SEATTLE, December 1, 2014 — As a wine writer of over half a decade, there has been many discoveries of both great (and bad) wines as well as regions that simply are an awe to the senses of any oenophile and foodie. The sheer bounty of amazingly delicious wines and fresh local food found in Sonoma leave little room to possibly want more.
If you’re seeking an ultimate wine and food adventure inside the United States, you’d be hard pressed to find a more rewarding area than Sonoma. It’s a cornucopia of goodness that will reward the thirsty and hungry traveler with a feast for the palate and stomach.
While many may consider Napa to be the “crown-jewel” of the California wine scene in regards to how it put that State on the international stage so many years ago, Sonoma has quietly been next door, producing world class wines. It can be a somewhat daunting task to travel to Sonoma with the expectation that you’re going to see it all – unless you stay there at least a month, or longer. It’s a massive county with extremely diverse AVAs inside its borders.
Where does one begin? With 450 wineries available, most are small and family owned, it’s nearly impossible to decide but here are some great ones to check out:
Easily one of the oldest wineries of the greater Healdsburg area, Pedroncelli has been around since 1927 and produces wines of noble character at prices that won’t break the bank. Its Zinfandels, Cabs and Port are crowd favorites and you’ll be treated by some of the nicest people in the wine business, the Pedroncelli family. If you enjoy quality wines the have daily, then definitely check out this place – tasty wines, good people and an amazing history.
Benovia is located not far from downtown Santa Rosa and specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel as well as Grenache. It’s in a beautifully serene setting that is both relaxed and inviting. Its wines are extremely food-friendly and show a good places of terroir as well. Make sure you try the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here!
This is a very small family-owned winery that produces a vast array of wines, including; Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It does an excellent job of showing just how diverse Sonoma is for growing these varietals very well. Inspiration has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the New World at 100 years old. Be sure to try their Chardonnay as well.
A smaller Zinfandel-producing powerhouse, the wines of Mazzocco are exceptional at showcasing just how good the grapes of the Dry Creek Valley area can be. Although it’s built a reputation of producing exceptional Zinfandel wines, you should also try its Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. For those who love a good white, make sure to check out its Chardonnay Reserve.
Voted one of the best 101 wineries in America, Acorn is very small being owned by husband and wife team, Bill and Betsy Nachbaur. This team churns out some of the tastier wines you’ll find in the greater Healdsburg area. They show extremely good character, are food friendly and are quite stunning for the money. Acorn produces Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Dolcetto from its estate vineyards. At only 3,000 cases, however, you’ll need to make sure you buy them while you can each vintage, as they do tend to sell out quickly. Make sure to contact the winery to setup a tasting appointment.
Located near Kenwood, this lively winery doubles as an Italian bistro as well, complete with an outside eating area where guests can sip on tasty wines, eat artisanal pizzas and other tasty bites while often being entertained by live music or singing. It’s a definite stop for those feeling festive and want to feel as if they are being transported into Italy. Make sure to try their custom-made Prosecco while there.
Located up high in the hills above the Bennett Valley sits the stunning Flanagan Vineyards. This winery sports an incredible view of the greater Santa Rosa area and has wines of exceptional quality. Started in 1999 when founder, Eric Flanagan, purchased 40 acres of land on Bennett Mountain. It produces small lots of ultra-premium wine and does allow tasting appointments for folks on its mailing list and club members.
St. Francis Winery:
A very quick drive just east of Santa Rosa is St. Francis Winery which is easily a destination winery in part because of its award-winning restaurant which won the title of “Number One Restaurant in America by OpenTable. You’ll definitely want to take advantage of the food and wine pairing session that’s available daily.
Ridge Winery at Lytton Springs:
Few wineries enjoy the long-standing loyalty that Ridge has. Its long pedigree of award-winning wines go back for over thirty years. It’s difficult to find a winery that produces the sheer amount that Ridge does at the consistently great quality we see in its wines.
Jordan has an incredible reputation for the two varietals it focuses in on, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It’d be very difficult to find a more recognized Sonoma brand, located in Alexander Valley. The grounds are exquisite and its wines don’t disappoint. Definitely worth a stop and worth going on the tour which does include being fed as well.
Easily one of the most recognized brands in the entire world of wine, not just Sonoma. Ravenswood was started decades ago about winemaker, Joel Peterson, and has done more, perhaps, than any other winery in California to help put Zinfandel on the map at a global level. Its wines have International distribution and the quaint tasting room, just outside of the city of Sonoma, is worth the quick journey.
Near Forestville, Hartford produces some of the best Zinfandel and Chardonnay you’ll find anywhere in the New World. It also has award-winning Pinot Noir and rewards visitors with a classy tasting room experience. Hartford was named one of the top-10 wineries of 2010 by Wine and Spirits Magazine for good reason. The wines are amazing, it has a warm vibe to it and makes for a worthwhile tasting room experiences.
A part of Jackson Family Wines, Stonestreet is not far from the original mountain of where the Jackson family started in the Alexander Valley. Its darling is without a doubt, Cabernet Sauvignon and it produces wines that can age very well. We tasted one nearly 10 years old by using a Corvin unit and the wine was still showing very well. Stonestreet has a very cool heritage and pedigree so make sure to ask the staff here to share the story. Other interesting wines to try here are its Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Terrace Ridge Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend.
