Sonoma County Family Vacation Guide
Sonoma marks the southwestern edge of California’s best-known Wine Country, sharing a border with Napa County to the east. Napa may still be a bit better known, but Sonoma is no slouch in the wine-making department — besting the actual tonnage of grapes harvested in Napa by some 30 percent at last count. Sonoma also has made a name for itself among the culinary elite thanks to its olive oils. You can enjoy Sonoma County as part of a broader experience in the wine region or focus your entire tasting adventure here alone.
Sonoma County has two distinct regions, at least in terms of wine-making. There’s the Sonoma Valley to the south, including the large town of Sonoma, as well as the smaller towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood, and then there’s the Russian River region to the north, including the towns of Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.
You’ll find wineries in both the northern and southern parts of the county. Because the terrain changes from one place to the next, you may be surprised at how wines made from the same grapes can taste dramatically different even if they’re grown just a few miles apart.
There are some 250 wineries in Sonoma County, which has seventy-six miles of Pacific Ocean coastline along its western side. Despite the ocean’s pronounced effect on the area’s climate, it’s not the only water that affects the local vintners. Many rely on the Russian River and its tributaries, which help grapes grow along the mountains and plains alike.
Popular Wineries in Sonoma County
Sonoma County, like its neighbor Napa County, has so many wineries that you can’t possibly expect to visit them all. Also like Napa, Sonoma County has well-known brand names along with local favorites that may be new to you. Your best bet is to select three or four wineries a day, perhaps mixing and matching the best-known brands with labels you’d like to learn. To that end, here’s a look at some of the wineries with a wide enough distribution that you may have sampled their wines in the past.
Ever wonder how a vineyard like Kenwood can produce so much wine? Consider the fact that the winery has more than 125 stainless steel fermenting and upright oak tanks, along with some 14,000 French and American oak barrels. They must be doing something right with that equipment, too, as Kenwood wines consistently win 85- to 95-point ratings from top critics.
Sharing a name with its home town, Kenwood Vineyards is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. The vineyard was established in 1970 and continues to offer free tastings of up to four of its wines per day. If you really want to immerse yourself in the local experience, sample one of Kenwood’s Jack London labels, made from grapes grown in a vineyard formerly owned by the novelist. The winery is open from 10 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. daily. Learn more at kenwoodvineyards.com.
Located right in Sonoma town itself, Ravenswood Winery is best known for its Zinfandel. In fact, its Web site brags about being a “Department of Zinformation” — giving you a peek at the lighthearted humor you’ll find at this winery.
The Ravenswood motto — or battle cry, as they say — is “No Wimpy Wines,” and the winery challenges you to show your own mental muscle by making your own blend of its California varietals to take home. There are tours and tastings of its regular and premium offerings, plus barbecues held from Memorial Day through Labor Day to help you keep your stomach good and padded. The winery opens at 10:30 A.M. daily. Learn more at ravenswood-wine.com.
Geyser Peak is way up north, upward of Healdsburg on the Sonoma County map, in what is known as the Alexander Valley. It’s been a staple of wine making in the region since 1882, and today it’s owned by the worldwide beverage conglomerate Jim Beam Brands. The Wall Street Journal calls its tasting room one of the best in Napa and Sonoma counties — quite an endorsement given the amount and breadth of competition. There’s also a VIP tasting room that features the Reserve and Block Collection wines. Hours are 10 A.M. until 5 P.M. daily, and special events are promoted throughout the year. For details about what’s happening during your visit, go to geyserpeakwinery.com.
Located near the town of Glen Ellen, the Benziger Family Winery has a tractor-pulled tram that you can take for a look around the vineyards while you rest your weary feet for a solid forty-five minutes. The tour includes a look at underground caves, plus, of course, a stop at the tasting room.
The tram tour at Benziger departs several times a day depending on the season and demand — and seats fill up fast. Your best bet for ensuring that you get a ride is to contact the winery in advance at (888) 490-2739. They’ll give you a tour schedule over the phone, though reservations for the $10 tickets typically are not accepted in advance.
You can skip the ride and go straight to the good stuff, which is available daily from 10 A.M. until 5 P.M. Be sure to try the varietals for which the winery is best known, including its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. The winery’s Web site is benziger.com.
Best Time to Go to Sonoma
Sonoma weather is nice most of the year, but in summer it can be more crowded and hot. One of the most popular times to visit is fall, during the harvest, but that’s when wine makers are busiest and have the least time for their visitors.
If you’ve only got a day, spend it in downtown Sonoma. It’s just right for a rambling browse, with shops and restaurants surrounding a shady town square full of benches ready to rest on. Almost every building has a historical plaque out front and most are dated before 1900. You’ll find a few wine tasting spots here, so you won’t miss a thing.
- Wine-Tasting: Over 100 wineries surround Sonoma and a few have tasting rooms right in town, or use our guide to Sonoma Valley’s best wineries to plan your visits.
- Foodie Fun: A few great stops include B.R. Cohn for olive oils and Oak Hill Farm’s Red Barn Store at 15101 Sonoma Highway (April through Christmas). Farmers Markets are held in downtown Sonoma on Tuesday evenings, April through October and Friday mornings year round. From Farm to Table offers some special food and dining activities and Ramekins Culinary School brings in some of the area’s best chefs to teach you their specialties.
- Soak Up the History: Sonoma is one of the state’s oldest towns, with a Spanish mission, historic plaza, nineteenth-century barracks, important adobe homes and dozens of historical landmark buildings. Many of them are clustered around the town square.
- Get Moving: Down the road a bit south of town, Vintage Aircraft Company offers some fun flights in historic planes. Go a little further south to the Raceway and you can learn how to drive – fast – at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School.
- Train Town: Its miniature trains, just big enough for and adult and child to sit side by side are a must for anyone traveling with children.
Getting To Sonoma
Driving? Sonoma is 45 miles from San Francisco, 92 miles from San Jose, 68 from Sacramento and 200 miles from Reno, Nevada.
Flying? Horizon Air flies directly to Santa Rosa (22 miles away from Sonoma) from many cities in the western U.S. Otherwise, the nearest commercial airports are San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK).