without a splurge or two. If you're looking for a truly special spot to stay, there are two choices that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The Gaige House Inn (in Glen Ellen) and the Kenwood Inn & Spa (in Kenwood) are destinations in and of themselves, however they possess vastly different personalities. Both properties regularly offer promotional packages, but their best rates fall in the off-season--now!

The former crash house of Timothy Leary is now an extraordinary B&B. The Gaige House Inn is run by two partners, Ken Burnet and Greg Nemrow, who lovingly restored the structure to its present day elegance. Their fastidious and unpretentious service, chic Asian touches, and creative gourmet breakfasts (artichoke and pistachio blini with home-smoked salmon--you get the idea) are just a few reasons the inn has a reputation as one of wine country's best lodging choices. Just this year, it opened eight new creek-side spa suites with private enclosed gardens and massive granite soaking tubs inspired by ryokan inns of Kyoto and the countryside onsens of Japan.

Conversely, the nearby Kenwood Inn & Spa is Italian to the core, and an excellent place to hide away with a special someone for an indulgent weekend. The Mediterranean-style rooms are ready made for romance, and many come with baronial fireplaces. The inn exudes an ultra-casual elegance, and guests mill around in robes, hopping from pool to hot tub to the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa, which incorporates treatments using vine and grapeseed extracts. In California style, robe-clad guests even belly up to the inn's wine bar, which is tended by the inn's affable (and hands-on) owner/manager Terrance Grimm, who pours hard-to-find boutique wines nightly. Weather-permitting, breakfasts are served outdoors around the lush courtyard.

If you have to stay a night in San Francisco

If you embark on a weekend getaway in Sonoma, chances are you'll have to spend at least one night (probably your first) in San Francisco. The Orchard Hotel, located between Union Square and Nob Hill, is easily the best accommodations value in downtown SF. The stylish boutique property, which consistently gets stellar reviews on Tripadvisor.com, is family-run with much TLC, the staff exceedingly helpful, and incredibly, one of its spacious rooms can be had for as little as $135. What makes the Orchard Hotel especially appealing is that it's within easy striking distance of major attractions, as well as the up-and-coming SoMa area (South of Market St.). Should your plane arrive in the evening, drop off your bags and duck into Oola (860 Folsom Street), one of the city's best new restaurants, and arguably SoMa's hottest nightspot. Try a toothsome late-night burger or the excellent all-natural baby back ribs with ginger soy glaze from its American bistro menu, which celebrates San Francisco cuisine by leaning heavily on local purveyors. Artisanal cheeses, boutique wines, and organic meats and produce are all well-represented. The people-watching's fun too.

Right now, the Orchard is also partnering with the Camellia Inn near Healdsburg's historic plaza in Sonoma and offering a "Best of Town and Country" package, which includes two nights at each property (four nights in all), full breakfast, museum and city passes, and more for $725. And here's some more good news: Spring airfares to San Francisco are still affordable. Here's a list of sample airfares from major US gateways for travel the weekend of April 28 - May 1:

 

  • $189--Seattle (Alaska Airlines)
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  • $216--Chicago (ATA)
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  • $266--New York City (JetBlue)
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  • $285--Miami (American)
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  • $288--Boston (AirTran)
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  • $297--Denver (Alaska Airlines)
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  • $366--Dallas (Frontier)
  • Want to speak sommelier?

    Check out this mini-glossary of need-to-know wine terms

     

  • Attack The first impression or impact of a wine
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  • Bouquet A wine's aroma or "nose"
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  • Breed Wines made from the best grape varieties
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  • Corked Wine that has a musty smell
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  • Decanting The technique of pouring wine into a second vessel to remove any sediment
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  • Finish A wine's aftertaste
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  • Greeen Describes wines produced with under-ripe fruit
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  • Legs The liquid rivulets on the inside of a glass after the wine is swirled; legs indicate a high concentration of alcohol
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  • Lush An adjective for wines with above-average quantities of sugar
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  • Tannin The bitter taste caused by grapeskins, seeds and stems
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