Winter might be considered the off-season for many of the world’s hottest travel destinations, but a Wine Country visit between December and March may be even more enchanting than a stay during the summer months. Much of the scenery is more resplendent and picturesque during the winter as grasses on the rolling hills turn from the pale yellow hue of late summer to verdant green, and dry creek beds flow once more with water from seasonal rains. Here are a few more reasons to visit in winter.
Mild Winter Weather
Some like it hot, but Wine Country can be truly magical in the milder months. The region’s temperate climate means that it never gets too cold, even in the dead of winter, making outdoor excursions and activities pleasant during much of the season. Morning coastal fog can create a cozy or even mystical atmosphere depending on your inclinations. And, just as in legendary Camelot, the fog often burns away as the day progresses, revealing a radiant California sun that lights up the area’s stunning landscapes.
Winter is a perfect season to take long walks on beaches such as Salmon Creek and Goat Rock, go whale watching at places like Bodega Head or Stillwater Cove Regional Park, and take in the lush greenery of nature on hikes through state and regional parks like Tolay, Crane Creek, Helen Putnam and Annadel. For hikes that pair strolls through vineyards with wine tastings, Bartholomew Estate in Sonoma and Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg are among the vintners that invite guests to explore their grounds.
The region’s waterfalls roar to life again in winter. One of the more accessible places to see a waterfall is at Sonoma Creek Falls in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood. The 25-foot waterfall can be reached by a few routes, but the easiest path is on the relatively level lower Canyon Trail, a walk of just a third of a mile.
For a dramatic view of waterfalls that break over the rugged coastal cliffs out onto the beaches below, Phillips Gulch at Salt Point State Park and Stengel Beach at The Sea Ranch are incredible. The scenic drive to these falls along coastal Highway 1 is an added bonus.
A visit to Wine Country wouldn’t be complete without taking selfies in front of the region’s iconic backdrops and, if you time your visit just right, you may even capture a mustard field in full bloom. From Alexander Valley to Dry Creek Valley to Carneros Valley, there are plenty of good spots in Wine Country to find photogenic fields of mustard. They can be found on the side of the road or among the vineyard rows (check out B.R. Cohn Winery, Kunde Family Winery, Paradise Ridge Winery, Gloria Ferrer Vineyards) in regional and state parks (don’t miss Joe Rodota Regional Trail), and in the fields of local farms. Find more mustard fields here.
Special Treatment at Local Wineries
For a taste of the VIP experience, there is no better time to visit a winery than in winter. After the busy harvest season, and before the vines begin to grow again, there is a sweet spot for those interested in a more intimate and leisurely winery visit. There are more opportunities to join in friendly chats with winemakers who, on slower days, might also be more inclined to pour you vintages not always available to the public.
Family-owned wineries like Frick Winery in Geyersville, whose owner Bill Frick has been a one-man show producing small-lot wines for 47 years, are perfect venues for just these kind of special encounters. Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa, run by Kathleen Inman, and Enriquez Estate Winery in Forestville, run by Cecilia Enriquez and her parents, Ana and Eduardo, are other local family-owned wineries worth a visit. Wineries such as Anaba Wines, Benovia Winery, Pachyderm Station and Three Sticks Wines at the Adobe are particularly cozy spots for sipping wine in a warm and inviting ambience.
Winter is also a time to experience pruning season in Sonoma Wine Country, when winemakers and vineyard workers shape the dormant vines for the coming harvest season and wineries invite guests for special tours and tastings. Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen hosts an all-day pruning festival each year in late February or early March. Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood offers special vineyard hikes (including dog hikes) that allow guests to see the vines up close. And at Capo Creek Ranch in Healdsburg, visitors can admire old-vine Zinfandel planted more than 40 years ago while a small crew prunes the vines over six weeks, often beginning in late January.
Reservations at Popular Restaurants
If waiting in line or waiting in vain to dine at a noteworthy restaurant is something you would rather avoid, winter is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Popular restaurants such as Single Thread, Cyrus, Farmhouse Inn, The Matheson, and Valette are usually not quite as crowded, making it a fantastic time to book a reservation for a truly gourmet dining experience. These delicious prospects are enough to whet anyone’s appetite.
Seasonal Meals (and Deals)
Wine Country is replete with affordable dining options during Restaurant Week, which runs from Feb. 19 to Feb. 25 in 2024. It is a time when restaurants showcase their talents and highlight local ingredients with special menus and prices — a perfect opportunity for diners to explore and discover the region’s bountiful culinary options. In 2023, nearly 100 restaurants offered prix fixe menus that included two and three courses for a fixed price, ranging from $10 to $25 for lunch, $25 to $55 for dinner and $5 for a “sweet perk.”
A Coveted Beer
It only happens once a year, and if you aren’t in Wine Country — or rather Beer Country — during the chosen time, you just might miss it.
Russian River Brewing plans to make its Pliny the Younger available at its Santa Rosa and Windsor pubs March 22 to April 4 in 2024. Technically, that puts the official release a few days into spring next year (before 2022, the release typically took place in February).
However, for the last two years, the ultra-coveted, limited-release Triple IPA began making its way to bars and restaurants throughout the Bay Area in February, weeks in advance of its March release. Likewise, the brewery says it will distribute kegs of Pliny the Younger in February 2024 to its draft accounts throughout California and beyond.
But there is nothing quite like seeing or experiencing firsthand the energy and anticipation exuded by the hundreds of Pliny the Younger devotees who typically line up hours in advance for the annual releases at Russian River Brewing.
One-of-a-Kind Seasonal Events
The Pliny the Younger release is not the only local epicurean event that occurs just once a year. The 31st annual Wine Road Winter Wineland takes place over two days (Jan. 13-14 in 2024) at 60 participating wineries throughout Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Guerneville, Forestville, Sebastopol, Cloverdale and Geyserville.
After checking in at the first winery of the day, participants receive a glass, wristband and event map to partake in wine tastings at any of the event’s participating vineyards. You will need to select your check-in winery to start. This is where you will get your glass, wristband and event map, then you may visit any participating winery you would like for the weekend.
Wine Road hosts a similar Barrel Tasting event over two days (March 2 and 3 in 2024) that allows participants to go into the wine cellars and taste directly from the barrels. Wineries will be selling futures of these wines, which are often limited and sell out before they are released.
Crab feeds are another event popular during the winter months. The 34th annual Great Sonoma Crab and Wine Fest takes place Saturday, Feb. 3 in 2024 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, just one of many crab feeds hosted by nonprofits and organizations throughout Sonoma County during January and February.
The 17th Annual Celebration of Pigs & Pinot takes place at Hotel Healdsburg March 15-16 in 2024. Chef Charlie Palmer hosts this series of intimate dining and educational events that feature master sommeliers, winemakers and celebrity chefs as part of a weekend showcasing pairings of Pinot Noirs and pork dishes.
For other seasonal happenings, check out our Calendar of Events.
Written by Sonoma Magazine Staff
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