by Lee Foster
If there is one theme in which the Sonoma Wine Country is pre-eminent, it is the completeness of its farm-to-fork food production as well as its viticultural efforts. Sonoma County ranks as one of the primary gourmet and culinary travel destinations in California. The intertwined food-and-wine encounter is what makes Sonoma special.
An environmentalist and vegetable gardener can see here organic gardening in mainstream competition with traditional farming. A political activist can observe here a working model of small-scale, producer-owned food-raising enterprises competing effectively. The oenophile can find award-winning wineries to visit. The Napa Valley is still seen by many as The Wine Country because of its geographic unity and quality large producers. But Sonoma County is more egalitarian and less pretentious.
A young family can pile the kids into the car and tour the Farm Trails. The enjoyer of nature can catch the spring flowering of the Gravenstein apples. The gourmand who wants shitake mushrooms, goat cheese, and every conceivable style of eggplant can find a direct source here. Sonoma County has the soils, microclimates, and proximity to appreciative Bay Area markets to make it a food-production capital. Sonoma has so much besides wine to offer the traveler.
The area might be seen as the kitchen garden for the San Francisco Bay Area’s celebrity chefs, although Sonoma has its own fine restaurants, such as Baci, 336 Healdsburg Avenue in Healdsburg, an Italian-cooking-inspired place where, beyond the beet-salad produce, try the oven-roasted duck. You can grow almost everything here, as the horticultural whiz, Luther Burbank, proved decades ago.
The village square in Sonoma is steeped in some of the most attractive historical traditions of California. Overseeing the ambiance in the early 19th century was the figure of General Mariano Vallejo, the Spanish-Mexican lord of the area before the American period. Vallejo set a pattern of generous hospitality and openness to the foreigner that has been a mark of the California character. Vallejo himself was also astute enough to finesse his way through the political changes following the Gold Rush. Around the square in Sonoma, be sure to visit the Spanish Mission, the Bear Flag rebellion statue (more about this in a moment), and Vallejo’s house.
Contemporary Sonoma County’s diversity has much to offer the explorer. Be sure to get a copy of the Sonoma Farm Trails map and spend a day driving through the back country, visiting the farmer-direct operations that will sell you everything from apple juice to olallieberries. And, in Santa Rosa, be sure to pause before the garden memorial to Luther Burbank, the gifted horticulturalist.
Getting to the Sonoma Region
Sonoma is an easy hour’s drive north from San Francisco. To start at the town of Sonoma, drive north along Highway 101, east on Highway 37, and north on Highway 121. For exploring, you’ll need a car.
History of the Sonoma Region
Around the village square in Sonoma you can immerse yourself in the most northerly reach of Spanish influence in California.
The Sonoma Mission was founded in 1823 by impatient, ambitious Father Jose Altimira, but was doomed because of the impending collapse of the entire mission system a decade later. Today the mission is part of a state historic park, whose museum displays many interesting artifacts from the early period.
On the square itself you’ll see a heroic bronze statue to the Bear Flag patriots. The Bear Flaggers were a group of hotheads who expressed the uncertainty of the political twilight in the Mexican period. In 1846, a faction of rabble rousers wanted California declared an independent country as the Bear Republic, and they hoisted the Bear Flag.
A mile or so from the Plaza is the home of General Mariano Vallejo. This Gothic-Revival New England-style house from the latter part of his life is an interesting museum. Near the house there are tables for a picnic lunch.
Appreciators of California wine should also taste wine at the Buena Vista Winery, 18000 Old Winery Road, near the square. This winery was the original domain of one Colonel Agoston Haraszthy. More than any other early-era individual, Haraszthy pioneered bringing European grape cuttings to California. He founded the winery here in 1857. The European cuttings of noble vinifera species far surpassed the wines made from the so-called Mission grape, which may have satisfied sacramental purposes, but was of lesser interest to the secular drinker with purely gustatory intentions.
The other major winery to visit in Sonoma is Sebastiani, on Fourth Street East. One branch of the Sebastiani family, Sam and Vicki Sebastiani, founded (and later sold) the complete food/wine sampling spot south of Sonoma, along the highway, called Viansa. Viansa is a good one-stop immersion in the wine/food scene in the region. The rationale of Viansa is to see wine in the context of food and conviviality. Viansa, short for Vicki and Sam, is located on a hill overlooking the Sonoma marshlands.
For picnic supplies while exploring in the town of Sonoma, stop in at the Sonoma Cheese Factory, which is on the square. There you can watch jack cheese being made and stock up on all sorts of gourmet foods at one of the more complete delis in Northern California.
Main Attractions of the Sonoma Region
Beyond the charming town of Sonoma, here are some favorite pleasures in the region.
The Sonoma Farm Trails map, as mentioned, is available from any Visitor Center or Chamber of Commerce in the area. The map offers you intriguing routes for country trips. One good time to make this trip is early spring, in April, on the weekend coinciding with the Sebastopol Apple Blossom Festival and Parade. The apple trees at this time clothe the hillsides in a pale white aura. The festival itself includes a colorful small-town parade, a large craft fair, and many food vendors, such as the local Willie Bird Turkey vendor.
