Less developed than Napa, Sonoma’s gaggle of ordinary towns, ranches, and wineries offer a genuine backcountry ambience—and a lower density of wineries, restaurants, and hotels. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do and see. Low-key wine tastings are held at small, family-owned wineries scattered along the woodsy roads of this 17-mile-long, 7-mile-wide valley bordered by the Mayacama mountains to the east and the Sonomas to the west.
The Carneros District
As you approach the Wine Country from the south, you must first pass through the Carneros District, a cool, windswept region that borders San Pablo Bay and marks the entrance to both the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Until the latter part of the 20th century, this mixture of marsh, sloughs, and rolling hills was mainly used as sheep pasture (carneros means "sheep" in Spanish). However, after experimental plantings yielded slow-growing, high-quality grapes -- particularly chardonnay and pinot noir -- several Napa and Sonoma wineries expanded their plantings here. They eventually established the Carneros District as an American Viticultural Appellation, a legally defined wine-grape growing area. Although about a dozen wineries are spread throughout the region, there are no major towns or attractions -- just plenty of gorgeous scenery as you cruise along Hwy. 121, the major route between Napa and Sonoma.
At the northern boundary of the Carneros District along Hwy. 12 is the centerpiece of Sonoma Valley. The midsize town of Sonoma owes much of its appeal to Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who fashioned this pleasant, slow-paced community after a typical Mexican village -- right down to its central plaza, Sonoma's geographical and commercial center. The plaza sits at the top of a "T" formed by Broadway (Hwy. 12) and Napa Street. Most of the surrounding streets form a grid pattern around this axis, making Sonoma easy to negotiate. The plaza's Bear Flag Monument marks the spot where the crude Bear Flag was raised in 1846, signaling the end of Mexican rule; the symbol was later adopted by the state of California and placed on its flag. The 8-acre park at the center of the plaza, complete with two ponds populated by ducks, is perfect for an afternoon siesta in the cool shade.
About 7 miles north of Sonoma on Hwy. 12 is the town of Glen Ellen. Although just a fraction of the size of Sonoma, Glen Ellen is home to several of the valley's finest wineries, restaurants, and inns. Aside from the addition of a few new restaurants, this charming town hasn't changed much since the days when Jack London settled on his Beauty Ranch, about a mile west. Other than the wineries, you'll find few real signs of commercialism; the shops and restaurants, along one main winding lane, cater to a small, local clientele -- that is, until the summer tourist season begins and traffic nearly triples on the weekends. If you haven't decided where you want to set up camp during your visit to the Wine Country, I highly recommend this lovable little rural region.
A few miles north of Glen Ellen along Hwy. 12 is the tiny town of Kenwood, the valley's northernmost outpost. Although Kenwood Vineyards' wines are well known throughout the United States, the town itself consists of little more than a few restaurants, wineries, and modest homes on the wooded hillsides. The nearest lodging, the luxurious Kenwood Inn & Spa, is about a mile south of the vineyards. Kenwood makes for a pleasant half-day trip from Glen Ellen or downtown Sonoma. Take an afternoon tour of Château St. Jean and have dinner at Kenwood Restaurant.
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.