Grape Expectations

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Just north of San Francisco, historic Sonoma beckons visitors for an indulgent day trip that satiates all the senses.

By Jenn Thornton

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Bucolic, approachable Sonoma may be just 45 miles north of San Francisco, but it’s worlds away in almost every other respect from nearby Napa Valley. Though both wine country headliners are steeped in prime vintage, Sonoma is singularly artisan in its allure, flaunting a kind of warm authenticity that belies the exclusivity of its address—one rife with early-American history, flourishing vineyards, blue-chip cellars, epicurean indulgences and outdoor pursuits.

The Sonoma of today is a far cry from its hardscrabble beginnings, when the town’s historic Sonoma Plaza, the largest of its kind in California and a designated National Historic Landmark, once served as the northernmost outpost of the Mexican army. This 8-acre stretch still occupies the San Francisco Solano Mission—the scene of the Bear Flag Revolt that, in 1846, saw Sonoma step in as the capital of the independent California for 26 days before it joined the United States—along with a charming downtown square, edged by adobe buildings and restored architecture hosting a bevy of chic shops and gourmet eats.

Sonoma’s rich history is ever-present via a roster of related stop-off points, including Sonoma State Historic Park and, just east of the plaza, Buena Vista Winery, billed as “California’s first premium winery.” Holding the distinction as the birthplace of the California wine industry, the city has much to offer both oenophiles and those hoping to embark on a cultural exploration of a historic region.

 Sparkling_Jason TinacciLiquid Culture

Sonoma celebrates its current standing as a hub of prolific viticulture most spiritedly with more than 100 wineries in various states of grandeur, including small garden settings, organic ranching operations and even the occasional rambling castle. These beautiful backdrops host 13,000 acres of parkland that cultivate a frankly dizzying array of wine.

“In Sonoma Valley, there are many microclimates that allow grape growers to grow an impressive number of varieties of wine grapes,” says Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. “Some regions are limited to one or maybe several types of wine due to their climate and soil makeup, but in Sonoma Valley, you can almost taste every single type of grape, from the lightest white, like sauvignon blanc, to the darkest reds, like syrah or cabernet sauvignon.”

With such variety, premium wine tasting abounds, with no shortage of ways to pour it. For a truly refreshing tasting experience, California’s oldest family winery, Gundlach Bundschu, proffers courtyard tastings, featuring a less-bustling presentation of vintage—complete with reserved tables and beautiful cheese pairings—than is found in an overcrowded tasting room. Ravenswood Winery leads daily barrel tastings and a blend-your-own “No Wimpy Wines” seminar; meanwhile, other counterparts, like Chateau St. Jean, offer intimate, seated samplings alfresco amid views of Sonoma Valley.

Sonoma proper, meanwhile, boasts 18 tasting rooms in its plaza—and all make the Sonoma Square Wine Walk, a superlative tour highlighting the greatest hits of Hawkes, Roche, Two Amigos and Walt wineries, among others. For nonpedestrian types seeking a prolonged tasting experience, Destination Drivers and Beau Wine Tours roll out a fleet of luxury rides, touring itineraries and bespoke service to spare.

In addition to these grape-centric tasting options, the city is also home to spirits-soaked newcomers Prohibition Spirits, Sonoma’s first and sole microdistillery since Prohibition, and Limoncello di Sonoma, maker of its namesake Italian aperitif—both generating buzz all their own.

Sonoma Plaza

Dining du Jour

Sonoma’s many wineries pair perfectly with the region’s savory culinary scene, which has lured luminaries from food writer M.F.K. Fisher to Williams-Sonoma founder and cookbook author Chuck Williams, not only with quality wine, but also farm-to-fork fare. In addition to Sonoma’s produce-packed farm stands and small, artisanal bake shops is a generous bounty of just-harvested goodness available year-round at the Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers Market—abundance that complements freshly prepared cuisine at locally loved culinary star Cafe La Haye.

Located just off the main square, Cafe La Haye offers a small menu without fanfare—yet, delightfully fresh ingredients make it a beloved eatery in the city. A daily risotto is complemented by an arugula salad that’s elegant in its simplicity, a theme that resounds throughout the restaurant. Of course, an expansive wine list provides diners with options ranging from aperitifs to sparkling wine to rich, hearty reds.

Fine dining gives way to gourmand experiences also worth relishing. Sonoma’s “slow city” wine-and-dine tag extends to samplings of California extra-virgin olive oil. So popular is the surging olive in these parts, Sonoma has dedicated an entire festival—the 14th annual Sonoma Valley Olive Season—in its honor, a two month-long celebration held each winter with special events and tastings.  Visitors are encouraged to follow the olive groves to Viansa Winery and Marketplace or visit the Olive Press at Jacuzzi Family Winery for a local sampling.

 svvb_plaza_picnic_dtpPoints of View

Indulgences also abound on the local shopping scene. Look for specialty international boutiques, like Chateau Sonoma, to stock the chic and unique, as well as sumptuous French-inspired finds. In its same class comes Artefact Design & Salvage, which houses a trove of extraordinary treasures, as well as Sonoma Country Antiques, purveyor of impeccable European rarities and wares.

Beyond Sonoma’s wealth of retail are artistic riches, many on display at the Sonoma County Museum, which rouses interest as “… the only museum of its kind in Sonoma County with a collection and with a secondary focus on the history of the North Coast region,” Executive Director Diane Evans says. “The museum has the largest collection of work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude outside of New York, and it has an active education program to serve the diverse populations in the region.”

Adventuring through Sonoma is every bit as inspiring, as its landscape is nothing if not its own canvas. Cyclists, anglers and hikers regularly explore its fertile landscape and intriguing sites, including Jack London State Historic Park, which features the restored cottage where the writer once lived.

Fringe sports, too, hold sway with adrenaline junkies. Zip lining is always a hit and Sonoma Raceway’s racing school redefines the meaning of high speed as participants fly around the track under the watchful eye of an instructor. Meanwhile, quieter spots, like the flourishing Quarryhill Botanical Garden, fuel a more sedate, but no less thrilling experience.

Perhaps the most elevating of all excursions in Sonoma, though, are aerial. Taking off from Sonoma Skypark airport, Coastal Air Tours conducts wine country flights for two from the cockpit of a restored 1926 Travelair biplane, while a hot air balloon ride from premier ballooning outfit Up & Away is beyond uplifting—after all, few places offer such rarefied air as Sonoma.

Whether it’s from the ground or air, the city offers a wine country experience unlike any other. And, just an hour away from San Francisco, Sonoma is a quick escape for an idyllic day trip to remember.