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.
WHERE IS SONOMA WINE COUNTRY?
Sonoma is located in Northern California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco (that is, if you don’t hit traffic). It’s just west of Napa Valley and while the two valley’s run parallel to each other, Sonoma County stretches farther north and all the way to the coast.
Best Times to Visit
Sonoma is blessed with an (almost) always sunny, moderate climate year-round, which means there truly isn’t a bad time of year to visit. The bulk of harvest takes place in September and October, and while this is traditionally the busiest season, high temperatures and wildfires in recent years have made these month’s slightly less desirable to visitors.
You might instead consider February and March, during which you’ll likely catch the mustard bloom. A stunning, bright yellow carpet of mustard flowers cloaks the valley floor for about a month and makes for some seriously stunning photos. It’s also the off-season, so you’ll find smaller crowds, less traffic, and lower prices on lodging.
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.
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
Plan Your Sonoma Wine Vacation
SONOMA WINE TASTING ITINERARIES
- 10 MUST Sip Sonoma Wineries to Add to Your Next Grape Escape
- Sipping Wine at a Castle…in Sonoma
- How to Plan a Romantic Getaway in Healdsburg
- Northern Sonoma County Wine Tasting Itinerary
- Sip Trip: How to Pour Into the Russian River Valley
- Discover the Russian River Valley, A Short Guide
- Attention Foodies & Winos! A West Sonoma County Food & Wine Itinerary
- Three Perfect Pairings for Wine Tasting and Golfing
- One Stop Sipping: Downtown Healdsburg Tasting Rooms
- Napa Valley and Sonoma County Wineries: What the Locals Recommend
WHERE TO STAY IN SONOMA
- Romantic Escape: Farm House Inn
- Family Fun: Safari West
- Golf Getaway: Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
- Downtown Sonoma: Inn at Sonoma, El Dorado Hotel
- Healdsburg: H2 Hotel, The Duchamp Healdsburg, Hotel Healdsburg, Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza
Rent a car and do it yourself? Hire a driver? Uber? How to determine your wine country transportation options.
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.
Explore the Russian River. Rent a kayak, canoe, or SUP and cruise the Russian River, or in the summer, float down it in an inflatable, a favorite activity of locals. There are also plenty of little rocky beaches along the river for picnicking.
One of the best ways to experience the country backroads of Healdsburg’s wine country is via bike. Book a bike and wine tour with Getaway Adventures or do a self-guided tour. (Rent an electric bike for assistance with the rolling hills.)
Healdsburg Plaza is definitely worth a stroll. You can stumble upon some unique shops and spots for Happy Hour drinks, too, like Spoonbar or Duke’s. Noble Folk Ice Cream is a must on a hot summer day.
Sip in More of Sonoma Wine Country
Jess Lander is a freelance wine, booze, food, and travel writer based in Napa Valley. She’s a regular contributor to Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Wine Business Monthly, 7×7, Eater SF, Sonoma Magazine, Napa Sonoma Magazine, and the Napa Valley Register. Her work has appeared in many other publications, including Decanter, AFAR, Lonely Planet, and the SF Chronicle. She is also the author of The Essential Napa Valley Cookbook.