It’s common for outsiders to confuse Sonoma and Napa, California’s largest wine-producing counties. But to locals, it is a bit frustrating that the two are so often conflated: they are, in fact, quite different. Geographically, Sonoma is three times larger than Napa. It also meets the sea, with over 55 miles of often rugged coastline. Culturally they differ, too. If Napa is the well-groomed bon vivant in a tailored suit readying for an evening ball, Sonoma is the one in dirtied khakis and rain-boots taking the dog for a morning walk through the redwoods.
Sonoma County sits in a valley about 50 miles due-north of San Francisco, under the watchful glare of the Mayacamas and Sonoma mountain ranges. With over 1,700 square miles of land, the county encompasses many different habitats, from grassland to coastal scrub, to redwood and oak forests to marshland, with myriad microclimates in between. Home to exceptionally fertile soils, farming makes up a considerable bulk of Sonoma’s economy, approximately 21% of its GDP, according to the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Over 60,000 acres go towards grape growing.
It is thought that the first vines were planted by Russians in 1821 at Fort Ross. Still visitable today, just up the coast from the town of Jenner, the fort was the southernmost Russian settlement in the 19th century North American fur trade. The true beginning of Sonoma (and California’s) wine industry, though, began with several thousand grape vines planted some years later by Franciscan monks from Spain at the mission San Francisco Solano, in the modern city of Sonoma. Through the century, numerous settlers continued planting grapes throughout the area, a practice that continues today.
There is no dearth of exceptional hotels in Sonoma, many of them locally owned. One that truly shines is the family-run Farmhouse Inn, a quaint, uber-homey place with a Michelin-starred restaurant and exceptionally helpful staff (Conde Nast Traveller calls it the third Best Hotel in North America for 2019). Another award-winner is the Timber Cove Resort, a pitch-perfect fusion of rustic and luxury overlooking a jaw-dropping view of the Pacific, also with splendid seasonal eats (try the salmon wings).
If pining for redwoods, try a stay at boon hotel+spa, a chic 14-room boutique in the woodsy and remote Russian River Valley. A few minutes down the road is the awe-inspiring Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, which gets relatively few visitors. Stay warm with the wood-burning fire in your room or in the Jacuzzi with a local wine or brew and do make sure to get a massage. If overnighting in San Francisco, try the recently renovated Hotel Kabuki in Japantown.
Fine wine, of course, demands fine food. All aforementioned hotels boast phenomenal restaurants—boon’s eatery, located in the nearby town of Guerneville, is called boon eat+drink, a small, uber-locally sourced place (also try a mezcal cocktail at the nearby El Barrio)—but there is a plethora of lovely eateries in Sonoma. In Healdsburg, get a reservation at Single Thread, which serves Michelin-starred Japanese-inspired fine-dining.
Nearby is Valette, a boisterous place where the food spotlights local producers (try the juniper-marinated venison loin), as well as a wonderful new salumeria called Journeyman Meat Co. In the coastal town of Jenner, do not miss the artfully-prepared local seafood and stunning ocean views at the River’s End Restaurant, built upon a dramatic bluff. For breakfast lovers, check out the wonderfully eccentric Della Fattoria in historic Petaluma, whose fresh-baked bread is drool-inducing.
There are over 425 wineries in Sonoma County. One can tour pretty much all of them, each with its own style and focus. For laid-back vibes, visit Belden Barns, an idyllic estate located atop Sonoma Mountain. Run by a friendly young family originally from outside the region, they are not afraid of vino experimentation; their fantastic Grüner Veltliner was the first to be planted in Sonoma. For something else a bit different, sample the splendid ciders at Horse & Plow. In the Barlow—a collection of shops, restaurants, and cafes converted from an old apple cannery in Sebastopol—try the award-winning sloe (an obscure berry) gin at Spirit Works Distillery. Also in the Barlow is the tasting room for MacPhail Wines, another family-run vineyard, which often hosts vinyl-centric tasting events.
Wine is only one reason to visit Sonoma. Hiking trails abound across the county, from the Laguna de Santa Rosa Wetlands, accessible via Sebastopol, to the numerous coastal trails around Jenner. Kayakers can hit the slow-going Russian River for some excellent rides. Cyclists, too, have lots to choose from. Very worthwhile for anyone is the Jack London State Historic Park, which boasts over 20 miles of trails and an impressive museum built in the cottage of the iconic writer’s widow, Charmian.
For a rejuvenating experience unlike any outside Japan, make the trip to Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. The place is known for its unique cedar enzyme bath, a tub of shredded white cedar, rice bran, and a special bio-catalyst. The mixture, which is said to boost metabolism and circulation, is naturally heated by its own fermentation, meaning that, when you lie in it, you are covered in life.
The writer was a guest of Sonoma County Tourism