Jack London, the noted fiction writer, built his home, now an 800-acre state historic park, in the Valley of the Moon north of Sonoma. London’s celebrated Wolf House, which sadly went up in flames after he built it, remains a ruin. Another house on the property, called the House of Happy Walls, now serves as a museum for London memorabilia, especially artifacts from his Alaska and South Seas adventures. You will see editions of his works, mementos from his travels, some of the 600 rejection slips he got before he became famous, and a 1916 newsreel taken a few days before he died. London, who was famous for his urban novels, such as Martin Eden, as well as his man-against-the-elements tales, such as Call of the Wild, was a gifted and paradoxical man, an entrepreneur and a socialist. He died young, of kidney failure, at this property, fulfilling his wish that, “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” This bucolic shrine to the writer, in Glen Ellen, is officially known as the Jack London State Historic Park. As you drive into the state park, you pass Glen Ellen Winery, makers of an affordable, yet delicious, Chardonnay. For lodging/dining in Glen Ellen, the B&B known as the Gaige House Inn and the restaurant titled the Glen Ellen Inn are a satisfying combination.
In Santa Rosa the Luther Burbank Gardens commemorate the gifted work of this horticulturalist, who symbolizes the skill with which California agriculturalists have developed fruit, nut, and flower varieties that will thrive here, producing a substantial portion of the total U.S. agricultural output. Anyone with a delight in growing things will enjoy the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, 204 Santa Rosa Avenue in Santa Rosa.
Another town worth exploring is Healdsburg, notable for its appealing square and shops. The town square is a classic of earlier city architecture, where greenery and trees in the center of town created a public space for all. Around the square are many antique shops. The Oakville Grocery, the deli of Napa Valley fame, opened a branch on the Healdsburg square. The Healdsburg Museum tells how Harmon Heald founded a modest trading operation. When the railroad arrived in 1871, produce farming and canning operations prospered.
Several of Healdsburg’s notable Victorian homes have been turned into classy B&Bs, such as the Camellia Inn, 211 North Street. This exquisite 1869 Italianate home is surrounded by 50 varieties of camellias. It is also within walking distance of 10 fine-dining restaurants, such as the earlier-mentioned Baci. From the north west side of Healdsburg, you could drive out Dry Creek Road to experience a compact and lovely wine district with a dozen tasting rooms. The Dry Creek wineries are known especially for their Pinot Noirs.
Driving the Russian River Road
Driving the Russian River Road from Highway 101 to the ocean, passing through the vineyards and then the small resort towns along the river, is another favorite outing in the Sonoma Wine Country. You pass first through a fertile agricultural plain, now devoted primarily to grapes. Grand agricultural Victorian estates, such as The Raford Inn, 10630 Wohler Road, are now B&Bs. The drive boasts a major redwood park at Armstrong Redwoods. The river towns, such as Guerneville and Monte Rio, have small lodges and restaurants, full of revelers, especially in the summer. Expect to see the rainbow flag of the gay movement flying prominently. At Jenner, by the end of the valley, the Russian River empties into the ocean. A large colony of seals can be seen on a sandy point at the river’s end.
Guerneville, epicenter of the gay vacation celebrations, is a folksy place of small shops and pickups trucks. Kings Sport and Tackle, on Main Street, can provide kayaks and canoes for a float down the Russian River, which is a popular activity.
Three miles north on a side road from Guerneville is Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Armstrong is a cherished small remaining enclave of the fabled primeval redwood forest. The redwood trees, named botanically as sequoia sempervirens, can grow to be the tallest trees on earth, and the tallest tree, at about 379.1 feet, is now believed to be in the Redwood Creek drainage in Redwood National and State Parks, north of Eureka. In the Armstrong Redwoods State Park the tallest tree is the Parson Jones Tree, at 310 feet. Picnic areas and trails in the park allow a visitor to enjoy the peaceful quiet and the enormous size of trees in the old growth forest.
Proceeding down river, Monte Rio is another cozy small town with swimming and sunbathing beaches. Highway 116, the Russian River Road, meets Coast Highway 1 at Jenner, the estuary of the Russian River. The Russian River terrain flattens out at Duncan Mills and empties into the sea by Jenner. The best observation point for seeing the seals at the mouth of the river, especially during the April pupping season, is from a bluff on the north side, at Jenner. For a hearty beach hike, stroll along driftwood-strewn Goat Rock Beach. Offshore are the rock pedestals, known as “seastacks.” Jenner Inn and Cottages presents a restaurant and several elevated lodging structures with views of the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean.
All things considered, the Sonoma Wine Country includes several pleasing elements, from the charm of the small town of Sonoma to the attractions of Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. Wine districts, such as Dry Creek outside Healdsburg, beckon the traveler. A drive down the Russian River to the sea adds a festive redwood forest interlude to the adventure.
California’s Sonoma Wine Country: If You Go
A main tourism information source is the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, http://www.sonomacounty.com.
The area around the historic town of Sonoma is represented by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, http://www.sonomavalley.com.
The wineries of Sonoma have joined together as Sonoma County Wineries Association, http://www.sonomawine.com.
The Russian River Chamber & Visitor Center presents its information at www.russianriver.com.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page