Sonoma Wine Country First-Time Visitor Guide

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  • by HANA-LEE SEDGWICK
  • on JANUARY 25, 2018
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Sonoma County is one of the most diverse areas in all of California, filled with hundreds of wineries, miles of rugged coastline, and dozens of charming towns throughout picturesque landscapes. And, while Sonoma County is known for its world-class wine – from chardonnay and pinot noir to merlot and zinfandel – Sonoma offers so much more than just wine tasting. Farm-to-table restaurants, rejuvenating spas, and beautiful hotels further exemplify the Sonoma County experience.

With so many offerings, we are the first to admit that planning a Sonoma Wine Country vacation can be a little overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. Before you pack your bags, check out our handy guide to Sonoma County’s most popular destinations. Whether you have 24-hours or are planning a lengthy visit, we’ll help you make the most of your time in Wine Country!


Healdsburg

Courtesy of Hotel Healdsburg

Located within the Russian River Valley, Healdsburg is a mecca for good food and wine. With charming storefronts, downtown tasting rooms, and a plethora of delicious eateries surrounding the town square, Healdsburg is a great choice for those oenophiles preferring to explore by foot.

Where to Stay: Hotel Healdsburg

This boutique hotel in downtown Healdsburg exudes sophisticated charm in the heart of Wine Country, offering a relaxing pool, onsite spa, and critically-acclaimed restaurant, Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. The restaurant, with its creative, seasonally-driven American menu, is a dining option not to be missed.

Why not use WineCountry Perks to book at Hotel Healdsburg? It’s as easy as clicking a button and includes a bottle of wine along with in-room chocolates and a much-deserved spa credit.

Where to Eat: Valette

Valette is the result of two talented brothers creating quintessential California cuisine, where acclaimed dishes highlight seasonal and organic ingredients in an upscale, Wine Country atmosphere.

Where to Drink: J Vineyards & Winery

Located just south of town, J Vineyards & Winery’s newly renovated visitor center brings wine, food, and hospitality together for an immersive experience not to be missed. Enjoy a relaxed tasting of their sparkling wines and pinots on the terrace, a tour of the facility, or an educational five-course wine and food pairing in their elegant Bubble Room – there’s plenty of experiences to choose from.

Don’t Miss: Oakville Grocery

Founded in 1881, Oakville Grocery is the oldest continuously operating grocery store in California. You’ll find gourmet sandwiches and picnic-friendly fare, as well as a nice selection of local wines all within an Old West-like ambiance.

Sonoma

Courtesy of Ram’s Gate Winery

Located just 53-miles from San Francisco, Sonoma offers an idyllic climate, beautiful hotels, and some of the area’s best wineries and eateries.

Where to Stay: Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

This breathtaking resort and spa is the ultimate luxury accommodation offering amenities like a rejuvenating spa, championship golf course, and a Michelin-starred restaurant – all within minutes of downtown Sonoma.

And, if that’s not enough, we’ve got an added reason to book your Sonoma stay. Leverage WineCountry Perks to book your room and enjoy 25% off the hotel’s best rates, complimentary wine tasting and in-room bottles, and specials on food and beverages.

Where to Eat: The Girl & The Fig

Located off the historic Sonoma Plaza, The Girl & The Fig has been dishing up French-inspired Wine Country cuisine since 1997. With a rotating menu that reflects what’s in season, a full bar, and tasty Sunday brunch, it’s a popular spot and for good reason.

Where to Drink: Ram’s Gate Winery

Known for chardonnay and pinot noir, Ram’s Gate impresses with its rustic and contemporary architecture, wine tastings with optional food pairings, and epic views.

Don’t Miss: Sonoma Plaza

Chock full of art galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms, the historic Sonoma Plaza is a charming place to stroll, shop, wine, and dine.

