You don’t have to take a huge chunk out of your time in San Francisco to get a taste of Northern California’s famous Wine Country.
With just a day, you can easily hop across the Golden Gate to the land of rolling vineyards, legendary Pinot Noirs, and the kind of elevated country cuisine that foodie magazines and restaurant critics go mad for. Get the best day of your vacation started with our guide to visiting the chic boutiques and restaurants of Sonoma, the hidden wineries of Carneros, and the most picturesque spots in between. We’ll even have you back to the City by the Bay by bedtime. Here is more info about transportation and how to get to Sonoma County in case you want to skip the car.
Mornings on the San Francisco Bay are famously foggy, so make like a local and embrace the mist as you head straight for the source this morning. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, keep cruising along Highway 101 North about 20 miles until it splits off for Highway 37.
From there, it’s less than 10 miles to CA-121, which will take you right to your first stop of the day: the Fremont Diner. The epitome of old-school-meets-new, this favorite local spot has earned the thumbs-up from everyone from Sunset magazine to the San Francisco Chronicle. See why when you order classic breakfast grub like shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, or pancakes and French toast: The menu may read like this is your run-of-the-mill roadside dive, but locally sourced ingredients and playful flavors make this diner a true stand-out.
A few minutes further down CA-121, the Food-Network-approved Schellville Grill rolls out a full line of scrambles, omelets, and hotcakes before the lunch and dinner crowds show up hungry for Texas-style barbecue.
You may not exactly have full-bodied red wines on the mind after a big breakfast, so ease your way into an afternoon of wine tasting by heading four miles south on CA-121 to Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards. The winery is famous for its sparkling wines, and a glass or flight of bubbly will start your day off on a light, relaxing note. (The tasting room is closed for renovations until April 2015. Tastings are still available near the arbor, adjacent to the tasting room.)
Gloria Ferrer’s located in the Carneros appellation — or American Viticultural Area (AVA) — a cool-climate little slice of land that’s shared between Sonoma and Napa counties. In addition to the kinds of sparklers found at Ferrer, Carneros’s exposure to ocean breezes and fog create perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
You can try both just a few minutes’ further north on CA-121 (turn off at Bonneau Road) at Schug Carneros Estate. After your tasting, ask winery staff about a self-guided walking tour that will get you up close with the vines at your own pace.
Just off CA-121 in the other direction, Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards each offer free tours and complimentary tastings of five wines. If you’re ready for a break from the sipping, try sampling oils and vinegars from the Olive Press instead. It’s located in Jacuzzi.
From the Carneros wineries, head north on CA-121 to the city of Sonoma’s lovely little town Plaza for lunch. Endless easy options abound along its borders: Opt for thin-crust pizza at the Red Grape, casual French-inspired food at Basque Boulangerie, or hearty sandwiches and salads at Sunflower Caffé.
Sonoma County’s vineyards extend far beyond Carneros, so there are plenty of other vintages to try here in Sonoma. And luckily, most wineries’ downtown tasting rooms stay open until at least 5 p.m., making it easy to wind down your day with a few sips of everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel.
Within steps of Sonoma’s historic Plaza, you can stop by the the tasting rooms of Highway 12 Vineyards or WALT Wines, to name two of the more than two dozen wineries that bring the vineyard experience to the heart of town.
Had enough wine for the day? Opt for some shopping around the Plaza instead. From clothing, to kitchenware, to home furnishings, this area’s well stocked in everything you need to recreate the Wine Country-chic lifestyle back home.
To end the day on a high note, step up your dinner game with seasonal staples at the longtime local favorite Girl and the Fig. Just off the Plaza, you can get exotic with Mayan flavors at the aptly named Maya or Portuguese cuisine at LaSalette.
Heading back to San Francisco for the night will take you just over an hour: Simply follow CA-121 south and CA-37 west until you hit Highway 101 south and you’re on your way.
Of course, if you want to stick around for the night and do it all again tomorrow, we can’t blame you. Book yourself in for the night at the charming and eclectic Sonoma Chalet Bed and Breakfast, just a few minutes’ drive from the historic Plaza, or opt for the iconic Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
Another option is to drive about 15 minutes northwest on Highway 12 to the little hamlet of Glen Ellen. This tiny town packs an outsized punch when it comes to accommodation: grab a room at the chic Gaige House, a cozy cottage at the Glen Ellen Inn, or a vintage-cool suite at the affordable Jack London Lodge, and wake up ready to spend the next day sipping, tasting, and exploring even more of the Sonoma Valley.
Or, find hotels and lodging throughout Sonoma County.
Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt.