Napa may have been the first California wine region to gain international recognition, but the first California grapes came from Sonoma County. In the 1820s, Franciscan monks planted vines at Mission San Francisco de Solano which still exists in the heart of the town of Sonoma.
Today, Sonoma County, well known for its chardonnay and pinot noir, attracts over 2 million visitors a year to its historic towns, rolling green hills lined with row after row of grapevines, and more than 400 wineries, located in six wine growing valleys. With 18 different viticulture areas spread over 1,768 square miles, it would take months to properly sample all Sonoma County wines.
Sonoma Plaza, an 8-acre, historic, Mexican era style plaza in the center of friendly, small-town Sonoma is a great place to start a wine tour of this town. Historic buildings surrounding the Plaza house over 25 premium wine tasting rooms. Wines from Sonoma County can be sampled by strolling around the pedestrian friendly plaza without driving all over the county.
Sonoma Wine Tasting
The tree lined town of Sonoma offers something different, but still in the spirit of Sonoma. A typical wine tasting experience involves standing at a crowded counter sampling the winery’s offerings. But in the small town of Sonoma, most of the tasting rooms are designed like a living room or comfortable lounge to sit, relax, and slowly work your way through the tasting menu. Even many of the tasting rooms that do their pouring at a counter offer bar stool seating for their customers. What a refreshing change from the usual “belly up to the bar” seen at so many other wineries. Parking your car and tasting on foot makes the experience safer, with a chance to wander through the historic trappings of this early California town, where many of the original buildings still stand.
Lake Sonoma Winery
We started at the recently refurbished Lake Sonoma tasting room at 134 Church Street. As the only guests there on a rainy day, we had the full attention of the wine tasting manager, Kelly, and enjoyed several tastings of Sonoma’s finest wines. The 2015 Lake Sonoma Winery Chardonnay out of Russian River Valley, one of Pam’s favorite wine regions, is an excellent chardonnay with crème brulee, vanilla and honey accents. We also loved the 2015 Tributaries White Blend from the Russian River Valley, and the 2015 Pinot Noir Clone 667 out of Carneros.
The wine tasting room appears out of a remodeled house. As Kelly explained, “the life of the party is always in the kitchen.” They turned the kitchen counter into the tasting room bar with plenty of comfortable bar stools around it. The former living room is now the “lounge” made for an even more relaxed wine tasting experience. And, the former dining room serves as a space for those special wine club member and food pairing events.
Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge, at 35 East Napa Street, occupies a historic 116-year-old building, formerly home to a general store. The large and handsomely appointed tasting lounge has rock walls, rustic timber supports, exposed beams in the ceiling, wood floors and a dramatic wall of wine bottles at the back of the rom. Accented with vintage armchairs and couches comfortably nested around private tables, visitors can relax over wines paired with generously laden boards of pate, charcuterie and cheeses. The main tasting room is anchored by a large tasting bar in the center. Chairs line the bar so you can sit and sip comfortably without standing, and we did, for nearly two hours!
We sampled seven wines, particularly enjoying a 2014 Pinot Noir sourced from 4 different vineyards in the Anderson Valley. Bright fruit color with chocolate in the nose, this wine finished with a slight spiciness that did not detract from its essential balance and complexity. We liked it, so we purchased it.
Bennett Valley Cellars
The tasting room for Bennett Valley Cellars, at 127 E. Napa Street, is small but mighty. This narrow, unpretentious room surprised us with comfortable seating at a long white L-shaped bar. Iliana, our hospitality hostess, was as vivacious as she was knowledgeable about both premium chardonnays and the Pinot Noirs we tasted.
Iliana hails from Italy, as did the original winery founder, Emilio Zanin. Pictures on the walls show the 60-year generational history of this family winery established on the 40-acre Simpatico Ranch Vineyard in the Bennett Valley AVA. In Italian, “Simpatico” means “likable” and that is exactly how we found the 2015 Chardonnay, a Reserve Limited Release that exudes rich, buttery characteristics with complimentary oak nuances and a silky yet crisp finish. But like Iliana says, “You’ll dream about it!”
Now that we’ve given you a reason to linger in Sonoma, you’re going to need some recommendations for places to stay and eat.
For lunch try the Sonoma Cheese Factory on 2 Spain Street for authentic barbeque. The pulled pork sandwich caught our attention and was just as delicious to eat as it looked on the plate. Sonoma Cheese Factory also offers wine tasting. A gourmet store as well, this place is perfect for putting together a picnic lunch and has been for over 85 years.
In the evening, we dined on gourmet Portuguese cuisine at La Salette, 452 First Street East, adding the optional wine pairing with dinner. Generous pours, perfectly paired with the appetizers, entrees and dessert, allowed us to sample more Sonoma County wines and provided an extra special dining experience. We do recommend making reservations in advance as this sophisticated, tile-mural trimmed bistro has quite a local following.
The Girl and a Fig at 362 West Napa Street, is famous for its gourmet food. Just across the streetfrom the northwest corner of Sonoma Plaza, this restaurant has been serving fine, farm-to-table country French entrees for over 20 years. Proprietor, Sondra Bernstein, specializes in pairing “Rhone-alone” wines with her Sonoma-French cuisine. Gary claimed the pastis-scented mussels with garlic, leeks and herbs ranked as the best he’s ever tasted. Pam’s short ribs, served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and roasted cauliflower, paired beautifully with a flight of red wine varietals served in a quirky assortment of wine, water and compote glasses. This casual bistro comes equipped with a full cocktail bar, great dessert offerings and its very own newspaper, the “Fig Chronicles.”
If You Go
For overnight stays, there are plenty of hotels on the Plaza or within nearby walking distance including Sonoma Hotel, a 16-room historic boutique hotel on Sonoma Plaza; Ledson Hotel, a luxury hotel with six guestrooms on Sonoma Plaza; MacArthur Place, a 64-room luxury hotel and spa just four blocks from the Plaza; and the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn, just one block from the Plaza.
Or brave souls can book one of five rooms at the Swiss Hotel, also on the Plaza. Rumored to be haunted, one ghost in particular, “Tom,” the life of the party at the Swiss Hotel bar, visits frequently according to local folklore. Regardless of the alleged ghosts, the Italian cuisine, full bar, and outdoor seating, make this place perfect for casual dining.
For more information on the town of Sonoma, wine tasting rooms, lodging, and restaurants, visit: SonomaPlaza.com.
Now park your car, wander through the historic trappings of small town Sonoma, and enjoy some of the best wines that Sonoma County has to offer.
Pamela and Gary Baker are freelance writers based in Northern California. They’ve written for regional, national and international magazines, newspapers and websites including Via Magazine, Destinations, and Australia and New Zealand Magazine. Pamela is also a wine blogger at Chardygirl.com. To read more of their stories, visit PamandGaryBaker.com