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Sonoma Wine Tasting: Sip, Stay and Explore

Swirl, sip, savor. Repeat. We love wine tasting!

We’ve taken several mini-vacays to tour wineries in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia (where we live).

And when in Cape Town, we had a fabulous day wine tasting in Stellenbosch.

Now, after enjoying some unique San Francisco activities, we tack on a visit to Sonoma for a few days of Sonoma wine tasting.

Are you a wine lover? Then you'll love wine tasting in Sonoma!
Are you a wine lover? Then you’ll love wine tasting in Sonoma!

Sonoma wine region

About an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma’s wine-growing region is more laid-back and less visited than neighboring Napa.

In Napa, you may rub shoulders with up to 25 people at a time, compared to only six to ten visitors in Sonoma’s wine tasting rooms.

Still, Sonoma’s more than 400 wineries pack an intoxicating punch.

Grapes hanging on the vine in Sonoma
Grapes hanging on the vine in Sonoma

Sonoma wine tour by bicycle

Up first on our Sonoma visit? A wine country bicycle-and-wine tour with Getaway Adventures.

It turns out to be one of our favorite things to do in Sonoma!

Leaving from the lovely town of Healdsburg, the tour takes us up the long finger of Sonoma’s bucolic Dry Creek Valley – where the sunbaked hills are reminiscent of Provence or Tuscany.

Guests cycle with Getaway Adventures in the Sonoma vineyards.
Visitors cycle with Getaway Adventures in the Sonoma vineyards (Credit: Getaway Adventures)

Do we prefer bike intensive or wine intensive?

We opt for wine intensive.

So on our ten-mile pedal on quiet country roads, we stop often.

In red-earth vineyards, our guide explains how the small bonsai-style tree vines – which produce the rich jammy Zinfandel wines for which Dry Creek is famous – are from 30 to 100 years old.

They’ll yield fewer grapes than young vines, but the wine will be finer and more focused.

Sonoma vineyards
A Sonoma day tour by bicycle is a great way to sample Sonoma wines!

Sonoma wine tasting on our bicycle tour

We taste-test different Zinfandels and other varietals at several wineries this day and also the next, when we go bicycling on our own.

At Zichichi Family Winery, we love the mouth-burst explosion of red currants and wild cherries of their Old Vine Zinfandel (from vines planted in the 1920s).

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves enchants us with its tasting room in a cool, candlelit, cave cellar.

Preston Vineyards has an organic farm and a country store too.

We sip their flagship Sauvignon Blanc in a farmhouse tasting room filled with antique farming implements. We also sample sourdough bread, which the proprietor bakes fresh each morning in a wood-fired oven.

Red, rosé and white wine at Preston Farm and Winery, Sonoma Valley
Red, rosé and white wine at Preston (Credit: Preston Farm and Winery)

A grape-based spa treatment?

After all that “hard” bicycling, a spa treatment is in order.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa has the grand dame of all Sonoma spas.

Its swank 40,000 sq. ft. Fairmont Spa features a set of cold and hot mineral pools for a bathing ritual that’s included with any treatment.

What to have? A lavender facial? Grapeseed body scrub? Chardonnay, olive oil and sugar polish?

Too many choices – we settle for a massage.

June is lavender month in Sonoma County - photo Matanzas Creek Winery
June is lavender month in Sonoma County (Credit: Matanzas Creek Winery)

Exploring beyond Sonoma wine country

Another day, we explore by car.

We cruise down into the lush Russian River Valley, where vineyard fields flourish below pine-covered hills.

At Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, we venture on a short hike through a magnificent forest of ancient coastal redwoods, the world’s tallest and oldest living things.

Just imagine.

The “Colonel Armstrong” tree – named after the early logger who recognized the value of these primordial trees and made it his personal mission to preserve them – is 1,400 years old.

So old and magnificent! Redwoods reaching for the sky in the fog
So old and magnificent! Redwoods reaching for the sky in the fog

We continue to the Pacific coast.

Here, the surf crashes over gigantic black boulders through thick fog, and gnarled wind-slanted trees grow at a 45 degree angle.

A totally different, permanently misty world, and only 45 minutes from wine country!

Looping back, we hit Coleman Valley Road.

Truly a road less traveled, it must be one of the world’s most beautiful drives. While paved, its one lonely lane snakes past arbutus trees, shaggy cows and a magical palette of sunlight-diffused colors.

It connects with the so-called Bohemian Wine Trail – 11 miles of asphalt meandering by the pastoral hamlets of Occidental and Monte Rio, with their organic markets, cheese boutiques and funky wine shops.

Just one more Sonoma winery…

Of course, we have to finish off at one more winery.

This time, we hit Chateau St. Jean Winery near the town of Sonoma.

Founded in 1973, the winery first caught the attention of wine buffs with its stellar Chardonnays.

It has since expanded to add reds to its repertoire of pours.

Now Chateau St. Jean is most famous for its Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon – a Bordeaux-inspired blend (luscious!) and the first Sonoma wine to be chosen by Wine Spectator as its “Wine of the Year.”

Chateau St Jean wine in Sonoma
Winning wines at Chateau St Jean!

The winery estate is also winning.

The tasting room is in the restored “chateau,” built as a grand summer home in 1920 for an iron mining magnate. And it offers one of the best Sonoma wine tastings.

Listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it’s open to the public.

And there are plenty of shaded spots to picnic on artisanal cheeses from the onsite deli (along with a glass of wine, of course) among the white roses and tightly-clipped hedges of the elegant chateau gardens.

The Chateau St Jean is delightful to visit
The Chateau St Jean is delightful to visit (Credit: Sonoma County Tourism)

Best wineries in Sonoma?

Well, we’ve already covered Zichichi Family Winery, Bella Winery, Preston Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean.

But there are other top Sonoma wineries worth visiting too:

  • Jordan Winery – Taste an elegant Cab Sauv and crisp Chardonnays in an ivy-draped, French-inspired chateau.
  • Scribe Winery – Find a spot in the garden of this laid-back hacienda, where you’ll be served terroir-driven wine pours.
  • Hamel Family Wines – Ogle views of Sonoma Mountain from a stylish tasting room, as you taste organic wines paired with cheese and charcuterie.
  • Robert Young Estate – Sample premium wines while drinking in spectacular vineyard views.
  • Seghesio Family Vineyards – Top-rated Zinfandels are the specialty at this Italian estate’s tasting room.

Where to eat in Sonoma

Restaurants in Sonoma

And what about Sonoma’s restaurants? They rival those in San Francisco!

Awash in magnolia trees, high-end boutiques and art galleries, Healdsburg is particularly well-known for its top-notch eateries.

Pretty Healdsburg is chock-full of boutique shops and great eateries.
George checking out the boutique shops and eateries in pretty Healdsburg

There’s Dry Creek Kitchen, one of celebrity chef/owner Charlie Palmer’s restaurants.

Its curry-spiced, purple cauliflower soup poured over plump deep-fried shrimp rockets us into gastronomic heaven.

Valette tantalizes diners with French-inspired American dishes.

Perhaps you’d like the duck breast with a cherry gastrique? Or maybe the New York steak, topped with a pepper sauce, and accompanied by celery root puree and charred onions?

Valette Healdsburg
Valette is one of Sonoma’s best restaurants (Credit: Valette)

Keep an eye out too for the new Arandas (formerly the Chalkboard).

Our last night is saved for Sante, the Sonoma Fairmont’s fine dining restaurant.

Its wine list features over 600 different wines, but for a reasonable corkage fee, you can tote in any of those interesting bottles you’ve bought from your wine tasting in the area.

Sante has snagged both AAA Four Diamond Award and Michelin star honors. Devouring the OMG mac-and-cheese with succulent lobster and black truffles, we understand why.

Mixing up the tried-and-true with the unexpected is a genuine pleasure – just like our Sonoma wine country getaway…

Wine-and-food walking tour

Interested in sampling a little bit of everything? You might like this great wine-and-food pairing walking tour in Healdsburg!

Your small group of 8 guests will pop into boutique cellars, wine shops, cafés and bakeries on this half-day tour. You’ll be treated to private tastings and try artisan cheeses, charcuterie and various creative dishes, while learning about Sonoma’s family vineyards and the local food scene.

Where to stay in Sonoma

We stayed for a few days at both of the following delightful Sonoma hotels.

The Madrona

The recently reimagined hotel is a lovely place to stay in Healdsburg (Credit: The Madrona)

After bicycling all day, all we wanted to do was cool off with a dip in The Madrona’s pool in the rose garden!

Nestled in the hills on the outskirts of Healdsburg, the romantic Victorian estate is made up of several guest buildings (the main mansion dates back to 1881). The big mahogany buffet and piano in the reception area even came with the original house.

The property has since been totally reimagined. The new version of The Madrona now features a blend of heirloom antiques along with modern comforts.

Guestrooms

All 24 guestrooms and bungalows are stylishly appointed and retain an original piece of art or furniture.

But they’re all different. Rooms in the original mansion have bay windows and high ceilings, while others have private outdoor balconies overlooking wooded glades.

Gardens and restaurant

The eight acres of flower gardens are a joy to stroll through.

Fountain in the garden at The Madrona hotel, Healdsburg
A fountain in the garden

An organic kitchen garden also yields lettuces, leeks, heirloom tomatoes, raspberries, oranges, peaches and nectarines for The Madrona’s acclaimed restaurant.

In summer, movies on the lawn are held – accompanied by wine, naturally!

The Madrona, Healdsburg: Bottom line?

It all adds up to a wonderfully atmospheric stay at The Madrona. It’s one of the best hotels in Healdsburg.

We smelled grapes in the air during the day, and at night, a cicada symphony lulled us into a sweet sleep.

Check rates and availability

Kenwood Inn & Spa

Kenwood Inn & Spa at night
The inn at night (Credit: Kenwood Inn & Spa)

If you’re planning to spend all your days tasting wine in Sonoma, you might rethink that if you stay at the Kenwood Inn & Spa. It’s one of those places you don’t want to leave!

Enter through the lobby doors, and you step right into a tranquil Tuscany scene.

Think vine-covered stone buildings. Lush garden courtyards. Tinkling fountains. Even a mill house with a stream, water wheel and koi pond.

It’s honeymoon-worthy – indeed, it’s a favorite spot for destination weddings.

Gardens and fountain at Kenwood Inn and Spa
The Kenwood Inn & Spa is an intimate hideaway with an old world feel

Rooms

The inn has 29 newly renovated guestrooms and suites.

While individually decorated, most feature polished wood floors, custom-crafted Italian furniture, king beds with luxury linens, fireplaces and cavernous bathrooms with soaking tubs.

A Luxury Grand View guestroom at Kenwood Inn & Spa
A Luxury Grand View guestroom (Credit: Kenwood Inn & Spa)

Pools

Two outdoor heated saline pools invite you to relax with a glass of wine.

(Waterfalls drown out noise from the Sonoma Highway just beyond the high walls.)

Spa

The intimate spa has several massage rooms and one facial room.

Vinotherapy wraps and scrubs sound so good you want to eat the ingredients.

There’s a harvest sugar scrub, which uses organic sugar cane, milled grape seeds and Chardonnay oil. The nourishing honey wrap includes raw honey, chamomile and red wine extract.

Breakfast

Yummy breakfasts are included in the rates. We awoke each morning to fresh-squeezed orange juice, house-made granola, fresh-baked pastries and local organic yogurt.

There’s also an additional cooked-to-order trio of delights, which changes daily.

Our favorite was the artfully presented plate of scrambled eggs with melted cheese, pancakes with lavender syrup, and bacon strips atop sweet corn kernels.

From spring to fall, you can sit outside by a large outdoor fireplace on the inviting stone porch, complete with columns and arches.

In winter, a rustic fireplace warms up the inside space.

Other perks

You’re welcomed with freshly baked cookies. And a complimentary afternoon wine hour is also included in the daily rates.

Check rates and availability

Sonoma wine tours from San Francisco

If you’re visiting San Francisco and can only spend a day in Sonoma, not to worry.

As Sonoma is only about an hour’s drive from SF, some great wine tasting day trips to Sonoma are offered.

See, for example, this small-group wine country tour with tastings from San Francisco.

It’s 5-star-rated and the group size is limited to 12 people. It includes hotel transfers and wine tastings at three boutique Sonoma wineries. (Bonus: At the end of the day, you stop in Sausalito, where you have the option of returning to SF on the ferry.)

Have you gone wine tasting in Sonoma?

What are your favorite Sonoma wineries and activities?

Let us know in the Comments section below!

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


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Best Sonoma wine tasting experiences
Wine tasting in Sonoma

Photo credits: 8, 10, 15, 17 to 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Anda

Friday 29th of August 2014

How fun! You definitely explored and tasted some great wines. I love Sonoma County and wine testing is one of my favorite activities (don't tell anybody!)

Laura

Friday 29th of August 2014

Sonoma wine country looks amazing...

noel

Thursday 28th of August 2014

Well you definitely explored and tasted some of my favorite spots to visit and enjoy in Sonoma County. Having lived there for over 10 years, its a really amazing place and glad you did show some amazing venues and natural wonders from this magnificent area.

Janice and George

Thursday 28th of August 2014

You must have tasted a lot of very nice wines during your 10 years of living there! What an interesting place to live - so much variety, with San Francisco on your doorstep too when you felt the need for the "city."

Amy Lynne Hayes

Thursday 28th of August 2014

I took my first trip out to Napa and Sonoma Valleys this past July, and immediately fell in love!! It's just so incredible out there, I could stay forever. And with so many places to see it would be easy to stay entertained! I didn't see any of the places you mentioned, but they're on my list for next time!

Irene S. Levine

Tuesday 26th of August 2014

Looks like you have outlined the recipe for a perfect day trip!

Janice and George

Tuesday 26th of August 2014

Oh, but you can spend much more time than a day in Sonoma :-). But if you only have a day, it's still a great daytrip from San Francisco...