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Wine Tasting Itinerary: Sonoma Valley and Beyond

Chateau St. Jean Winery in Sonoma Valley

Sonoma County is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, plus more than 400 wineries. Naturally, no visit to Wine Country would be complete without tasting some wine.

But a trip focusing primarily on wine tasting in Sonoma Valley, Carneros-Sonoma and Bennett Valley is an extra bit of heaven. It can also be a bargain, when you keep in mind that many area hotels offer “passports” to their guests, for complimentary tastings at numerous nearby wineries.

Then, before you’re ready to fly home, remember that you can check your first case of wine free, when you fly from Sonoma County Airport.

So pack your bags, ready your palate, and explore these highlighted regions of Sonoma Valley, Carneros-Sonoma, and Bennett Valley.

Sonoma Valley

The birthplace of the California’s commercial wine industry in the 1850s, Sonoma Valley now covers 14,000 acres of vineyards, accented by more than 50 wineries and tasting rooms. Within its pretty patchwork of farms and some 13,000 additional acres of open parkland, Sonoma Valley is also home to many of the County’s best recreational and dining destinations.

First, fuel up for a day of tasting with breakfast at the cult-favorite El Molino Central  (11 Central Avenue, Boyes Hot Springs, 707-939-1010). The small white stucco, teal-trimmed eatery makes its mark with organic heirloom corn kernels painstakingly hand-ground on a stone wheel for tortillas and tamales, and excellent chilaquiles made even better with a side of refried Rancho Gordo heritage beans.

If you’re looking for a pampered get-around, the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley (707-938-2600) awaits with a chauffeured tour in a vintage 1890s San Francisco cable car. This hand-built replica of an authentic trolley operates as a private charter vehicle that can handle groups of up to 28 passengers on six-hour field trips to top wineries. Tasting tastes even better with open-air views, a sound system including an iPod dock, and on-board refreshments featuring a country French picnic lunch catered by the girl & the fig.

Or, venture out on your own, starting with a don’t-miss classic. Founded in 1857, Buena Vista Winery (18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma, 800-926-1266) is the oldest commercial winery in California, complete with caves that are actual historical landmarks. The aging tombs have recently been renovated for modern safety measures, but remain elegantly dark and mysterious. Guided paired tastings are the best way to explore everything, where a host first offers the barrel wine, then the finished wine, and explains the evolution.

Deerfield Ranch (10200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-5215) is another gem, featuring more than 23,000 square feet of wine caves spanning the heart of winery, and cut in the shape of a wine glass. Tucked behind beautiful Redwood portal doors sit hundreds of barrels, leading to the Grand Room furnished in overstuffed couches and chairs. Such comfortable seating is a good idea, considering tasting flights can include up to 20 wines (try the standouts of super Tuscan style “Super T Rex” red and the Old Vine Zinfandel).

Then, venture a little further into Sonoma Valley along scenic Highway 12 and visit other popular wineries on the way such as Kunde, St. Francis, Chateau St. Jean, Ledson, VJB and other Sonoma Valley wineries. Find your short way back to Sonoma via breathtaking wine country scenery.

Next, catch your breath beneath the shade trees in the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza (the largest such plaza in California), then tour the surrounding National Historic Landmark adobe buildings designed in 1834 by the Mexican Governor Mariano Vallejo. A stop-in at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (551 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-939-7862, svma.org) is recommended, too, to discover the largest visual arts organization in the San Francisco North Bay region.

Enjoy more history at the new Three Sticks tasting room just off the Plaza (143 West Spain Street, Sonoma, 707-738-3352, where winemaker Don Van Staaveren presents his coveted, hard-to-find wines in the 170-year-old Vallejo-Castenada adobe home. Built in the 1800′s, the building was given to General Vallejo when Mexico controlled California, and one of the few still standing structures in California from the time period.

Lunch is calling now, and the longtime classic, French-country the girl & the fig (110 W. Spain Street, Sonoma, 707-938-3634) on the Square is a delight, for seasonal plates like duck egg ravioli with spring mushrooms, onion crema, green garlic, spring peas and baby carrots sprinkled in smoked paprika. Not too long ago, Lady Gaga turned heads as she dined here, accompanied by her boyfriend and two bodyguards.

You’re in a perfect location, too, for shopping at numerous boutiques - there are dozens of great salons, galleries and stores all around the Square, and one that is actually both. In a novel combination, The Corner Store/Highway 12 shop (498 First Street East, Sonoma, 707-938-8091, highway12winery.com) is a home accessories boutique, outfitted with a bar offering complimentary tastings and selling wines from Michael Sebastiani, of the well-known Sebastiani winemaking family and its winery just a few blocks away on 4th Street East.

