First time visiting Sonoma County wine country? First time ever, on the wine tasting trail? Whether you want to make a limousine-driven beeline for the most luxurious house of Cabernet Sauvignon, or prefer the unintimidating setting of a little wine shack in which to talk about Zinfandel with the person who made it, relax. Sonoma County wineries have got you covered.
Begin the journey where it all began. Best known as California’s first commercial winery, founded in 1858, Buena Vista is much more than an historical marker, especially now that it has been revamped and restored by Burgundian wine impresario Jean-Charles Boisset. Tour the hand-chiseled Tokay-style stone cellars and explore wine and history in the old press house tasting room—you might even bump into “the Count” himself.
Go beyond the best-selling Vintner’s Blend and discover Kendall-Jackson’s top reserve wines, as well as more unusual varietal offerings, in this chateau-style setting surrounded by gardens. Inspect the demonstration vineyard to learn about grape varieties, pick a leaf of lemon verbena in the sensory experience garden, or enjoy small plate gourmet food pairings made with fresh ingredients from the culinary gardens.
Once a rebel, now a Sonoma County institution, Ravenswood still carries the banner for “No Wimpy Wines!” Bold, spicy California Zinfandel stars here, as do the tasting room hosts, who make this a fun, friendly, snobbery-free zone where anyone can feel good about learning about and enjoying wine. And yes, they do have a rosé.
The only place in Sonoma County where you can say “champagne” and not be corrected with, “sparkling wine,” Korbel is the granddaddy of local bubbly. Besides winery-only upgrades on the popular California champagne brand, free tours and a picturesque location are main attractions at this historic winery, which is nestled in the redwoods along a scenic road that follows the course of the Russian River.
Their sparkling wines have been served by the White House for decades, but their walk-up tasting bar, hidden away in Green Valley, is as funky as ever. That’s what makes Iron Horse special, and a great place to experience real Sonoma County wine country. Their classic Russian Cuvée was uncorked at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; the Rainbow Cuvée was served by the Obamas at their annual LGBT reception.
Beloved as one of Sonoma County’s “wine castles,” the namesake “chateau” actually started out as a 1920 vacation home. Set below a dramatic backdrop of volcanic peaks, the winery is styled after a monastery in the French Alps, evoking the monastic tradition of winemaking. Stroll in the courtyard citrus garden and taste reserve Malbec and the flagship Cinq Cepages Bordeaux-styled blend.
The villa of Dry Creek Valley, Ferrari-Carano is the place for walking, wine tasting, and dreaming among the vines. The stately rose-pink villa architecture plus the wide selection of estate-grown wines and options to taste them make this winery a hit with first-time visitors. And a quiet walk through the Japanese gardens provides a respite from all the touring and tasting.
Among the newer breed of “rural hipster” wineries, Medlock Ames, founded by two college buddies in 1998, stands out as the place to start. You’ll find estate-pickled vegetables as well as crisp Sauvignon Blanc at their rustic-chic Alexander Valley tasting room, and retro cocktails made with fresh ingredients grown onsite are served at the reinvented roadhouse bar next door.
DeLoach is just one of the icons of the wave of new wineries that changed the Sonoma County wine scene back in the 1970s, but earns its place in this limited lineup because of its expanded wine education programs — with a characteristic touch of whimsy and fun courtesy of the new regime, Boisset Family Estates. Discover appellations, biodynamic farming, or just sip Pinot by the fire.
Finally, it’s an absolute must for the first-time visitor to drop in on at least one of Sonoma County’s many lesser-known small, family wineries — you never know where you’ll find a new favorite. Specializing in Russian River Valley Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, Harvest Moon offers the kind of tasting and learning experience that is intimate and unscripted at the same time.
No tour needs to be booked at this backroads bodega, where the activities of the crush or other winery operations are on display in a courtyard setting that may remind some of the village wineries of Europe.
For more info see the Guide to Sonoma Wine Country for Your First-Time Visit.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.