Sonoma County is like that old line about the weather—if you don't like what you see, wait five minutes and it will change. The region is so diverse that when you're there, you always seem to find another Sonoma County around the next bend in the road. That shouldn't be a surprise if you consider the diversity of wines the county produces, from cool-weather Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to sun-baked Zinfandel and Syrah.
Wine, of course, is your best compass for navigating Sonoma County, but it shouldn't be your only guide. There are just too many other worthwhile diversions, from shopping and fine restaurants to the untamed outdoors. Whatever your inclination, you'll find that each of the four regions profiled in this tour—Sonoma Valley, Northern Sonoma, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast—has a distinct personality.
If you assume Sonoma Valley is Sonoma County, you won't be the first. It's an easy mistake to make. The valley is a tourism hub, home to major wine and historic attractions, plus some of the best dining and shopping in the entire county. Many visitors never get beyond the valley because it's geographically separated from the rest of the county, in a handsome crease of land stretching from Kenwood south to Carneros.
Activity in the valley revolves around the city of Sonoma and its shady, grassy central plaza, which is surrounded by shops, restaurants and galleries as well as tasting rooms from a number of nearby wineries, including Sebastiani. Local standby Sonoma Cheese Factory (2 Spain St., On The Plaza, Sonoma, California, 95476; (707) 996-1931; www.sonomacheese.com) has been doing business in Spain Street since 1931. As the county's oldest city, Sonoma is rich in history. Just off the plaza is Mission San Francisco Solano; established in 1823, it was the last mission to be built in California. A tour of the restored adobe complex doesn't take long, and provides a good education in the early days of Sonoma and Napa counties.
At the Benziger Family Winery, a tram takes visitors on a 45-minute tour of the estate’s expansive grounds.
There's plenty to do beyond the city limits. Follow Highway 12 north into the heart of valley and you'll find the towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel thrive in this area, which Native Americans named "The Valley of the Moon." Maybe you'll agree with famed author Jack London, who came here in 1905: "All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in."
London's ranch is now the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park, thick with oaks and Douglas firs, wildflowers and wildlife. Hike along the paths and visit the author's grave and the ruins of Wolf House—the mansion London had built, but which mysteriously burned just before he could move in.
It's hard to imagine a better backdrop for tasting wine than the village of Kenwood. With soils that are often rusty red, the vineyards climb from the valley floor into the Mayacamas Mountains. Some of Sonoma County's most notable wineries (Chateau St. Jean, Landmark Vineyards and Kenwood Vineyards, Benziger, among others) are clustered in the village, yet somehow it doesn't seem touristy.
For all the famous labels coming out of Sonoma, small, family-run operations remain the heart of the region's wine industry. Some of these have collaborated to open two cooperative tasting rooms in Kenwood: Family Wineries of Sonoma Valley (9200 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, CA 95452; (707) 833-5504 www.familywineries.com) and The Wine Room (9575 Sonoma Hwy. (Hwy.12) Kenwood, CA; (707) 833-6131; www.the-wine-room.com). The lineup of wineries is ever-evolving—some are widely known outside the region, others are not. Chances are, a winemaker will be in the tasting room when you visit, something you'll seldom find at other tasting venues.
Healdsburg sits at the intersection of two wine regions—Dry Creek and Alexander valleys—with the Russian River Valley nearby. Long a small town with an urbane attitude, it now rivals Sonoma Valley as the place to visit in Sonoma County. Healdsburg has become downright hip, in a down-home meets upscale kind of way. The town plaza is now busy, with smart boutiques and the county's trendiest restaurants.
Any day tour of Northern Sonoma should begin at Downtown Bakery and Creamery (308 A Center St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-2719; www.downtownbakery.net), on the plaza. Owner Kathleen Stewart used to make the desserts at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and now her bakery produces decadent sticky buns and blueberry scones that draw fans from miles around.
Seasons of the Vineyard (113 Plaza St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431.2222; www.seasonsofthevineyard.com) is a stylish emporium owned by Rhonda and Don Carano of Ferrari-Carano Vineyards. Devoted to the wine-country good life, the shop offers an eclectic mix of items for the home and garden, taking inspiration from California and Italy.
Moving north from Healdsburg, you can set off toward either Alexander Valley or Dry Creek Valley. Along the route to the former is Simi Winery, which offers the most informative and charming tour in the county.
In the heart of the valley is the Jimtown Store (6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 433-1212; www.jimtown.com), a bright destination for lovers of American kitsch. The place is chockablock with old-fashioned candy and toys, antiques and crafts. This is also a great place to pick up a baguette sandwich or a whole boxed lunch—hearty, California-gourmet fare that you can enjoy outside on the patio or take along for a picnic.
If you head for Dry Creek Valley, take the time to drive to the northern outskirts of the region to visit Preston of Dry Creek where they make Syrah and Barbera and some top-notch Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc; all the wines are organic.
"Hurry" just isn't a word that comes to mind as you drive along the back roads of this beautiful and sparsely populated region. Redwoods reach up to foggy skies, and vineyards roll into the hills. Wineries in the area are generally small, often housed in humble barns; it's possible you'll be the only visitor. But don't let the rustic character of the region deceive you—many wineries maintain a folksy heritage while pursuing world-class reputations.
But don't let the rustic character of the region deceive you. Along these roads are some of California's most famous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards—Allen Vineyard, Olivet Lane Estate and J. Rochioli Vineyards, among others.
You'll need to venture off the wine route to discover the secluded jewel of Sonoma County: Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (www.parks.ca.gov). California's coastal redwoods are the world's tallest living things and among the most long-lived; the Colonel Armstrong Tree, in the heart of the reserve, is 1,400 years old. This virgin grove of redwoods was preserved in the 1870s, and is the centerpiece of the 805-acre park. Inside, you can hike along shady trails and picnic in the heart of the forest.
For unspoiled views that rival those at Big Sur, drive along the twisting path of Highway 1. More than 30 miles of rugged coastline are open to the public, all part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach, and except for the village of Bodega Bay and a few vacation homes, the shore is untouched. Just don't expect to swim. The Pacific is chilly along the Sonoma Coast even on the hottest days of summer, and the currents can be treacherous.
You won't find a tasting room to visit along the coast. There are a few wineries in this remote region—Flowers is one prominent winery—but none are normally open to the public. That said, the coast is the hottest locale in Sonoma County for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards.Helen Turley's Marcassin vineyard is high in the coastal mountains north of the village of Jenner, and wineries such as Kistler Vineyards, Peter Michael, Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Williams Selyem harvest from there.
Also in the north is Fort Ross (www.fortrossstatepark.org), which embodies one of Sonoma's most surprising history lessons: It wasn't the Spanish who first settled in the area, as you might suppose, but the Russians. Fur trappers established this colony in 1812. Impeccably restored, their fort sits on a steep bluff overlooking the Pacific.
Near the mouth of the Russian River is the dramatic Goat Rock Beach, which takes its name from an ominous-looking rock formation. The beach is easy to walk, but beware the huge waves. At the far end of the beach, harbor seals lounge on the sand.
Farther south, and just across the dramatic harbor of Bodega Bay, are the Bodega Headlands, where high on the cliffs you get a fabulous view of the Pacific and the coast. Bring binoculars. From December through May, you can spot migrating California gray whales just offshore.
Bodega Bay is an active fishing port, and if the town's name sounds familiar, you must be a film buff. Bodega Bay was the hamlet under attack in Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. The old Potter School, the only remaining landmark of the film, was featured in a chilling scene—remember those blackbirds massing on the playground? The school (which is actually in Bodega, a smaller town inland from Bodega Bay) is now a private home, but movie buffs regularly stop out front for a photo.
Restaurant choices along the harbor are few; the best is Lucas Wharf (595 Hwy. 1, Bodega Bay, CA 94923; (707) 875-3522). You can eat in the dining room—a comfortable den with a cathedral ceiling and large windows—or just get a basket of fish and chips from the snack bar and sit on the pier. With the cool Pacific breeze in your face and the seagulls hovering overhead, it seems a world apart, rather than a mere hour away, from Sonoma Valley, where we started our tour. Such is the diversity of Sonoma County. From lush river landscapes and fertile vineyard valleys to chic country villages, it's all just down the road.