Sonoma Valley is currently home to about 45 wineries (including California's first winery, Buena Vista, founded in 1857) and 13,000 acres of vineyards. It produces roughly 76 types of wines, totaling more than five million cases a year. Unlike the rigidly structured tours at many of Napa Valley's corporate-owned wineries, on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains tastings are usually low-key and tours free.
The wineries tend to be a little more spread out here than they are in Napa Valley, but they're easy to find. Still, it's best to decide which wineries you're most interested in and devise a touring strategy before you set out, so you don't do too much backtracking.
I've reviewed some of my favorite Sonoma Valley wineries here -- more than enough to keep you busy tasting wine for a long weekend. If you'd like a complete list of local wineries, be sure to pick up one of the free guides available at the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.
Wannabe Winemakers Pack Up for Sonoma's "Grape Camp"
It's called "Grape Camp" but it's a decidedly adult experience -- with much more potent bug juice this time. I joined this tour group of the Sonoma region, led by the Sonoma Winegrape Commission's friendly, boundlessly energetic Larry Levine -- our de facto camp counselor, complete with a whistle around his neck. Around 25 of us (mostly couples) were bused around to enjoy extravagant, private dinners overlooking vineyards, and saw every step of the winemaking process at a half dozen wineries, including Gloria Ferrer, Marimar Estate (www.marimarestate.com), and Stonestreet Winery (www.stonestreetwines.com), which let us blend wines the way their winemakers do. We learned that this is a difficult task, considering that the wines are blended while they're young and still slightly bitter. A wine-pairing course at Relish Culinary Adventures (www.relishculinary.com) divided us into teams and let us whip up pizzas to pair with our assigned wine. My team fumbled for ideas at first but won by matching a full-bodied merlot with our own pie of béchamel sauce, jack cheese, Italian sausage, pear, and sweet basil -- so we had bragging rights for the afternoon.
The schedule was jam-packed, starting with a 7am bus trip to the vineyards to pick grapes for an hour or so. This prompted a few jokes about tourists paying to pick grapes, but the scenery -- in the heart of the Valley, with the mountains visible in the distance -- was exhilarating. I chatted up the vineyard reps for winemaking tips while I picked pinot noir.
Dinners were extravagant over-the-top treats: Our first meal at Arista Winery (www.aristawinery.com) included a succulent sous vide-cooked steak, whipped up for us on-site by Charlie Palmer himself, while we sat outdoors at a long table dotted with 50 bottles of wine from the Russian River Valley. We were happy campers by the time we boarded the bus back to the inn. The second night's meal was set in the gorgeous backyard of winemaker Tom Klein's mansion and had the lively theme of a cook-off between two chefs, Josh Silvers and Jeff Mall; each course included two anonymous dishes, and we voted for "right" chef or "left" chef at the end.
The tour's only downside: The long hours tired some campers. "Who wouldn't cut off their left pinky for an extra hour of sleep tomorrow morning?" one man commented on the bus after the second dinner, close to midnight.
But it's clear that the itinerary is packed to give customers their money's worth. Of course, it's also in the tourism board's interests to show off the best of Sonoma -- they do, and you benefit at every turn. If they were secretly trying to convince us all to move to Sonoma to make wine, I was sold. No, really: I moved from New York to San Francisco.
Grape Camp is held at the end of September, with varying dates and itinerary stops. Visit www.sonomagrapecamp.org for more details.
A Garden Detour
Garden lovers should pull over for a gander at Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, 23570 Arnold Dr., Sonoma (tel. 707/933-3010; www.cornerstonegardens.com). Modeled in part after the International Garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France's Loire Valley and the Grand-Métis in Quebec, Canada, the 9-acre property is the first gallery-style garden exhibit in the United States and includes a series of 22 ever-changing gardens designed by famed landscape architects and designers. With a recently added children's garden featuring a brightly colored water tower surrounded by a sand moat and buckets, shovels, and plastic plumbing fittings, this is a great spot for the whole family. When you get hungry, stop by the Blue Tree Café, which offers light breakfasts, pastries, and espresso drinks along with a seasonal lunch menu including soups, salads, and sandwiches. It's all served on nifty metal trays, perfect for carrying out to the gardens; there's also seating indoors and out in front. Another plus for those with kids: The gardens include a cleverly installed willow reed maze that's about 3 feet high and only has one entrance/exit right in front of the cafe, so if you're sitting out front and the kids get bored, you can safely let them run through the maze. If you get inspired, you can load up on loot here that will help your own garden grow -- from furniture and gifts to plants, garden art, and books -- as there are several interesting shops here, too, including a personal favorite and LA transplant: Zipper, which is packed with incredible home finds and gifts at very reasonable prices. Open 10am to 5pm daily (gardens close at 4pm), year-round (Café opens at 9am). Admission to the gardens is free. You can take a self-guided tour anytime; installations are marked with descriptive plaques. Docent tours are available for groups of 10 or more by appointment.
A Paean to Peanuts
Fans of the “Peanuts” comics and TV shows should try to spend a few hours in happy absorption at the surprisingly lavish Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center (tel. 707/579-4452; www.schulzmuseum.org), at 2301 Hardies Lane in Santa Rosa. Sparky, as he was called, made ungodly amounts of money off the licensing of his creations, and so his estate has the financial wherewithal to burnish his reputation at this two-story facility, which would be worthy of any major artist.
There’s lots to see and do at this two-level gallery-cum-library. Of course, there’s tons of strips from the entire run of the series—always the original, never copies—and biographical information about Sparky, who died in 2000 (this place opened in 2002). Even more interesting are the many tributes to the strip by other artists, such as a life-sized Snoopy made of Baccarat crystal, Christo’s “Wrapped Snoopy House,” and a wall mosaic of 3,588 tiles by Yoshitero Otari. The museum preserves Schulz’s work room, with its worn drawing board, bottles of Higgins ink, and an unremarkable book selection. Also fun is the non-stop slate of showings of classic TV specials and movies in a screening room. (Kids will particularly enjoy that as well as the play area outside.)
The museum is open 11am to 5pm weekdays, 10am to 5pm weekends, and is closed on Tuesdays except in the summer. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for youth, seniors, and students.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.