Napa Valley may be the more famous area in California’s Wine Country, thanks to its world-class wineries and sought-after wines. However, for those looking for excellent wine with a more laid back wine tasting experience, Sonoma County is the way to go.
Wine tasting in Sonoma County has undoubtedly become more accessible in recent years, with many wineries offering experiences fit for everyone from the total novice to the self-proclaimed oenophile, and everyone in between. Still, if you’re new to tasting rooms, it can be a little overwhelming (especially if you end up at a winery that caters to a more seasoned wine lover looking for an exclusive high-end affair). For that reason, we’ve scoured Sonoma’s many wine regions, from the Russian River Valley to the Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley to the Dry Creek Valley, to bring you a list of the best wineries for newcomers.
Offering a range of activities, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and plenty of delicious Sonoma wine, these 10 Sonoma County wineries all make an excellent choice for anyone starting their love affair with wine (or are just new to visiting Sonoma vineyards and estates).
Situated on a beautiful property in Sonoma Valley’s Glen Ellen, Benzinger is known for its Biodynamic and green farming practices. That means a visit to the estate offers the possibility of hanging out with sheep who help remove overgrown crops, Scottish Highlander cattle (you know, the adorable ones who have bangs) who provide organic manure, and all of the bugs in the insectary that keep the vines healthy. If that sounds interesting, don’t miss the Private Tribute Estate Tour & Tasting ($60 per person), which includes an in-depth look at the biodynamically-farmed estate, as well as tastings along the way and a tram ride to boot. If you’d prefer to keep things a little more relaxed, you can reserve a seated outdoor estate tasting ($30) that includes tastes of five wines (and a charcuterie box if you want to add it).
Visits to Jordan Winery in the Alexander Valley are a delight because the wine is excellent, the staff is welcoming, and, because so many Jordan wines are best enjoyed with food, their culinary program is on point. At the Library Tasting ($50 per guest), you’ll enjoy different vintages of Jordan’s flagship wine paired with hors d’oeuvres and artisan cheese. Jordan also offers a memorable “Paris on the Terrace” lunch ($110) on its oak tree-shaded patio, which includes classic French bistro dishes paired with current releases and a library vintage cabernet sauvignon.
Part winery, part mercantile, this unique concept from sixth generation vintner Katie Bundschu and family is an unexpected gem in the bohemian enclave of Glen Ellen. Here, you can taste Rhône-style wines admist the beautiful garden setting, play a game of shuffleboard surrounded by old vines, and peruse the collection of artisan housewares, gifts, and jewerly in the mercantile, much of which is local, sustainably made, and sourced from female-run businesses.
You may know Ferrari-Carano because of its popular and affordable fumé blanc, but there’s much more to discover about this winery, including a grand villa, acres of verdant gardens, and an extensive portfolio of sustainably farmed wines that range from wide distribution (like that aforementioned fumé blanc) to winery-exclusive pinot noirs and more. During the Villa Terrace Outdoor Wine Tasting ($30 per guest), you’ll enjoy a flight of four award-winning reserve wines with a chance to learn more about the vineyard and winemaking practices. All of this while taking in views that will transport you from Sonoma County to the Italian countryside. Another fun way to experience the wines and estate is at the Sycamore Grove Wine & Brunch ($85 per guest), which includes Italian-inspired brunch dishes made with ingredients grown on the property, paired with a flight of reserve wines. This experience is only available on Sundays through October.
This highly regarded family-owned winery offers a variety of options for tasting its single-vineyard Sonoma wines (if you’re new to wine, that just means all of the grapes come from one vineyard), including the Sonoma House tasting ($45 per person), a casual introduction to the winery. If you want to explore vintages past, book the Library Tasting ($60 per person), offering a glimpse at how their wines age gracefully, or check out the Sparkling & Still Tasting Flight ($50 per person), a fun way to try pinot noir and chardonnay with bubbles and without. If you’re feeling fancy, the Sparkling & Caviar Experience ($110 per person) is exactly what it sounds like and is a fun way to explore the winery’s Blanc de Blancs, sparkling Rosé, and Brut sparkling wines.
“The Crush” is the first step a winemaker takes to turn the freshly-picked grapes into wine. Despite what that iconic grape-stomping “I Love Lucy” episode may portray, the foot-stomping technique has mostly been replaced by modern methods, usually on the “crush pad” (which can be easily hosed down). If you visit the family-owned Wellington Cellars, that is where you’ll taste the winery’s small lot, hand-crafted wines produced from 100-year-old vines, a pivot made recently to create more outdoor space for guests while the indoor tasting room was closed. Bonus for you? You’ll be tasting steps from where the winemaking action takes place, with tastings offered for $20 per guest or $35 if you would also like a tour. All questions are welcomed; the team wants you to feel right at home.
During your tasting at St. Francis Winery, be sure to keep an ear out for the 1,000-pound bronze bell cast in Italy that strikes every hour. Of course, you can hear it throughout the valley, so even if you don’t keep an ear out, you’ll likely harken it anyway. What you can also experience at this Certified Sustainable, family-owned winery (now celebrating its 50th anniversary!) are wine tastings paired with dishes created specifically to complement the wine. The Estate Pairing ($60 per person) includes four wines and four small dishes. In contrast, the Wine & Food Pairing ($95 per person) is a more elaborate five-course fine dining experience, with award-winning wines and seasonal dishes that highlight the best of Sonoma County’s bounty. Both are happening on the comfortable open-air patio, where you can enjoy the natural beauty of Sonoma Valley as you taste.
Dry Creek Vineyard was the first vineyard to plant sauvignon blanc in this area (before Dry Creek Valley was even a Sonoma County appellation). Today, the fumé blanc and sauvignon blanc remain the winery’s most popular offerings (though if you can snag a bottle of the winery-exclusive pinot noir to enjoy at home, you should). See why during a seated tasting ($25 per person), where you’ll enjoy limited-production and single-vineyard wines while also learning more about the history and philosophy of the winery. Once things open up, and people are hanging out in big groups again, you can also enjoy a bottle of chilled fumé blanc while playing bocce ball, an experience that’s available for up to 16 people ($150).
This winery is probably best known for its amenities — two swimming pools with private cabins fit for family fun, plus a cafe, a full-service restaurant, bocce courts, and a two-story gallery full of memorabilia from Coppola’s films, including Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather, the lace dress Winona Ryder wore in Dracula, the boots worn by Robert Duvall’s character Kilgore (“love the smell of napalm in the morning”) in Apocalypse Now, and much more you won’t find at a typical Sonoma winery. While a day by the pool is glorious, don’t skip the tasting room experiences, which include a First Flight Tasting ($35 per person) of limited production wines from vineyards throughout Sonoma, and a Portfolio Flight ($30 per person) of wines across the collections, including “everyday” wines and some more exclusive, limited production wines.
Sonoma-Cutrer is best known for its chardonnay, which is rich and creamy with just enough acidity, but don’t sleep on the award-winning pinot noir, made in a separate winery inside a classic barn. You’ll get to try two styles of both during the Heritage Tasting ($20 per guest). It’s a great way to start to appreciate the nuances of different varietals, and even better: it takes place on an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards. During non-pandemic times, you can also enjoy a picnic lunch and a little competition in the form of croquet on professional quality lawns via the Chardonnay and Croquet experience — definitely something to look forward to when restrictions in Sonoma County further loosen.