That evening, stay at Sonoma Creek Inn, a darling, reasonably priced 16-room hideaway (239 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma, 707-939-9463, sonomacreekinn.com). Many of the recently updated, colorfully decorated rooms have private outdoor patios or porches, and the hosts offer complimentary tasting passes at area wineries. Plus, they’ve partnered with Goodtime Touring Company for a 20% discount off bicycle rentals.

Or, you may want to stay directly in a vineyard. The private guest cottage at Landmark Winery in Kenwood tucks directly against the grapevines, with one bedroom, full kitchen, a sunny sitting room, bath and laundry facilities.

For even more luxury, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a historic, mission-style property originally opened in 1840. It evolved into a health retreat for wealthy guests in the 1920s, and is now top-of-the-line contemporary, thanks to a recent resort-wide renovation that includes the entire lobby, heritage guest rooms, meeting rooms and landscaping.

Whichever lodging you choose, dinner at the AAA Four Diamond Award Santé restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a worthy indulgence. The upscale California cuisine eatery was completely revamped last spring for a chic, modern dining room plus a new Santé Terrace overlooking the fire pit and the signature geothermal mineral pool.

The chef’s tasting menu spans four courses, while the regular menu tempts with plates like Iberico pork shoulder loin with lacinato kale, bing cherries and poached granny smith apples turnip puree in aigre-doux pork jus, or EVOO poached salmon with sweet carrots, artichokes, caper berries, picholine olives and chickpea tots sprinkled in preserved Meyer lemon gremolata. Bonus: the wine list features more than 500 Sonoma and Napa wines.

Carneros-Sonoma

Carneros spans 8,000 vineyard acres and offers more than 20 wineries. It’s not possible to visit all the wineries in a day, of course, but you can plot your strategy over an excellent breakfast at the Fremont Diner (2660 Fremont Dr., Sonoma, 707-938-7370), where chef-owner Chad Harris puts together ridiculously good comfort food with down-home soul (collard greens in the morning, yes). Start with a fried fruit pie and chicory coffee, wolf down some fried chicken and waffles, or tuck into feather-light biscuits and rib-stickin’ gravy.

Now, head to a hidden treasure - Schug Carneros Estate Winery (602 Bonneau Road, Sonoma, 707-939-9363). Coming up the winding drive, through the vineyards bordered by rose bushes towards the German chalet-style winery, it’s hard to imagine that there are also caves tucked into the bucolic hillside. Yet the stone structures are polished and glossy and lined with gorgeous barrels. Knowledgeable guides on the private tours offer a blend of the winery’s history, insight into the Carneros region, and an overview of Schug’s “secret” winemaking techniques.

Such a good trip deserves a toast of sparkling wine, and you can find that at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards (23555 Hwy. 121, Sonoma, 707-933-1931). Established more than 25 years ago, this winery was the first sparkling wine house built in the Carneros region, but actually, the Ferrer family has been making sparkling wines for more than 150 years. A variety of tours delve into the important role that caves play in the winemaking process, from a basic educational tasting that includes the main cave overlook, to a private look at how crafting sparkling wine can take 3 to 10 years.

Ram’s Gate (28700 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, 707-721-8700), on the other hand, is quite new, set in a 22,000-square-foot winery designed in a stunning barn style along Hwy. 121 across from Infineon Raceway in Carneros/Sonoma. This is modern Carneros style and must be seen to be appreciated, accented with recycled French granite paver-stones and massive floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open to sweeping vineyard and bay views. By Appointment only from September 2014.

Now, you can head back Sonoma way, and drop in for lunch at Park 121 in the Cornerstone Sonoma art, retail, wine and sculpture garden center (23667 Highway 121, Sonoma). A Hobbs salumi sandwich should hit the spot, layered with fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, tomato, cracked black pepper, olive oil and balsamic on toasted sourdough. Chilean empanadas are another delight, house-made with a flaky, delicate crust and stuffed with spicy beef, egg, green olives and romesco sauce.

There are more tasting rooms right in the Cornerstone, too, including Keating Wines (keatingwines.com) and Meadowcroft Wines (meadowcroftwines.com).

For the evening, relax at the vintage motor-court chic Vineyard Inn Hotel (23000 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-938-2350). The red tile roof and palm tree lined 22-room inn looks modest, but each guest room is distinctively decorated, and there is a solar heated swimming pool and full fitness center.

