Beyond basic tasting and touring, Sonoma County offers the ultimate Wine Country destination
Beyond basic tasting and touring, Sonoma County offers the ultimate Wine Country destination.
By Alison Bailin Batz
Though Napa often gets the acclaim, the true birthplace of California wine is actually its gorgeous neighbor, Sonoma, where the first winemaking grapes were planted by Russian colonists in 1812, and then developed and truly farmed by the Franciscan mission fathers in the 1820s.
Since then, Sonoma County has grown to more than 425 California wineries, and thanks to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway launching Arizona’s first-ever direct flight to Sonoma earlier this year, visiting them has never been easier––or more affordable.
But where to start? Allow North Valley Magazine to help plan your dream trip, beyond just a wine tasting or two.
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn is the ultimate Wine Country destination. Surrounded by ancient thermal mineral waters, which are used in its expansive 40,000-square-foot spa and in all of the resort’s pools, the Fairmont somehow manages to retain an Old World charm while offering modern amenities, including a Michelin-starred restaurant and 177-acre golf course with massive oak trees and vineyards as far as the eye can see.
Over the past several years, the inn has undergone an impressive renovation, adding “Wine Country Suites” that boast expansive patios and fireplaces as well as a new-look lobby and even a chic wine lounge called 38º North. Named in honor of the latitude of the 38th parallel, along which many of the world’s most iconic wine regions sit, including Alicante in Spain, Italy’s Calabria, New Zealand’s Hunter’s and Hawke’s Bay and––of course––Sonoma, 38º North pours more than 50 California wines by the glass with perfectly paired tapas.
The inn’s location could not possibly be better. It’s within walking distance of both wineries and the Historic Sonoma Plaza, a National Historical Landmark and truly the heart of Sonoma, boasting everything from walking paths, art galleries, and restaurants to the last mission ever built, Mission San Francisco Solano. fairmont.com/sonoma
And then there is the wine. So much wine. So, so much wine.
Given the sheer number of vineyards and wineries in the area, when choosing which properties to visit, it’s worth looking into those that go beyond traditional wine tastings and walking tours.
A best bet––a bike wine tour. Co-founded by former mayor of Sonoma Doug McKesson,
Goodtime Touring Company offers half and full-day bike wine tasting tours across several of Sonoma’s most popular regions, including Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Dry Creek, and more. The 12-mile option, which stops at three wineries as well as Vella Cheese Company and includes a gourmet picnic lunch, is a perfect choice for riders of all ages and experience levels, especially those looking to taste all day. goodtimetouring.com
Still feeling active and outdoorsy? Consider visiting Kunde Family Winery, a sustainable vineyard and 1,850-acre estate that has been in the Kunde family for five generations and offers multiple hiking wine tours, including a pet-friendly, moderate-to-strenuous hiking option with famed winegrower Jeff Kunde and his dogs Cooper and Marley, taking guests from the Sonoma Valley floor up 1,400 feet into the Mayacamas Mountain range. For those wishing to experience the beauty––but not a multi-hour hike––Kunde also offers a stunning mountaintop tour option, which includes a guided tour of their wine aging caves and a private ride through the estate vineyards to the top of the mountain, where guests can stand among the vines planted all the way back in 1882. kunde.com
Speaking of the 1800s, history buffs won’t want to miss the Buena Vista Winery, the oldest commercial winery in California. The historic winery was founded by Hungarian aristocrat Count Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, known as the “The Father of California Wine Industry,” in 1857. While there is, of course, a history tour available at the winery accompanied by a fabulous tasting, the more intimate blending experience––where guests are challenged to themselves “become the count” for a day and enter the vineyard’s “Cave of Curiosity” to blend, bottle and label their own wines with a professional wine educator––is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. buenavistawinery.com
Another once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Sonoma, a helicopter tasting experience. Available in partnership with Williamson Wines, this tour begins at the Sonoma County Airport, where guests are whisked away on a scenic helicopter flight over the entire Valley, offering views of even the most private and exclusive wineries only visible from above. Once safely back on the ground, it is just a short drive to Williamson Wines, where there is a wine and food tasting waiting. A special treat, each of the wines chosen and paired with each food dish is from the winery’s Legacy collection, wines produced in small quantities of less than 500 cases each. williamsonwines.com
If looking for further gourmet experiences in the area, look no further than J Winery, known for both its sparkling wines and its acclaimed “Bubble Room” salon, which offers a five-course tasting menu accompanied with their most popular varietals several days a week. The menu, which was named the top Food and Wine Experience in the region by CellarPass, is both organic and almost completely locally sourced. It succeeds in awaking every sense. The winery itself is the brainchild of second-generation winemaker Judy Jordan, whose family owns the nearby Jordan Winery, among the most exclusive brands in California. jwine.com
And finally, no single trip to Sonoma is complete without a visit to Francis Ford Coppola Winery. As ambitious as Coppola’s iconic cinematic masterpiece, The Godfather, Coppola himself describes his namesake estate as “a wine wonderland, a park of pleasure where people of all ages can enjoy all the best things in life––food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming, and performances of all types.” Boasting a 3,600-square-foot swimming pool, private cabanas, movie gallery, performing arts pavilion, bocce courts, gaming tables, and several dining options––not to mention a portfolio of more than 40 wines to taste––it’s the Disneyland of wineries in America. For a truly unique experience at this, the most awe-inspiring of locales, opt for “Tasting in the Dark,” a wine tasting that explores how flavors and aromas in wine are accentuated by simply turning off the lights. Hosted by Hoby Wedler, a graduate student from UC Davis who is blind, this might be the most unforgettable wine experience in one of the most unforgettable wine countries in the world. francisfordcoppolawinery.com
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