Our Sonoma Wine Travel Guide shares a brief history of the region, terroir, where to sip, where to stay and things to do beyond the vines
Sonoma wine country is often touted as Napa Valley’s little brother, but while the two wine regions are neighbors, they couldn’t be more different.
For starters, while Napa Valley built its reputation on Bordeaux-inspired wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma is most lauded for its Burgundy-style wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Sonoma is also double the size of Napa Valley and has much more potential for diversity — they grow more than 60 grape varieties — thanks to a wide spectrum of microclimates and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Sonoma is also said to be more, in a word, chill. While there’s no doubt it has solidified itself as one of the top wine-producing regions in not only the United States, but the world, there’s less pomp and circumstance on Sonoma’s side, though if you’re looking for luxury, you can certainly find that too.
While grapes were planted by Russian colonists in Sonoma County’s Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast as early as 1821, Sonoma’s wine history is more so rooted in the Mission San Francisco Solano, the final of the 13 California missions to be built in 1823 and located on what’s known today at the Sonoma Plaza. There, thousands of vines were planted to make sacramental wine.
The mission was secularized after just 11 years and vine cuttings from the mission’s vineyards were used to start new vineyards throughout Northern California. By 1855, California wine pioneer Count Agoston Haraszthy arrived from Hungary and purchased a vineyard in Sonoma Valley, naming it Buena Vista (which is still in operation today). This was the start of fine winemaking in Sonoma wine country and after going back to Europe to study viticulture, the Count returned with more than 100,000 cuttings of prized grape varietals from Europe’s top wine producing regions.
By 1921, there were 256 wineries in Sonoma, but of course, Prohibition nearly wiped them all out. Less than 50 remained by the time it was repealed and Sonoma’s second renaissance didn’t get going until the 1970s following an American wine boom. Today, Sonoma has roughly double the wineries it did pre-Prohibition.
Sonoma wine country is extremely vast — more than double the size of Napa Valley.
It’s home to just under 500 wineries, but also grassy rolling hills, dairies, and farms. There are over 62,000 acres of vines planted in Sonoma County throughout some extremely diverse microclimates, represented by 18 federally-recognized AVAs.
These AVAs range dramatically from the super foggy and cool Sonoma Coast (made for premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production) to the warm, sun-soaked Alexander Valley, where Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet thrive.
TOP GRAPE VARIETIES IN SONOMA
As the most diverse wine growing region in California, Sonoma County grows a whopping 66 grape varieties, but these are the most common.
White Wine Grape
RED Wine Grape
WHERE TO SIP
There are nearly 500 wineries to visit in Sonoma County, which makes narrowing down your choices extremely difficult. These are must-adds to your Sonoma itinerary.
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
WHERE TO STAY
Planning Your Sonoma Wine Country Vacation
BEYOND THE VINES
If you’re looking for things to do besides sipping in the Sonoma wineries, we have A LOT OF IDEAS for things to do in Sonoma that go well beyond the vines.