Another nice option includes Glen Ellen Inn (13670 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, 707-996-6409), tucked away with “Secret Cottages” on the Calabasas Creek behind the inn’s oyster grill restaurant. Each has its own fireplace, Jacuzzi tub, shower, TV, fruit and pastry basket, in-room coffee, and honor bar.

Or, for luxury, there is the Gaige House (13540 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, 707-935-0237, gaige.com), part bed and breakfast, part luxury resort. With just 23 graceful Asian inspired guestrooms and suites plus eight new “Zen” suites featuring granite soaking tubs and private Japanese gardens perfect for en-suite spa treatments, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped to a private oasis.

Bennett Valley

Enjoy Vineyard Inn’s complimentary continental breakfast, or stop at Glen Ellen Village Market (13751 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, 707-996-6728) for a real feast. Located near dozens of top wineries, next to a stream at the bottom of the entry road to Jack London State Park, it’s a lovely place to plan your day.

The hot breakfast spread brims with breakfast burritos, croissant sandwiches, bacon, sausage, hot cereals, roasted potatoes and three kinds of egg dishes, plus giant and mini muffins, and more than 30 varieties of donuts and pastries baked fresh daily.

Continue on into the Bennett Valley AVA, located south of the city of Santa Rosa, on high ground between the Sonoma Valley and Cotati Valley. It’s sumptuously pastoral, since there are 650 vineyard acres here, but only four wineries, and only two wineries that are open to the public.

Matanzas Creek Winery (6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, 800-590-6464) was founded in 1977 and its managers have spent the time planting not only grape vines, but more than 4,500 lavish lavender bushes in their two-acre estate garden. It’s a spectacular sight each summer when the bushes burst into bloom.

Sable Ridge Vineyards (6320 Jamison Rd., Santa Rosa; 707-542-3138) is much smaller, with just six acres planted to vines, but it’s well worth making the required appointment to taste the estate Syrah and see the inner workings of a truly boutique, family-owned operation.

Great shopping is nearby in the bustling Montgomery Village Shopping Center, and this luxury open-air mall is also home to the terrific Monti’s Rotisserie & Bar (714 Village Court, Santa Rosa, 707-568-4404). Enjoy a lunch of Wine Country cuisine anchored by wood-fired rotisserie meats such as Liberty Farms lavender roasted duck, and find your perfect wine pairing from more than 40 selections by the glass.

Next, let the wineries come to you, at Cellars of Sonoma in the heart of Railroad Square in nearby downtown Santa Rosa. Operating as a tasting room by day and wine bar by night, the hip, urban space showcases nine vintners with more than 60 wines, presented by wine educators who really know their stuff. Many of the bottlings are handcrafted, limited production wines not otherwise available in the marketplace.

More shopping awaits in the Railroad Square area, which sits on the west side of Highway 101 and stretches roughly from the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel to Western Farm Center, boasting a beautifully restored Northwestern Pacific Railroad train depot made of locally quarried stone.

Here are some of the most interesting independently owned stores in the region, such as Whistlestop Antiques (130 Fourth Street, 707-542-9474), where owner Dee Richardson has a flair for whimsy, offering collectables like a bowling-pin shaped trophy from a 1998 Reno bowling competition, alongside more expected inventory like delicate china teacups.

You might be ready for dinner, now, and Flavors Bistro (96 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa, 707-573-9600) is a local favorite, offering not only a huge wine list of mostly local productions, but also delicious Wine Country food. Start with a platter of local cheeses presented with wine poached fruit, caramelized walnuts and local honey, then move on to creamy risotto spiked with chicken, spinach, organic mushrooms, sweet basil, garlic, white wine and Parmesan cheese. If you’re still hungry, add in a crisp-crust, stone oven baked pizza. You can also take wines to go, since Flavors stocks a wine shop, too.

A good night’s sleep is just a few steps away at Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel (170 Railroad Street, Santa Rosa, 707-284-1234). The Tuscan villa style property sports an AAA Four Diamond rating, and amenities like a gorgeous fire pit courtyard, a swimming pool, and a sculpture garden.

Or, you can roost at the Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa (2777 4th Street, Santa Rosa, 707-545-8530) where all stays in the newly remodeled luxury rooms include a breakfast buffet and free wine tasting passes.

If you’d rather spend money on more wine that a fancy room, the Quality Inn & Suites is clean and comfortable (3000 Santa Rosa Avenue, Santa Rosa, 707-521-2100), including treats like complimentary breakfast and a pet friendly policy.

Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet