An Insider's Guide to Sonoma

Going behind the scenes of California's most-diverse wine region
May 23, 2012

Sonoma can't be done in one day. It's a big, rambling county that's twice the size of its neighbor Napa and has a patchwork of winegrowing regions that would put any GPS to the test.

I've lived in Sonoma County for 23 years and have watched it evolve and mature. It has become more upscale but retains much of its unpolished charm. Traveling the local wine roads all these years, I'm a veteran tour guide, which came in handy while we were working on the June 15 cover story for Wine Spectator, "Exploring Sonoma: An Insider's Guide."

My colleagues MaryAnn Worobiec, Augustus Weed and I took up the challenge of gathering the newest and most engaging things to do in Sonoma. It's such a diverse region that even in 22 pages we could only highlight a few of the county's many wineries, restaurants, hotels and activities.

We mapped out day trips to six key American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each an intimate exploration built around a particular theme, whether it's history-rich Sonoma Valley or foggy Russian River Valley and its Pinot Noirs.

Here are a few highlights:

Fine Dining: Cyrus and Farmhouse Restaurant in recent years have set the standard, but two veteran dining rooms have upped their game: Madrona Manor and Santé at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission.

Insider Dining Gems: Savvy locals have been hanging out at Zazu, Cafe La Haye, Café Citti and the Girl & the Fig for years, but there are three newish restaurants to add to the list: Scopa, Peter Lowell's and Terrapin Creek Café.

New on the Wine Trails: Few wine travelers venture into the true Sonoma Coast, that remote, mountainous area on the edge of the Pacific. Many top vineyards are located there but not a single tasting room until Fort Ross Vineyard opened its doors this summer to the public. It's worth the beautiful drive. An impressive new addition to Carneros is Ram's Gate Winery, a beautiful modern space designed by wine country's most famous architect, Howard Backen.

Lights, Camera, Winery: Francis Ford Coppola doesn't do anything on a small scale. The film director-vintner reportedly spent $30 million to bring a touch of Vegas extravagance to Sonoma. In addition to a winery and tasting room, there is a restaurant and a museum of his movie memorabilia and even a family-friendly swimming pool.

Maybe that will whet your appetite for a trip to Sonoma. I'm still discovering new things after more than two decades.

United States California Sonoma

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