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.
For a morning nosh before settling in for some serious sipping, nibbling, exploring, and relaxing, pick up coffee and a breakfast sandwich or breakfast burrito at the Carneros Deli, at the intersections of highways 121 and 116.
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 and Chardonnay winegrapes, often used to make elegant sparkling wines.
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 vineyard rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
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.
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, on the east side of the Plaza the Basque Boulangerie Café 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. Artisan Wine Tours offers highly customized luxury excursions for wine and culinary enthusiasts, working primarily with couples or very small groups. Or, hop aboard the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley (a hand-built replica of an 1890s San Francisco cable car, with a top-notch sound system and on-board refreshments) for a six-hour field trip to top wineries.
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 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, Murphy’s Irish Pub and Olde Sonoma Public House all typically feature live acoustic music and a variety of brews in relaxed, neighborhood-pub atmospheres. In an alley off the Plaza, you can catch blues, country, and Americana musicians performing in the cozy Sonoma Speakeasy. On Highway 12 several blocks west of the Plaza, Starling Bar Sonoma offers classic cocktails and craft beers in a casual, friendly setting. Or enjoy a quiet nightcap in the sleek 38 Degrees North lounge at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
Start the day at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, where the Santé restaurant is known for its breakfasts, especially the lemon and cottage cheese pancakes with crème fraîche. Or, at Les Pascals French pâtisserie in the folksy town of Glen Ellen (pop. 784), chef Pascal Merle and his wife Pascale offer croissants, brioche, Khun Amun (a morning bun), and assorted quiches, as well as a variety of other pastries, breads, French cookies, and more.
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.
For more of a workout, across the valley you can hike beside a creek, across a meadow floor, and through a gorge and canyon along some of the 25 miles’ worth of trails at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
For a luxurious lunch, consider the five-course Wine & Food Pairing at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, featuring a multi-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 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!
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley
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