Spend a couple of days in California’s lesser-known wine region of Sonoma, a perfect short break from San Francisco for foodies and wine lovers
Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour Napa, the Sonoma Valley is considered to be the birthplace of Californian wine-making. But where Napa is a tourist hot spot, attracting coach loads of day-trippers, Sonoma has a quiet laid back elegance all of its own and is a great place to spend a couple of days. The valley is home to some big name vineyards, such as the Gallo Family, as well as plenty of smaller boutique-style wineries. It's also a fabulous place to eat with a wide range of restaurants using fresh local produce as well as plenty of specialist food shops and delis.
What to do
Sonoma itself, a compact town set around a historic Spanish-style plaza, is the centre of the valley’s wine industry and a good place to base yourself. Once you’ve arrived there’s no need to use a car as there’s plenty to see or do within walking (or cycling) distance.
Touring round by bike is a great way to see the countryside around Sonoma and visit the wineries. There are a wide selection of wineries within a few kilometres of Sonoma and the roads are generally fairly quiet and flat once you get outside town. You’re often cycling right through the vines and you can either join a tour or hire a bike and go at your own pace.
Sonoma Valley Bike Tours (520 Broadway, Sonoma, CA 94576; 707 996 2453; www.sonomavalleybiketours.com) run group guided tours around the vineyards or they’ll supply you with a bike, a map and a choice of routes and you can do it yourself (from $89 per person). You can take your own picnic or get one delivered to you, and the staff will help you work out a route to visit as many vineyards (and being as energetic) as you’d like. They’ll even arrange for your wine to be picked up if you want to buy en route. Most wineries have tasting rooms normally open from 10am to 5pm and charge around $5 or $10 for tastings of four to six wines, and you can share the tasting if there are more than one of you (very useful if you’re cycling!).
As well as tastings, many of the wineries offer special events and tours. Buena Vista (buenavistacarneros.com), established in 1857 and one of the oldest and grandest wineries in Sonoma, offer a food and wine matching session where you try five combinations to learn how to match wine to food ($20). Sebastiani (www.sebastiani.com) run guided tours which combine a trolley trip around Sonoma and their vineyards with tastings ($15, Thursday to Monday at 12pm and 2pm). And Gundlach Bundschu (www.gunbun.com) – or Gun-Bun as it’s known – use their winery as a venue for theatre and music events in the summer (check their website for latest details of events).
Where to eat
If you’re in town on a Tuesday night there is an excellent famers' market held in the main plaza in Sonoma (5.30pm until dusk, April to October). Stalls offer a wide range of locally-produced foods, from hummus and honey to freshly cooked jambalaya and Uncle Bill’s famous corn dogs. Join the locals for a picnic on the grass with a bottle of local wine and listen to some live music.
Other good places to stock up on picnic supplies are the Sonoma Cheese Factory (2 Spain Street, Sonoma; www.sonomacheesefactory.com) for locally made cheese and fudge, and the Basque Boulangerie Café (460 First Street East, Sonoma) for fresh bread and cakes as well as ready-made sandwiches and salads.
For dinner, Sonoma has a good range of dining options, mostly quite smart places where you will need to dress up (though this is relaxed Northern California so its all fairly laid back!).
The El Dorado Hotel and Kitchens (405 First Street West, Sonoma; 707 996 3030; www.eldoradosonoma.com) restaurant uses seasonal local produce for dishes like herb-basted leg of lamb and bouillabaisse (mains are around $25). There’s an extensive wine list with both local and international wines, and they specialise in organic and biodynamic wines. If you’re there on a Wednesday you can get a bargain as they offer a range of bottles of wine at half-price.
The Girl and the Fig (110 West Spain Street, Sonoma; 707 938 3634; www.thegirlandthefig.com) is another good dining option, with French country-style food (mains around $20) and excellent cheese and charcuterie platters. They also have a great wine list as well as a wide range of cocktails.
If you’re on a budget and looking for a cheap eat then Mary’s Pizza Shack (8 West Spain Street, Sonoma; 707 938 8300; www.maryspizzashack.com) is a local chain which does traditional US-style huge portions of pizza and pasta with a side of soup or salad included (around $14).
Where to stay
The Inn at Sonoma (630 Broadway, Sonoma) is a comfortable homely choice, with roaring fireplaces and free wine and cheese in the evenings. Rooms start from $205 per night.
El Dorado Hotel and Kitchen also has 27 rooms above the restaurant. They’re modern boutique hotel-style with four poster beds, iPod docks and DVD players, and start at $155 per night. The hotel has a terrace and small pool with loungers outside where you can relax. It's in a very central location on Sonoma’s main square but this does mean it can get a bit noisy in the evenings.
Public transport to Sonoma is fairly limited so you will probably find it easiest to drive. It’s around 45 miles north of San Francisco and takes just over an hour outside of rush hour (the route goes over the Golden Gate Bridge which is one of the great driving experiences – though watch out for the fog, sometimes you can hardly see the bridge!).