There’s more to California’s wine country than Napa Valley - visit neighbouring Sonoma and you will soon fall under its spell
In Sonoma the millionaires get their hands dirty. The fortunate folk with money to burn are often found cultivating the vineyards or perched behind a bar serving delectable and palate-teasing vinos in this olde-worlde California community. You can, of course, do as you please when you own the winery but nonetheless it makes a profound statement about this gentle county, located barely 90 minutes from central San Francisco.
People here do things differently. They take pleasure in living life in the slow lane, taking time to savour a good Merlot and appreciate matured Italian-style table cheddar from acclaimed cheesemongers Vella. Surely it’s unsurprising that Sonoma is dubbed ‘Slow-noma’.
Just don’t mention Napa. That other wine region is located beyond the rolling hills, and there is much friendly rivalry between the two camps. Both produce world-class alcoholic grape juice, both offer sublime landscapes of manicured vineyards and grassy knolls; but one gets all the attention.
Not that I think Sonoma would have it any other way. Locals are happy for the high-end resorts and characterless spas to open there and for the rich day-trippers to flood in, leaving Sonoma and its rustic charm intact.
The main town of Sonoma, with its charming cafes, small boutiques and luxury pet shops, doubled up as Paris in the Alan Rickman movie Bottleshock. Its classic understated architecture is a far cry from the (sometimes) brash buildings that the bigger cities do so well. Sonoma Town Hall is the centrepiece and stands in the middle of a pristine lawn surrounded by tall palm trees, where children play and dogs wearing stars & stripes bandanas around their necks chase sticks.
You’ll find the oldest winery in California and the perfect place for an afternoon’s tasting in Sonoma. Buena Vista, founded in 1857, is housed in a grand stone manor and private wine tasting sessions are available although locals chose to swirl their reds at the long wooden bar in the spacious entrance hall.
When it comes to accommodation, head out of town to the even more idyllic – is it possible? – village of Glen Ellen. Picture perfect, with its leafy trees, windy roads and intimate parades of shops and delis, Glen Ellen is as welcoming as it is utterly adorable.
We booked ourselves into one of six luxurious Hotel Chauvet apartments, something that raised a few eyebrows from impressed locals. Boasting three double bedrooms, a Jacuzzi bath, comfy lounge area and walk-in-wardrobe, the apartments are a wrench to leave. The Jack London Village, a small cluster of shops a stone’s throw away, offers more indulgence whether your passion is cheese, chocolate or olive oil. Stores specialising in each can be found here, and offer regular tasting sessions. By popping in you get more than a sample of rich pumpkin-flavoured chocolate truffles. The warm locals will leave an equally lasting impression.
Our evening at John Raymond’s Cheesemongers was a civilised yet slightly offbeat one. After hearing a hilarious tale of a surly cheese-maker who inflicts her frosty shoulders on those who dare criticise her produce, we cracked open a bottle and consumed more cheeses in different shapes and textures than I ever thought possible.
And if there was ever a man passionate about his work, it’s eccentric Mr Raymond. So totally consumed and driven by his love of fromage is he, that there were times when I felt we should give him and his block of gouda a moment alone. Comparing one chalky specimen to “eating a glass of champagne” and feeling so strongly about another that he wants to be buried with it, made it a humorous, if not slightly bizarre, encounter.
Stopping off at Sonoma Town en route to San Francisco, I found myself staring through the window at the local estate agents, silently contemplating how I could get my hands on a holiday home in this special spot.
And I still haven’t given up hope…
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Heathrow to San Francisco.