Pros: All the wine country perks without the crowds and commercialization of Napa
Cons: Smaller, fewer wineries, less of a "spa" town
My husband and I recently returned from a two day trip to Sonoma Valley. Although we have visited "California's Wine Country" several times in the past (and by that, I mean Napa Valley and not the Central Coast, which is in fact where most of California wines are produced), somehow we had managed to skip through Sonoma in order to visit the larger, more well-known wineries in Napa. However, after a lovely visit to Northern California's less touristy, less crowded, and utterly charming Sonoma Valley, I have been converted.
First off, the details:
We traveled during the first week of September, and the WEATHER was just perfect. A warm mid-80's in the daytime, dropping to 70 in the evening. After experiencing many cool, if not downright chilly, "summer" evenings in San Francisco, this weather was a welcome change.
September is also the very beginning of the CRUSH season, which is the period when the grape harvests begin, and incidentally, a great time for those of you budding photographers who, like me, enjoy the idea of snapping postcard-worthy pictures of winding vines dotted with plump grapes. (Yum!) Even for the non-photographers, crush season is a good time to visit as you may see many of the wineries beginning to spring to action.
We also traveled MID-WEEK, which I highly recommend, if you are able to, as you will avoid the weekend crowds and traffic. From the Bay Area, Sonoma is a relatively painless road trip with some truly beautiful vistas. We live in Silicon Valley by Stanford, and I was pleasantly surprised that our round-trip traveling time was just 3 hours, and that even includes driving through San Francisco and over Golden Gate Bridge. Previous visits to Napa have taken close to 3 hours each way, due to traffic along Hwy 29. Despite this, I still like Napa...but Sonoma scores some major points with its ease of entry and exit.
And now, on to the WINERIES:
I admit, I did lots of research prior to our trip and came up with a list of 6 wineries I wanted to visit. As it turned out, we only ended up seeing 4 of them, but that was just fine by me because now I have an excuse to return!
Starting from the southern part of Sonoma in the Carneros district, our first stop was VIANSA WINERY, a very beautiful (if somewhat corporate) Italian-style winery complete with a small deli marketplace (with yummy spreads, sauces, and dressings to tempt your palate) in the tasting room. Now, I am not one of those oenophiles who can't stand corporate wineries; as long as they have ambiance, good wine, and beautiful grounds, I'm a fan. There is a lovely hilltop area that overlooks the Sonoma marshlands (much prettier than that sounds), an outdoor grill, and a trellised picnic area -- all of which hint to you that Viansa would be a great place to host an event. And indeed, if price is any indication of popularity, a $10,000 price tag for a Saturday evening wedding at Viansa tells you just what type of place it is! Apparently, beauty does not come cheap in Wine Country. Here's a little factoid about the winery: the name is a melding of the husband and wife team that started the place, VIcky ANd SAm. Very cute.
Tasting fee: Complimentary, with your choice of up to 4 wines.
Of note, Viansa wines are not distributed, so purchase them at the winery or through their website.
Further north on 121 is GLORIA-FERRER CHAMPAGNE CAVES, owned by the same family that operates the very large Freixenet winery in Spain. I must admit, this was a tad bit of a disappointment, as I had really been looking forward to the tour through the champagne caves...and found out that the caves are currently closed to the public since the wines are undergoing their second bottling. That said, I still learned quite a bit about "methode champenoise" and enjoyed a refreshing glass of bubbly while taking in the scenery on the winery's outdoor patio.
Tours are complimentary, although tastings are charged per glass (around $2 to $8).
Next stop, GUNDLACH-BUNDSCHU WINERY, listed as a Fodor's Choice for picnic grounds. This is a smaller winery located a little off the beaten path but closer to Sonoma Plaza. There isn't much that is corporate about this place, and in fact, it was hard to squeeze in for a tasting in their small tasting room. So we decided to forego the wine and set up a little picnic outside instead. Unfortunately, Fodor's does not mention that the view from Towles Hill is not really as amazing as it states, nor does it mention that if you opt for one of the picnic tables by the winery instead, you will be beating off swarms of yellow jackets within 5 minutes of opening up your picnic items! Needless to say, we ended up having our little picnic within the safe confines of our car! Slightly disappointing.
Tasting fee: Complimentary tasting of 4 selected wines.
Last winery stop (and the very best!!): MATANZAS CREEK WINERY & GARDENS in Bennett Valley. Now this one is definitely off the beaten path. In fact, it was so off the beaten path that we thought we were lost. But it is well worth the extra effort (and in actuality, it is only 15 minutes away from Glen Ellen). This winery is just breathtaking. In addition to the vineyards, there is a lavender garden with scents that will put you in the most serene of moods. I have been told that June is the best time to visit the garden, as the lavender is in full bloom then. And the wines! They are truly wonderful -- the 1999 Chardonnay is just about the smoothest, most buttery wine I have tasted in recent history. By the end of our tour through 7 of their top wines (our guide poured us an extra tasting of their extra-special (and pricey, at $155 a bottle) Journey Meritage), I was pretty much drunk on Matanzas Creek! The tasting room is filled with the aroma of good wine and lavender -- products of each are available to purchase. This was such a star winery that we joined their wine club on the spot.
Tasting fee: $5 for 6 tastings (can be used toward your wine purchases).
Of note, only the Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are distributed outside of the winery.
And I didn't even get to our Sonoma spa and lodging experience! Well, a separate review on the highly recommended LODGE AT SONOMA VALLEY will be coming soon. Until then, enjoy your visit to the untarnished California Wine Country. I am already planning a repeat visit in the spring when the hills are filled with mustard blooms!