Nestled in an idyllic setting, Sonoma County stretches from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Mayacamas Mountains in the east. A short 45-minute drive north of San Francisco, Sonoma’s climate offers a cool Pacific Ocean breeze and an average of 262 crushingly beautiful sunny days per year. Either as a perfect weekend trip from San Francisco, or a blissful four-day escape from the East Coast, a getaway to Sonoma, California is always a great idea.
Sonoma is home to nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 425 world-class wineries. While a popular destination in the summer, it is harvest season in late September through October that draws the crowds, and for good reason. Pack a light sweater, good walking shoes, and a big appetite. Harvest will satisfy your appetite, scratch your travel itch, and indulge your wine sensibilities.
At the invitation of the winery Sonoma Cutter, I recently spent three beautiful days in Sonoma County, and although the initial draw was the wine, I was equally impressed with the local farm-to-table food, gorgeous landscape, and laid-back California culture. Here are my top tips for making a weekend in Sonoma an unforgettable experience.
Ebrace the wine
The obvious and necessary first stop in Sonoma is to head to one of the wineries. There are many to choose from, and you may like to add several to your itinerary — but when I am on a short trip I prefer to go deep rather than wide, so I focused my attention on one of the iconic Sonoma wineries, Sonoma Cutrer.
Located in the Russian River Valley and founded in 1973, Sonoma Cutrer began producing their emblematic chardonnay in 1981. While specializing in Burgundy-style wines, chardonnay and pinot noir, Sonoma Cutrer also produces an exceptional rosé and a soon-to-be released grand cuvée sparkling wine.
When we arrived at Sonoma Cutrer in the early morning, there was still a hint of fog in the air and frost on the ground, a reminder that a chill had in fact descended upon the sun-drenched landscape only a few hours earlier. I later learned that the diurnal variation of temperature in the Russian River Valley is a key factor to the success of the wine produced there.
We were met with the heady aroma of fermenting grapes and a general sense that, although the scene was momentarily peaceful, it was harvest season and everyone was there to make wine
The next 10 hours (yes, I spent 10 hours at a winery — rosé all day!) were filled with wine, more wine, and then some more wine — both education and consumption. Winemaking is an art with three necessary ingredients: rich soil, excellent grapes and passionate people. The grapes set the pace, make the rules, and dictate when and if it is picking time. The soil, or terroir, informs the quality, and the people add a sprinkle of magic dust and make it all happen. When you visit a winery, it’s worth it to take a tour, ask questions, get to know the people. Understanding just how much time, heart and attention goes into each bottle of wine completely alters the experience and appreciation of the product.
The people at Sonoma Cutrer exude immense passion and expertise for wine making while staying surprisingly humble. Cara Morrison, the chardonnay winemaker at Sonoma Cutrer, has been making wine for 20 years. “Which means I’ve only made wine 20 times”, she said. Each year you get one shot.
While you are visiting Sonoma Cutrer, take in a game of croquet. Yes croquet, because wine paired with mallets is always a good idea. Sonoma Cutrer offers croquet lawns for reservations of up to 8 people, a fun afternoon indeed.
Harvest is a celebration of the grapes, and you are obligated to pay your respects to those perfect miniature globes of green and deep purple. Wander through the vines (many small bed-and-breakfasts in the area are perfectly situated on a vineyard and offer walking trails throughout the vines), visit one or many wineries, purchase a few bottles, and then settle in for what else Sonoma has to offer.
Eat like a local
California cuisine is very much rooted in the “what grows together goes together” philosophy. Local seasonal fare is what’s on the menu, and I for one am grateful for it. I had lovely food during my stay; a standout was the John Ash & Co. restaurant inside the super-charming Vintners Inn.
However, there is not a trip anywhere in the world that is complete until I have strolled through a local farmers market. Local markets are the best way to know intimately what food is growing locally and seasonally. A farmers market visit in Sonoma County is veritable food porn and a necessary stop.
We visited the quaint farmers market in Santa Rosa, which was overflowing with hipster delights from pour-over organic fair trade coffee to handmade sausages, local artisan bread, and lavender soap. During harvest season you will find an abundance of grapes (imagine that!) gorgeous fresh figs, stone fruit, incredible heirloom tomatoes the size of your face, and berries, lots of fresh berries. Also cheese. Northern California is home to some of the country’s best small creameries producing extraordinary goat, cow and sheep cheese. Do yourself a favor: Get to the market early and purchase all of the gorgeous produce along with some meat, cheese, and local bread and head out to the coast for the picnic of a lifetime.
The picnic of a lifetime
When visiting California, I think it is quite normal to think: “Why on Earth don’t I live here?” The landscape is, in a word, breathtaking. After our farmers market visit we drove to Bodega Bay (Bodega Head to be specific) to picnic in potentially the world’s most beautiful location. Bodega Head is a small rocky peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean, offering stunning views, trails and beach access.
The afternoon we were there it was still quite foggy and chilly. We happily warmed up with a glass of Sonoma Cutrer Owsley Pinot Noir and a glass of their Grand Cuvée sparkling while munching on our local specialties from the market. If you visit for a picnic, spend a bit of time visiting the various trails that Bodega Bay has to offer. Take your wine with you and reflect back on that most important question: “Why on Earth don’t I live here again?”
Travel expenses for this story were paid for by Sonoma Cutrer at no cost to the writer. Abra Pappa is a member of The Daily Meal's Culinary Content Network known for Abra's Kitchen. You can follow her at @abrapappa.