The turret of Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County rises above the winery garden
Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood

Top Wineries for First-time Visitors

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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.

A gentleman leads a tour through the historic Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma
Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma

Buena Vista Winery

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.

The entrance to the iconic Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, Fulton
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, Fulton

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

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.

You can even spend some time wandering around their winery's garden yourself, looking at all the different varietals of edible plants on the property.

The Korbel Winery was established by Bohemia-born Francis Korbel and his brothers, Joseph and Anton, in 1882 , Sonoma County
Korbel Champagne Cellars, Guerneville

Korbel Champagne Cellars

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.

And if you're hungry, you can always take a seat under the redwoods on property at the Korbel Delicatessen & Market for a nice sandwich, pastry or coffee.

The rustic tasting bar built out of barrels at Iron Horse Vineyards, Sebastopol
Iron Horse Vineyards, Sebastopol

Iron Horse Vineyards

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.

The grand lawn in front of Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood
Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood

Chateau St. Jean

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 in France.

Stroll in the courtyard citrus garden and taste reserve Malbec and the flagship Cinq Cepages Bordeaux-styled blend.

A bronze sculpture of a wild boar greets visitors to Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, Healdsburg
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, Healdsburg

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery

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.

People play bocce at dusk at the rustic Medlock Ames Tasting Room, Healdsburg
Medlock Ames Tasting Room, Healdsburg

Medlock Ames

Among the newer breed of 'rural hipster' wineries, Medlock Ames, founded by two college buddies in 1998, stands out as the place to start.

Tastings are hosted in a century-old but newly remodeled rustic space, and the property includes beautiful edible gardens as part of its award-winning landscape. You'll find estate-pickled vegetables as well as crisp Sauvignon Blanc at their rustic-chic Alexander Valley tasting room.

The 18-foot tall bronze statue of Gaia greets visitors to DeLoach Vineyards
DeLoach Vineyards, Santa Rosa

DeLoach Vineyards

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.

The tasting barn surrounded by fall vineyards at Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, Santa Rosa
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, Santa Rosa

Harvest Moon Estate & Winery

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.