Eager to explore wine country? The perfect getaway can be had in Sonoma, the unpretentious birthplace of the California wine industry, where you'll find small-town charm, glorious rolling landscapes, majestic redwoods, mild weather and a burgeoning food scene. Encompassing both the Mayacamas and Sonoma mountain ranges, the Rhode Island-sized county sits just 45 miles north of San Francisco. Head to the little towns of Healdsburg and Sebastopol to discover hip yet laidback restaurants, bars and shopping. If it’s historic charm you’re seeking, 1800s-era adobe buildings line the lovely Sonoma Plaza. The coastal fishing village of Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds,” offers fresh seafood as well as kayaking and bird and whale watching along the rugged shoreline. And to the north, you’ll find many of the county’s more than 450 wineries sprinkled throughout the hills and valleys.
Just a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, Ram’s Gate winery’s slick, high-design tasting room by architect to the stars Howard Backen would be worth the trip alone, but the wine and the gourmet plates are top-notch too. Be sure to take some time to lounge and sip by the fireplace. Closer to downtown Sonoma, Scribe Winery, owned by two young brothers, is a photographer’s dream, with sun-dappled hills, colorful wildflowers and even a wooden swing. The stylish and friendly staff knows their stuff, and the wine, made with wild yeasts, is solid. History and design buffs will want to visit The Adobe, the new home of Three Sticks Wines near the Sonoma Plaza. Built in 1842 during the state’s Mexican period, the newly restored building is the oldest residence in Sonoma, and San Francisco’s edgy decorator du jour Ken Fulk designed the luxurious, contemporary interiors.
Off Sonoma highway, the new Hamel Family Wines feels like a glamorous summer camp. Along with limited-production premium Bordeaux blends, it offers elegant boxed picnics, campfire concerts and movies and art installations in its stunning wine caves. At Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg, guests can sip Fumé Blanc and Zinfandel while playing bocce ball in the vineyards. In the woods of the Dry Creek Valley, welcoming Cast Wines makes a stellar Sauvignon Blanc and has a dog-friendly patio with sweeping vineyard views. Pairings are a passion at Santa Rosa’s St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, which incorporates its world-famous, full-bodied wines in a 90-minute, six-course pairing menu that recently earned the winery a spot on OpenTable’s list of America’s 10 best restaurants.
Although wine is king in this region, a number of artisan distilleries have set up shop of late. Whiskey fans can book a tour at Sonoma County Distilling Company in Rohnert Park, and vodka drinkers can taste at award-winning, small-batch spirits at Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka’s new distillery. Beer is also booming here, from the lively scene at the Russian River Brewing Company and the rustic HopMonk Tavern to the larger Lagunitas Brewing Company operation in Petaluma. Look out for the new Golden State Cider, a refreshingly crisp, Sebastopol-based hard cider made from handpicked, fresh-pressed apples, in cans and on draft.
The hamlet of Healdsburg has developed into a sizzling dining destination of late. A fine, modern meal or a round of carbonated cocktails can be had at Spoonbar in the hip H2Hotel, and around the corner in the center of town, its sister restaurant Pizzando oven-fires sophisticated pies. Campo Fina serves killer small plates, sandwiches and pizza (take advantage of the bocce ball court on the patio if it’s not too chilly). Celebrity chef Charlie Palmer’s modern and elegant Dry Creek Kitchen, located in his equally posh Hotel Healdsburg, is a more formal option. (Tip: Corkage fees are waived here on Sonoma County wines.) For drinks and tapas, try Chalkboard, a casual and creative happy hour spot. Rustic, French-influenced The Girl & the Fig is the most renowned restaurant in the Sonoma Plaza. Tucked a few blocks from the square, Crisp Bake Shop offers quick yet refined breakfasts and lunches in addition to stellar sweets. And no need to wine taste on empty—the cool Banshee Wines Tasting Room also serves up tasty food. Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol cultivates its own gardens and makes many of the products on its pork-centric menu in-house, including bacon, salumi and gelato. For elevated home-style cooking like fried chicken and ribs, there’s the retro-cool Fremont Diner to the southeast.
Get an adrenaline rush zipping through the majestic redwoods with Sonoma Canopy Tours. You’ll cross seven ziplines (covering 800 feet) plus two sky bridges with incredible aerial views of the forest below. Find more fresh air and exercise with a bonus dose of history at the pristine, 1,400-acre Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. A casual, scenic jaunt exploring the bohemian author’s homes, gravesite and Beauty Ranch is a perfect crisp winter afternoon activity. Break mid-hike for a picnic paired with a bottle of Sonoma wine. Families with children might want to book a three-hour jeep ride through Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve home to 90 roaming species, including giraffes, zebras and cheetahs. The stunning indoor-outdoor Green Music Center on the Sonoma State University campus hosts performances by symphonies and international names like Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma. Another state-of-the-art attraction, the behemoth $825 million Graton Resort & Casino in Roehnert Park is home 3,000 gaming machines and more than a dozen restaurants.
Boutiques, galleries and antique stores are plentiful in Healdsburg Plaza and the lovely Sonoma Plaza. A few blocks from the Sonoma town center, the Williams-Sonoma cookware retail chain recently re-opened its original location, founded in 1956 by Chuck Williams. Williams’ former residence behind the store has been converted into an elegant showroom for Williams-Sonoma furnishings, and the expansive back patio features a dining area, pizza oven and raised beds growing produce for the on-site cooking school. Housed in a yawning glass barn south of Healdsburg’s main square, Shed in Healdsburg is a low-key, one-stop destination for shopping, food and nightlife. Peruse the gorgeous housewares, foodie gifts and gardening tools and hydrate at the kombucha bar. In downtown Sepastopol, a sleek stretch of renovated warehouses (once part of an apple processing plant) dubbed the Barlow is home to some of the best local food producers, winemakers, brewers and artisans. Shop for antique books, handmade toys, and eco-friendly clothing. The innovative space connects customers with products, the people who make them and the actual production.
For more wine-country travel ideas and destinations, visit our Wine Country Travel Guide.