About Sonoma County
Sonoma is a small city located in Northern California, surrounded by great local vineyards. It might not be as well known as nearby Napa Valley, but Sonoma Valley is a renowned winemaking region in its own right. It's also better known as the birthplace of Willams-Sonoma, the global kitchenware company. The first store still exists in the center of Sonoma City. The town is filled with cute shops, delicious restaurants, and wine tasting rooms. It's lovely and quaint.
What we did
There is no one way to do a wine tasting trip. It's also okay if you’re not a wine expert; you certainly don’t have to be one to enjoy a wine tour, but any wine trip will need a bit of advance preparation. What kind of wine trip you want will determine where you stay and where you go.
1. Drive yourself around
If you choose to do it like we did, you’ll need a bit more planning than a pre-booked tour. Sonoma is full of wineries, but they can be quite spread out. There is no one place that is definitively better than all the others, so we suggest you pick a winery you definitely would like to visit and then research some nearby wineries you can also visit along the way. That way you save some time and make sure you don’t waste too much time driving from valley to valley, since most of the wineries operate from 10AM to 4PM, and you have a limited time to taste the wines.
If you are diligent this gives you plenty of time to hit 2 or 3 spots a day. But it's also fine if you found a wine and winery you like and want to spend the rest of the day in one place.
If you would like to hit several spots in a day, you’ll want to start early. And remember, it's unnecessary to drink all the wines in a tasting, even though it's tempting. After tasting we waited an hour or two before moving to another one, often to enjoy the view or the gardens. Many vineyards offer tours too if you’d like to get more in-depth. You might want to factor in that time if you are driving.
Most wineries also charge wine tasting fees, which varies by place but are usually around $20-$40 per person. Also, most places will waive your tasting fee if you purchase a bottle of wine. One thing we noticed is that it's hard to purchase the wine outside of wineries. Many of them are not distributed, or are sold only through membership clubs. There is a local section at Whole Foods, but only a limited selection, so if you find a wine you like purchase it at the winery!!! It's one of those things that you won't be able to to find elsewhere.
2. Book a wine tour
There are many factors you have to consider when you plan the route yourself and drive (including where you’ll eat lunch!) but it also gives you more freedom. Since it's a vacation, if you would like to be free from planning, making decisions, and taking on any responsibilities, and if you don’t mind giving up a little freedom, then booking a tour might be your best bet.
There are many companies offering wine tours, usually as a half day trips. The only thing you have to do is research and reserve ahead of time. The tour companies don't reveal the wineries you will be visiting ahead time, but they have a list of wineries on their websites you can see. Also, you can usually make a pretty good guess based on their past tours and information from the Internet reviews. One thing to note is that the tasting fee is separate from tour, so budget that separately. Lunch, on the other hand, is usually included.
We did some research on this because we originally were planning to do a tour and narrowed it down to two contestants.
We almost went with this tour, since you will have a chance to hop on a trolley, which feels a bit romantic. They offer a picnic lunch, 4 to 5 wineries to visit, and most importantly, the transportation. You really get to just enjoy drinking the wines. Currently it's $99 per person for the tour.
Airbnb now offers Experience which is a service that you can book for "experiences" from a hosts. This option also was very tempting, since this host offered a wine tour in a Volkswagen vintage van. It's a pretty unique experience to go around beautiful vineyard in a vintage van. It also offers a local chef-made picnic lunch and several Sonoma wineries.
3. Wine tasting rooms in Sonoma town
Don't want to drive or spend the whole day on a wine tour? Then this will be your option. In Sonoma town, there are numerous places that do wine tastings at all hours of the day called tasting rooms. It's the same as a wine tasting in the winery, but indoors. They will have some food but wine is the main focus, and it's a tasting so you will have several to try. The tasting fee is similar, around $20-$40.
We cannot tell you which tasting room is the best, but I bet all of them will have good wines. There are also good wines at the local Whole Foods and on the menus of more or less every restaurant in town.
The main course was always the wine for us, so we didn’t do much research on the culinary. No matter where we went, every place had good wine, and by good wine, I mean good, local Californian wine. Most places offered tasting menus or pairing with your food as well.
Our Aribnb host told us about this place — the only place you can get a proper cappuccino in town — called the Sunflower Caffe. Yes indeed, the coffee was great, but the avocado toast was divine. We are in California, so we couldn’t miss a fresh avocado. When the opportunity presents itself, you need to take it. This place is definitely a brunch spot. There is a line, but it moved quickly, there was plenty of space in the beautiful garden out back, and best of all, no tipping! Service charge is entirely included in their prices.
The Girl and the Fig
This place was recommended in every blog, website, and guidebook. And yes, it deserves to be. They focus on French food, specifically country-style French food. They also focus on food pairing with wine, which explains their huge wine list. Seriously, it’s the whole back of the menu. We selected their 4-wine flight option for drinks. Some of the locals think the place is a bit overrated, but after tasting it for ourselves we felt it’s a bit like Le Tour Eiffel. If you find yourself in Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower. If you find yourself in Sonoma, you go to The Girl and the Fig.
Canneti Roadhouse Italiana
If you are bored with Californian avocado toast and wines, here is an option that boasts Sicilian wines and food. We went here for lunch on the way to a winery tasting, and it was a great spot to stretch our legs and eat a warm meal. It’s also worth noting that not every winery has food options, so you can either stop at a restaurant along the way like we did, or you can prepare your lunch ahead of time. Lots of places in town will prepare a cute picnic basket if your reserve the day before.
How to Get There
Probably (if you are out of town guests like us) you will be arriving at San Francisco International Airport. From here, there are few ways to get to Sonoma.
The most common one would be renting a car. What I, Soo Zee, learned from all the trips to America, is that it’s crucial to rent a car. There are of course exceptions, like Los Angeles and New York where there are Uber/Lyft and public transportation. It’s much easier to have a car, and often renting a car ends up about the same cost as just using Uber or Lyft. For this kind of trip, having a car made a huge difference.
If you are planning to just stay in town or are planning to book a wine tour, there are other options like Super Shuttle or chauffeur car services. You can book these types of services to drop you off at Sonoma county. You don’t need to think about driving this entire trip! There’s a series of buses you can take, but it does take much longer, closer to four hours from San Francisco, compared to the 90 minutes it took to drive.
Where we stayed
We used Airbnb to find a cute place on the main street of Sonoma and fortunately there are various options in the county depending on what kind of experience you want. You can stay on a farm, in a vineyard, or a a small cottage in the woods. Most of the housing can accommodate larger groups of people if you’re in a group who came here for all the wines. The most important thing for choosing a location is what type of wine trip you have in mind. It’s worth noting that most day tours leave from the Plaza or thereabouts. We were super clear that our main plan was to drive around to the wineries we chose to stay in town in a private room in a house. The houses are big, American-sized places, it can be expensive to get a whole place to ourselves in the high season. Besides, mostly you are out enjoying the wine all day.
There’s also a number of friendly-looking inns and bed and breakfasts in town. They feel very homey and comfortable, but the good ones always seems to go fast both on and off Airbnb, so book quick!