From Alicante to Zinfandel, with both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon in between, the Sonoma Valley encompasses perhaps the widest range of wine grapes, the most dramatic contrasts of terrain, and the longest history of any wine growing region in Sonoma County.
The birthplace of the California’s commercial wine industry in the 1850s, Sonoma Valley won official American Viticulture Area status (AVA or appellation) in 1981. It comprises 10,249 acres of vineyards, and is home to more than 80 wineries and tasting rooms.
The oldest vineyards in Sonoma Valley are planted in hardy old Zinfandel, often called America’s “heritage grape.” Many of these vineyards were planted well over a century ago, and often include a “field blend” with other, rare cultivars.
Award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon was made at Dunfillan by the 1880s, but Cabernet became more important in the 20th century, particularly from higher-elevation vineyards like Monte Rosso. Popularized here in the 1970s, Merlot and Chardonnay continue to be important. Up-and-coming varietals include Malbec, Syrah, and Grenache.
The Lay of the Land
The Sonoma Valley AVA refers only to the appellation in the southeast corner of Sonoma County, roughly outlining the borders of the Sonoma Creek watershed, which begins in the Mayacamas Mountains near Sugarloaf State Park and flows into San Pablo Bay. The town of Sonoma lies within the heart of Sonoma Valley.
The Carneros region, which is shared with Napa Valley, overlaps the AVA at its southern end. Here, the valley is mostly flat and wide, and the growing season is characterized by mild days and cool winds that blow from the bay. Chardonnay shares this area with hay fields and dairies.
Past the historic resort town of Boyes Hot Springs, the temperature climbs as Sonoma Mountain looms above Glen Ellen and traps the valley’s heat. This is the home of old-vine Zinfandel, which has been planted here since the 1850s. The mountainous terrain above the valley favors grapes that like to roast in the sun, but benefit from afternoon breezes; Cabernet Sauvignon rules the roost.
Around the hamlet of Kenwood, where the valley continues to narrow, it also cools off faster. We’ve actually entered the Russian River watershed, and the wind and fog now come directly from the Pacific Ocean. Often on late summer afternoons, fog caresses the forested ridges of Trione-Annadel State Park before flowing into the valley.
Founded in 1857, Buena Vista Winery is the original Sonoma Valley winery — a new owner recently made its colorful history a top priority. Nearby, Ravenswood Winery helped to resurrect Zinfandel’s status as a top red wine varietal in the 1980s with the motto, “No Wimpy Wines.”
Learn about biodynamic farming at Benziger Winery, set in a picturesque volcanic bowl near Jack London State Historic Park — the grapes now grown on the site of the famed writer’s ranch are made into wines at rustic Kenwood Vineyards. Home of the iconic Cinq Cepages, Chateau St. Jean commands one of the most beautiful spots at the north end of the valley. Another impressive sight close by is the gothic castle of Ledson Winery & Vineyards (see photo).
Find all Sonoma County Wineries here.
The serious student of West Coast Pinot Noir may be interested in a guided tour and tasting at historic Hanzell Vineyards, tucked into the hills above the town of Sonoma.
Or, sit down for an educational tasting in Rhône-style wines from at Westwood Estate Wine’s almost-hidden salon off Sonoma Plaza.
Restaurants and Lodging in Sonoma Valley
Grazing the samples at the Sonoma Cheese Factory is a must. Restaurant options include cookbook author Sondra Bernstein's the girl & the fig; and Mary’s Pizza locations in downtown Sonoma and in Sonoma Valley. At the north end of the Valley, enjoy trattoria-sttyle Italian fare at Cafe Citti.
Lodging ideas include the elegant oasis at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma; the blend of vintage and contemporary with a modern Asian flair at Gaige House + Ryokan in Glen Ellen; and the Mediterraen-style luxury at Kenwood Inn & Spa.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.
Sonoma County Appellations (AVA):
Carneros - Sonoma
Dry Creek Valley
Fort Ross - Seaview
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak
Russian River Valley