Sonoma Coast

Courtesy of Facebook: Timber Cove Resort Sonoma Coast

Home to 55 miles of rugged and awe-inspiring coastline, the Sonoma Coast is a dream destination for fishermen, surfers, seafood lovers, and wine enthusiasts alike, especially those that love cooler climate chardonnay and pinot noir.

Where to Stay: Timber Cove Resort

Tucked away on the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, this sprawling resort offers panoramic views, a romantic setting, and plenty of seclusion. In fact, the area has minimal cell reception, so you can fully unplug and unwind.

Need an extra push to get coastal? Book your getaway at Timber Cove Resort through WineCountry Perks and receive exclusive offers like a welcoming bottle of Sonoma wine, food and beverage credit, late check out, and free WiFi.

Where to Eat: The Tides Wharf

Located in the town of Bodega Bay, The Inn at the Tides is a great family-friendly inn, but if you’re not staying here, be sure to pay a visit to the restaurant. Here, you can enjoy fresh seafood and local wine while savoring the breathtaking ocean views.

Where to Drink: Fort Ross Vineyard

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Fort Ross Vineyard’s tasting room is the first and only tasting room along the coast in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Bring a picnic and enjoy the scenery while you sample the single-vineyard estate wines.

Santa Rosa

Courtesy of Facebook: St. Francis Winery

Santa Rosa is a centrally located destination providing easy access to all that Wine Country has to offer, including world-class wineries, a burgeoning culinary scene, interesting attractions, and plenty of history.

Where to Stay: Vintners Inn

Vintners Inn makes it easy to enjoy a relaxing visit to Wine Country, complete with 92-acres of surrounding vineyards, full service spa, and serene gardens. It’s truly a luxurious oasis in Santa Rosa.

Where to Eat: Himalayan Cafe & Grill

Though Nepali/Indian cuisine isn’t the first thing that comes to mind during a visit to Sonoma, this local favorite has some of the best ethnic food in the region. From tandoories to curries and fragrant soups, all items are organic, vegan, gluten free, and delicious.

Where to Drink: St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

Established in 1978, St. Francis Winery has been a favorite for its picture-perfect grounds, wide variety of limited production wines, and impressive wine and food pairings. Be sure to sample their fruit-driven, spicy Old Vine Zinfandel, and during the summer months, extend your visit for the outdoor movie nights.

Don’t Miss: Safari West

Yes, you can enjoy a fun safari adventure right in the heart of Wine Country! At the 400-acre wildlife sanctuary Safari West, view cheetahs, giraffes, monkeys, and zebras – all without a plane ride to Africa.

Guerneville

Courtesy of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery

Guerneville (pronounced Gern-ville) is a small, colorful community along the Russian River, where people flock in the summer months for sunshine, canoeing, and lazy river tubing. It’s also surrounded by redwoods and hiking trails, making it a beautiful place to visit regardless of the time of year.

Where to Stay: boon hotel + spa

Modern and minimalistic, the 14-room boon hotel is a top choice for those looking for more of an eco-chic than rustic place to stay. The vibe is chill and uber-cool, and a solar-heated saline pool, organic bed linens, and complimentary cruisers add to the overall experience.

Where to Eat: El Barrio

In need of a strong drink to warm you up on a chilly evening? El Barrio is your spot. A variety of tequila and mezcal flights and cocktails can be enjoyed alongside tasty bites like goat cheese queso and Mexican deviled eggs.

Where to Drink: Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery has specialized in chardonnay and pinot noir since 1982. The winery, built in 2000, sits atop a ridge overlooking the valley offering spectacular views while you sip.

Don’t Miss: Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Armstrong Redwoods may be a short drive from the town of Guerneville, but you’ll feel a million miles away while hiking amongst the majestic redwoods, most of which are over 500 years old. The largest tree in the park, standing at 310 feet high, also happens to be the oldest at 1,400 years old!

Russian River Valley

Courtesy of Farmhouse Inn

Known for its premiere cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir – and some of California’s most impressive zinfandels, for that matter – the Russian River Valley charms with its winding roads, towering redwoods, and hidden river communities.