Hamel Family Wines:
Hamel is a large, modern winery – complete with its own wine caves – that still has a small feel to it. Perched right above the Sonama Highway, not far from Kenwood, Hamel rewards you with stellar wines, a passionate staff and wines that show very well. It’s a great place to relax a bit, enjoy the outside patio area while sipping on some very good vino.
Garden Creek Vineyards:
Garden Creek is easily one of the smallest wineries you’ll visit while in the area but its wines demonstrate the passion and love brought about by Justin and Karin Miller. It’s one of the more engaging tasting experiences to have the wines poured here by the owners. Sip on some amazing, food-friendly, well-balanced wines as they share their story of passion and love for making the best wine possible in the Alexander Valley.
Excellent places to eat:
The best thing going in Sonoma, outside of its fantastic wine, is the amazing quality of the food scene here. With a bit of research, it’s near impossible to have a bad meal and the following places will easily elevate your culinary experience.
Backyard Restaurant – Forestville:
Forestville takes passionate, local food to an entirely new level. This place has amazing food, a laid back ambiance and food that simply explodes in your mouth with a sense of the love that was put into preparing it. Chef/Owner, Daniel Kedan and his wife, Chef Marianna Gardenhire met while in culinary school and started Backyard in 2012.
They now create rustic food sourced from local farms and ranchers, prepared in a way that completely respects the quality of the ingredients. Its seasonal menu ensures you’ll always be rewarded with the most amazing meals all year long. This place easily is one of the best non-formal dining experience, anywhere.
Madrona Manor – Santa Rosa:
Located just outside of Santa Rosa proper, Madron Manor is an inn that has a Michelin Star-rated restaurant that provides a nearly out-of-body food experience. The multi-course is expertly prepared, expertly plated and served by one of the most professional wait staff you’ll find. Executive Chef, Jesse Mallgren, has a philosophy that great food is a matter of nature and not of nurture. He and his dedicated team produce amazing bites based largely on local ingredients. The menu rotates often but is always rewarding. The table-side-made ice cream is definitely a treat to behold.
Jesse is a master of melding flavors, texture and presentation that are really one of the best foodgasms one can enjoy. You’ll want to be sure to make reservations as the restaurant is often full.
The Girl and the fig – City of Sonoma:
If you’re looking for an incredible café kind of atmosphere, then you’ll do no better than to dine at the Girl and a Fig. The French-inspired theme here has cultivated a menu of freshness and goodness that frankly is among the best you’ll find anywhere. Owner Sondra Bernstein and Executive Chef John Toulze, have a seasonal menu that uses local ingredients and are prepared in such a way to find the restaurant easily packed out on most days.
The Girl and the Fig has a sharecropper arrangement with the owners of Benziger and Imagery Winery in near-by Glen Ellen which are completely biodynamic. What you’ll find here are hearty dishes, prepared with love with generous portions and an atmosphere that can be both laid-back and non-pretentious.
Partake by KJ – Healdsburg:
Yet another casual dining experience brought to us by the folks at Kendall Jackson. This means you’ll find some great KJ wines to pair with the exceptional food that’s very well prepared. The décor is comfortable, the atmosphere, laid back – it’s a place you could take most anyone to and not be disappointed. The freshness of the food and originality in some of the dishes are enough to keep folks coming back again and again.
An old-school hotel that’s had some remodeling work done, is modestly priced and downtown Petaluma. The rooms are well appointed, however, do not have A/C but oscillating fans are available if you call the front desk and request them. Still, it seems a bit odd to have a hotel in the heart of an area that gets rather hot in the summer time and overlook having A/C.
Hotel LaRose – Santa Rosa:
LaRose is another retro hotel that’s had a great deal of work done to it. The in-room décor is appropriately dated to match the overall vibe of the hotel. It’s located downtown Santa Rosa and makes you feel comfortable from the moment you walk in. The well-appointed lobby is a nice throwback to an era gone by.
Casa Verde Vineyards Inn – Kenwood:
A bed and breakfast with a restaurant that grows much of the food it prepares. Raised in organic gardens, the food at Casa Verde continues the theme of local, fresh, sustainable. Guest quarters are very homey feeling, with a separate living area off from the bedroom. There’s a fireplace, air jet bubble tub and satellite T.V. as well.
Owner Steve Rose is a well-known chef in the area and prides himself on preparing amazing food that helps punctuate the comfortable surroundings of the guest quarters.
Flamingo Resort and Hotel:
The Flamingo is cool, retro-cool and is easily one of the most modernized vintage hotel from the 50s era that you may find. The remodeling done to the Flamingo is fairly new but uses a décor that makes you feel as if you’re living in the past. Its beds are amazingly comfortable, the rooms might be some of the nicest in the greater Santa Rosa area of any hotel. It’s conveniently located just heading out of Santa Rosa on 4th street which is actually the road that turns into the Sonoma Highway.
There are tremendous amenities to be found here, including a spa, health club, restaurant, two Olympic-sized swimming pools, five tennis courts and a vibe to it that is simply remarkable. Easily, one of the coolest places to stay, especially if you have a family.
Tips for planning your trip:
Make sure to hit up the Sonoma Tourism Board for an exhaustive list of ideas of things to do and also the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers for all the wine-related things going on. There’s never a bad time of the year to travel to Sonoma but bear in mind that the summers do get very hot. The late spring or early fall seem to be the most comfortable times of the year to go as the temperatures are in the mid-70s.
Additional resource: Visit Santa Rosa
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