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A Fabulous Fall Weekend in Sonoma Wine Country

For a true fall getaway, follow scenic two-lane highways to the incomparable Sonoma Valley, nestled on the eastern edge of Northern California's Sonoma County. With fewer visitors on the roads and the gentle perfume of fermenting grapes in the air, autumn makes an ideal time to sample Sonoma's beauty and abundance.

In October and November the valley's grapevines slowly change from summer's deep greens to shades of bright yellow, dusty gold, rusty red, and deep burgundy. Soft daylight often bathes the rolling hills and gentle fields with a golden glow. Daytime temperatures are typically mild to warm, even a bit hot at times, but cool nights prevail.

Restaurant menus reflect the change of season, highlighting the delights of autumn vegetables. And in the wineries, the frantic pace of harvest gives way to slightly less harried cellar work. The last of this year's grapes are crushed, processed, and put into barrels, while vintages from a few years ago are taken out of barrels and onto the bottling line.

This two-day itinerary lets you explore Sonoma Valley from south to north, but feel free to reverse the direction, and to pick and choose from these activities to create your perfect weekend adventure. 

Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.

For a bit of breakfast before settling in for some serious sipping, nibbling, exploring, and relaxing, Schellville Grill rolls out a full line of omelets, scrambles, and hotcakes before serving up its Sonoma-style smoked barbecue and wine-country fare for lunch and dinner. Or try the Fremont Diner, an old-style rustic farmhouse eatery specializing in Southern food, and sourcing many of its ingredients from its acres out back.

You're in the Carneros wine region, at the southern end of the Sonoma Valley. Here, sparsely wooded, windswept hills rise above a wide, flat plain, creating broad vistas and a fertile home for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sparkling winegrapes.

For a bird's-eye view, go aloft in a vintage biplane at the Sonoma Valley Airport (also known as the Schellville Airport) where the Vintage Aircraft Company offers air tours.

To get an up-close look at grapevines in autumn, take the free self-guided vineyard tour at Schug Carneros Estate Winery  Check in at the tasting room for a map of this half-mile trail through rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir winegrapes.

Next, head up Highway 12 to the town of Sonoma (pop. 10,648). Park your car in the center of town and stretch your legs in the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza, the largest town square in California.

Do you enjoy history? Sonoma  State Historic Park offers several sites around and near the plaza, including Mission San Francisco Solano, the 21st and northernmost of the California missions.

Are shopping, nibbling, and sipping more your style? You'll find an intriguing variety of stores, galleries, tasting rooms, and restaurants ringing the plaza.

For a bite to eat, Basque Boulangerie, offers mouth-watering sourdough and sweet French bread, pastries, baked goods, and a light breakfast and lunch menu.

If drinks and small plates are what you crave, drop in at Oso Sonoma, where fans rave about the deviled eggs topped with fresh crab or braised short ribs with gouda polenta. For the ultimate Oso experience, enjoy the five-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings.

You can explore downtown Sonoma on your own, but if you'd like a more focused approach, both Sonoma Food Tour and Gourmet Food and Wine Tours-Sonoma offer guided walking tours, giving you an insider's understanding of the town's history, architecture, and inner workings, while sampling its delectable food and wine.

For even more tasting opportunities, get back in your car and follow the signposts pointing the way to the area's many wineries. Just a few blocks east of the Plaza, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery has been crafting wines for more than 100 years. And about two miles farther east, you'll find Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857. This carefully restored historic winery includes a unique wine tool museum.

If you want to have someone else handle the details, decisions, and driving, you can choose from a number of guided tours. Vin De Luxe Tours pairs a vintage biplane ride for two with visits to unique wineries, providing both an aerial and an insider's view of Sonoma Valley's vineyards and wineries. And Artisan Wine Tours offers highly customized luxury excursions for wine and culinary enthusiasts,  working primarily with couples or very small groups.

Ready for dinner? On Sonoma Plaza the girl and the fig presents innovative country food with a French passion. Or for fine dining slightly north of the Sonoma city limits, the Michelin-starred Santé Restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn uses freshest local produce, meats, poultry, and seafood to create elegantly simple dishes that let the natural flavors speak for themselves.

For a bit of nightlife, Hopmonk Tavern  and Murphy's Irish Pub  typically feature live acoustic music and a variety of brews in a relaxed, neighborhood-pub atmosphere. Dance to local and touring acts in a variety of genres at Rossi's 1906. Or enjoy a quiet nightcap in the sleek 38 Degrees North lounge at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

If you're in town the first weekend of October the Field of Dreams just north of Sonoma Plaza hosts the three-day Sonoma Music Festival. Past headliners have included Chicago, Ringo Starr, and the Doobie Brothers. 

Start the day at the Santé restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, known for its breakfasts, especially the lemon and cottage cheese pancakes with crème fraîche. Or, the Garden Court Café & Bakery in the folksy town of Glen Ellen (pop. 784) offers hearty breakfasts with down-hoeme friendliness.

To stretch your legs a bit, head to Jack London State Historic Park, which combines 1,400 acres of trails and pristine vistas with historic buildings. (Tip: Check the park’s event calendar for concerts, lectures, and other fall activities.)

For more of a workout, across the valley you can hike to the top of 2,729-foot Bald Mountain (six miles round-trip) for spectacular views at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

For a luxurious lunch, consider the five-course Wine & Food Pairing at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, featuring a six-course tasting menu with wines from St. Francis' artisan collection; enjoy fine dining in a relaxed and casual atmosphere, with stunning vineyard views.

There are many other wineries to explore in this area. Both Ledson Winery & Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean Winery are housed in what can only be described as castle-style architecture. And in addition to wine, VJB Vineyards, Cellars & Marketplace  produces estate-grown  olive oil, pasta sauces, pestos, and homemade pastas. 

When it's time for dinner, the Glen Ellen Star presents a seasonal menu of California-Mediterranean cuisine that celebrates a fire-fed wood oven. Of course, this is just a sampling of the autumnal delights you can discover in the Sonoma Valley, at this bountiful time of year.