Sonoma is not the unknown. We know Sonoma — the county, coast, region — as one of the finest viticultural areas of the United States. There is much already written about the lushness of its vineyards, the richness of its wines, and the tolerated intoxication on its tours.
Today, I want to tell you about the lesser-known Sonoma: the part that thrives as an agricultural paradise, that abounds with the natural beauty of majestic redwoods and heart-stopping cliffs that drop down to a choppy sea. I hope to convince you not of a Sonoma that you recall in a haze of perpetual swigs and swallows, but one that will leave an imprint on your soul through a world of adventure and incredible food. Blessed with a stunning year-round climate that climbs into the 90s during the day before dropping back to temperate with the setting sun, this region is fertile for fun, frolic, and a bit of ramble through varying landscapes within short driving distances from one another.
I recommend three whole days and two nights of stay in the region. From San Francisco, you’ll drive across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge into the heart of the land, where just a century earlier, not grapes but apples, vegetables, and farm animals were grown and reared.
Day 1: Beer and Cheese in Central Sonoma and Garden Dining
Begin the day with a leisurely drive into the valley. Downtown Sonoma is where the region’s grape story began. This area has a rich multicultural history, spanning the Spanish and Mexicans before the arrival of the Americans. It is a quaint little town with several boutiques and food stores and some very good restaurants that overlook the surrounding vineyards.
You can certainly begin your wine tasting at the boutiques along the town, but I would recommend waiting to visit the wineries themselves. Soaking in the California way of life (that’s oh-so-different from San Francisco) is an experience to be treasured. The Plaza in Downtown Sonoma propagates the “slow” culture. Even if you don’t buy into the new age-sounding hype, you can simply relish in the time warp that it offers.
If you’re feeling fancy and looking to book a restaurant in advance, the Girl & the Fig on Spain Street has great French fare. Personally, I would recommend sampling the simple lures of American cuisine done right at Sunflower Caffé Espresso & Wine. Sitting under the gazebos in the backyard, sheltered from the sun but well in the warmth of it, while sipping bellinis and digging into well-made sandwiches really sets the tone of the holiday. (As of 4/27, Sunflower Caffé has been closed for kitchen remodeling, but they are due to open again at the end of May 2015. Please check their website for updated details.)
Tipping their hat to the agrarian heritage of Sonoma, craft breweries are popping up all over the region. These days, when craft has less to do with art and more to do with batch size, it is interesting to see the passion and micro-sourcing that is afforded by the terrain of the region. Carneros Brewing Company is a true salute to the demographic history of the United States, as it is one of the few Latino-owned breweries. Founded by four brothers of Mexican-American origins, they brew classic ales and lagers with a mixture of science, taste, heart, and hops grown in the backyard. Sipping on a good cold pull amid the hop vines, looking out over a vista of unending land shimmering under the afternoon sun, with the precipitation running down the sides of the glass will take you away to a place that has nothing to do with work or routines. And when you go back into the cool recesses of the taproom for a refill, you’ll blink in the relative darkness and realize that you really are on vacation!
Another region to explore on the beer trail is Petaluma. 101 North Brewing Company and Petaluma Hills Brewing Company have made their names with locally brewed ales and IPAs that now flow through several taps in California and some around the country.
As the sun dips in the sky, dinner in the gardens under fairy lights at Willi’s Wine Bar is an experience that will make you want to give up city life entirely, buy a farm, and just cozy up. As a first taste of what the micro-region of Sonoma grows and eats, it is a fabulous sensory journey through the freshest produce, grass-fed meats, and impeccable cooking, all served with down-home hospitality, flavor, and simplicity.
As dusk gathers around you, the crickets buzz and the fireflies glow while you indulge in Willi’s fine wines. Subtle snatches of nearby conversations carry through an evening breeze as you contemplate the day. It is easy to think that things cannot be more perfect. The day has been incredibly elegant and worlds away from the worries of home. It only gets better.