The second most renowned North American wine region, Sonoma, has long suffered the fate of being compared to the more famous wine valley that runs parallel to it: Napa. But outside of sharing a border, these two regions couldn’t be more different.
Sonoma wine country is actually double the size of Napa Valley, extending far beyond the town of Sonoma to worthwhile destinations like Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley, the funky town of Sebastopol, and even the Pacific Ocean.
Home to more than 60 grape varieties (though Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars) and upwards of 400 wineries spread throughout 19 AVAs, Sonoma is also known for its abundance of farms, creameries, breweries and distilleries.
Due to its vastness, there are two common mistakes visitors to Sonoma make. They either plan only a day or two, hardly scratching the surface, or they schedule winery appointments, meals and hotel stays without realising it can easily take an hour to get from one to the next. As a result, they’re constantly running late to reservations on what’s supposed to be a relaxing holiday. By focusing instead on a specific area, you can spend time experiencing rather than rushing, and really immerse yourself in the best of what Sonoma has to offer.
The town of Sonoma: The perfect place to begin
Understandably, most people who visit Sonoma wine country start with the town of Sonoma. An easy, one-hour drive from San Francisco, Sonoma is anchored by the charming and historic Sonoma Plaza. The birthplace of the California flag, this square played a pivotal role in the state’s declaration of independence from Mexican rule. The historic buildings and adobes are now occupied by shops, wine tasting rooms, hotels and restaurants. Miles of vineyards and winery estates surround the town, offering a plethora of tasting options.
Check into the MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa for the weekend. Located in the heart of Sonoma and within a mile of the Sonoma Plaza, this idyllic resort recently completed a massive transformation.
The Spa at MacArthur is accented with modern, luxury elements, new treatment rooms, locker rooms complete with steam showers, an outdoor Hydrotherapy Spa Garden and Lounge, and a brand-new outdoor pool space complete with private pool cabanas. The Spa at MacArthur’s treatment menu offers a range of unique, bespoke therapies including skincare, body renewal treatments, massage techniques and 100-minute Journeys that include holistic healing elements.
Relax at the pool or spa before dinner at Layla, MacArthur’s Mediterranean restaurant, and then enjoy a nightcap at The Bar, a Gatsby-era lounge serving signature cocktails and late-night nibbles.
Embark on an easy stroll to the Sonoma Plaza for a Lavender Mist mimosa and breakfast in the back garden of Sunflower Caffé, known for simple and healthy dishes made from hyper-local ingredients. Afterwards, take a walk around the square, pop into interesting-looking shops, and visit Sonoma State Historic Park, where, for a $3 admission fee, you can access six historical sites, including the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the 21 California missions built.
Book a lunchtime tasting at Three Sticks Wines, housed in the Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe, the longest-occupied residence from California’s Mexican Period. The food and wine pairing ($110) includes a flight of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (crafted by Bob Cabral, former winemaker for the renowned Williams Selyem) paired with five bites from Sonoma Plaza restaurant El Dorado Kitchen. Or, you can make it a three-course private lunch.
Schedule a second wine tasting in the intimate salon of Sojourn Cellars, which sources fruit for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from some of the top vineyards in Sonoma County. Moreover, Sojourn is unique in that it also crafts Cabernet Sauvignon from both Sonoma and Napa. Through Sojourn’s comparative tasting format, you’ll learn to identify the nuances of each vineyard source.
Dine at Valley, an unassuming, French-inspired wine bar, restaurant and bottle shop that opened inside an adobe in 2020. Valley’s list is focused on natural and minimal intervention wines and simple, shareable plates. It combines seasonal ingredients with international flavours like XO eggs, Don Bocarte anchovies, and lamb with garlic yoghurt and za’atar. End the night with a glass of Champagne from Sigh, a glamorous bubbly bar located just around the corner from Valley.
Following a light breakfast at The Porch at MacArthur, a grab-and-go café, drive out to the bucolic Carneros AVA, which spans parts of both Napa and Sonoma. Start the day at Donum Estate; even though it’s only a 10-minute drive from the hotel, once there, it feels like a totally different world. The Explore Experience ($200 per person) includes an ATV tour of Donum’s impressive open-air art sculpture collection, working farm, lavender fields and vineyards, culminating in a private tasting of its finest wines. Crafted with minimal intervention, Donum’s lineup showcases the diversity and uniqueness of California’s top-producing Pinot Noir regions, including the Russian River, Anderson Valley and its home base of Carneros.
Turn left back on Highway 12 and, after a few miles, pull over at the old country roadhouse that reads Lou’s Luncheonette. No reservations, so you may have to wait for a table out on the back patio (often shared with a few chickens), but the array of fried chicken options is worth it.
Lou’s hearty fare has probably whetted your appetite for something a bit different, so a trip to Carneros might be the right choice. Among Gloria Ferrer’s many tasting offerings is the Extended Tirage Experience ($125), a tasting of all of the house’s vintage and longer-aged sparkling wines. The experience showcases the ageability of sparkling wine over a 90-minute tasting session.
The first wine country outpost from world-renowned chef Michael Mina, Wit & Wisdom has been the talk of the town since opening in 2020. From seafood towers to handmade pasta, wood-fired pizzas and hearty meats, the best strategy here is to order several plates and share, though the craft cocktails and duck wings are a must-order. You’ll leave feeling stuffed, but your bed at MacArthur is less than a mile away.
Return to Sonoma Plaza for brunch at the girl + the fig, a Sonoma staple. This buzzing and classic French bistro serves up comforting country food made with local ingredients – croque monsieur, quiche Lorraine, duck confit – that will soak up all of the weekend’s imbibing. Before you leave, take one last stroll around the plaza to digest and purchase last-minute souvenirs.
Original story by Jess Lander updated October 2023 by J’nai Gaither