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A Sonoma wine tasting vacay: Eat, drink, bike and spa

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A Sonoma wine tasting vacay: Eat, drink, bike and spa

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Swirl, sip, savor. Repeat.

We love wine tasting. We’ve taken several mini-vacays to tour the 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 eating our way through San Francisco, we tack on a visit to Sonoma for some Sonoma wine tasting.

Sonoma wine tasting

Sonoma wine tasting

About an hour north of San Franciso, Sonoma’s wine-growing region is more laid-back and less visited than neighboring Napa (where you 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 visit?

A “Sip ‘N Cycle” tour with Getaway Adventures up the long finger of Sonoma’s bucolic Dry Creek Valley, where the sun-baked hills are reminiscent of Provence or Tuscany.

Guests cycle with Getaway Adventures in the Sonoma vineyards
Guests 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 wineries

We taste-test different Zinfadels and other varietals at several wineries this day and also the next, when we cycle out out 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 country store too. We sample sourdough bread (which the proprietor bakes fresh each morning in a wood-fired oven) while sipping their flagship Sauvignon Blanc in a farmhouse tasting room filled with antique farming implements.

Sonoma wineries: Rose and organic strawberries at Preston Farm and Winery
Rose and organic strawberries (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 boasts the grande dame of all Sonoma spas. Its swank 40,000 sq. ft. Willow Stream Spa has 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 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.”

Winning wines at Chateau St Jean 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.

More popular Sonoma wineries

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.

Sonoma restaurants

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

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

Pretty Healdsburg is chock-full of boutique shops and great eateries.
Pretty Healdsburg is chock-full of boutique shops and great eateries

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.

And Chalkboard tantalizes diners with a daily-changing menu of small plates like buttermilk-fried quail with parsnip puree and a radiatore pasta of lamb and brussel sprouts.

So charming! Chalkboard is one of Sonoma's best restaurants (Credit: Chalkboard)
So charming! Chalkboard is one of Sonoma’s best restaurants (Credit: Chalkboard)

Our last night is saved for Sante, the 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…

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Wine tasting in Sonoma, California

Photo credits: 7, 11 and 13 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


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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...

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