Where to Stay: Farmhouse Inn

Run by a fifth-generation Sonoma family, Farmhouse Inn is a luxury bed and breakfast with a perfectly romantic and relaxing vibe. Rustic yet chic decor, incredible views, an onsite spa, and acclaimed restaurant make the Farmhouse Inn a top notch Wine Country escape.

Where to Eat: Farmhouse Inn Restaurant

Located inside the Farmhouse Inn, this must-visit restaurant is known for its Michelin-starred chef, thoughtful wine pairings, and ever-changing American menu highlighting locally-sourced ingredients.

Where to Drink: Iron Horse Vineyards

Head to Iron Horse for their variety of sparkling and still wines, which you can sample from the rustic outdoor tasting room overlooking the vineyards below.

Alexander Valley

Courtesy of Facebook: Diavola Pizzeria

Northern Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley is home to small yet charming towns like Cloverdale and Geyserville, as well as over 100 wineries. Here, you’ll find plenty of locally made artwork, friendly people, and excellent red wines, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Where to Stay: Geyserville Inn

Sonoma may be known for its pricey, luxury accommodations, but the Geyserville Inn offers a more affordable place to rest your head. Added features include complimentary Wi-Fi and an outdoor pool, and if you’re planning to bring Fido, the place is also pet-friendly.

Where to Eat: Diavola Pizzeria

Set in a historic landmark building dating back to the 1900s, Diavola offers rustic Italian food in a vibrant, comfortable setting. Don’t miss the house-cured meats, handmade pastas, and, of course, the wood-fired pizzas.

Where to Drink: Medlock Ames’ Alexander Valley Bar

This hidden gem serves handcrafted drinks with fresh, organic ingredients straight from the garden. Sit outside and soak up the views, and be sure to check out the live music and food trucks on Sundays!

Don’t Miss: Lake Sonoma

For those looking to hit the great outdoors, head to Lake Sonoma for a day of water skiing or fishing. The area is also great for hiking, mountain biking, and camping, if you’re looking to fully immerse yourself in nature.

Petaluma

Courtesy of Facebook: Lagunitas Brewing Co

Offering a wide range of accommodations from quaint B&Bs to five-star hotels, charming eateries, and the convenience of being within an hour of San Francisco, Petaluma is a wonderful destination for a getaway in Sonoma County.

Where to Stay: Metro Hotel & Cafe

Occupying a renovated mansion from the 1870s, Metro Hotel & Cafe offers an unexpectedly eclectic, French-inspired ambiance that is funky and unique. Complimentary organic coffee and pastries, as well as crepes to write home about, further enhance a stay here.

Where to Eat: Topsy’s Kitchen

Serving California farmhouse cuisine using only local and seasonal ingredients, Topsy’s Kitchen offers tasty food in a relaxing ambiance. Don’t miss the famous fried chicken!

Where to Drink: Lagunitas Brewing Company

With so many options for wine, Lagunitas offers a welcome respite from the grape juice. A large selection of craft beers, live music, and a laid-back outdoor patio make for a fun, lively experience.

Don’t Miss: Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park

Learn about Sonoma County’s history while you walk alongside prickly pear cacti and cattle to the park’s main attraction: the historic adobe building. Constructed in the early 19th Century, the adobe structure gives an interesting look into California’s early days.


Whether you’re a first-time visitor to Sonoma, a frequent visitor, or practically a local, we’re sure our guide to Sonoma County will help you make the most of this special place.

Cover image courtesy of Facebook: Iron Horse Vineyards


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Author

Hana-Lee Sedgwick

Hana-Lee Sedgwick, based in her hometown of Santa Barbara, California, specializes in West Coast wine, food and travel. Her work has appeared in publications including Santa Barbara Magazine, The Tasting Panel, and 7×7. She loves to travel, stay active, and share food and wine with friends. Follow her on Instagram at @wanderandwine or visit her blog, wanderandwine.com.

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