It’s often overshadowed by neighbouring Napa Valley but this region on the Californian coast should be on every wine-lover’s bucket list.
The first thing to know about Sonoma County in Northern California is it’s big – even larger than any Australian wine region. With some 24,000 hectares under vine and more than 425 wineries, the region is 10 times the size of the Hunter Valley, five times bigger than Margaret River and more than twice the area of the Barossa. It’s also 30 per cent larger than its famous neighbour, Napa Valley.
So why is its size such an issue? Because driving the vineyard-lined roads through valleys thick with cypress and oak trees, past farmland and undulating terrain, takes time. Many people plan to visit for a couple of days (after all, it’s only an hour or so from San Francisco) but beware: a weekend is barely enough time to scratch the surface.
First planted in the early 1800s, Sonoma County has 18 distinct appellations (American Viticultural Areas or AVAs) with their own microclimates, tending maritime-like on the west coast and in the south and more Mediterranean to the north and inland. Cabernet sauvignon is generally accepted as the star but pinot noir, zinfandel and chardonnay are also strong players. Like visits to most wineries in the United States, expect to pay for tastings. And while you don’t always need reservations (unlike in Napa Valley), it’s smart to phone ahead.
It’s worth noting there’s more than wine to keep you occupied, including beautiful beaches, state parks containing centuries-old redwoods, quaint towns, breweries, the California Cheese Trail and a thriving dining scene. Yes, you’ll definitely need to extend that weekend.
Enjoy easy-drinking wines made with fruit sourced from local growers at this laid-back tasting room in Healdsburg.
Drink now: Pinot Noir, Sonoma County | Cellar: Morning Light Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Seghesio Family Vineyards
Zinfandel leads the way here, with a side bet on other Italian varieties. On this estate in Healdsburg, head for the tasting room then play bocce under the oaks.
Drink now: Barbera | Cellar: Home Ranch Zinfandel
Matanzas Creek Winery
Sip Chilean winemaker Marcia Torres Forno’s subtle, slinky wines in the lavender gardens of this Santa Rosa property.
Drink now: Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc | Cellar: Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot
Hartford Family Winery
This low-key Forestville winery specialises in single-vineyard wines and country hospitality.
Drink now: Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir | Cellar: Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel
Australian winemaker Andrew Bilenkij adds an antipodean touch to Ledson’s lush wines. The tasting facilities in the winery’s French Normandy-style castle in Kenwood are spectacular.
Drink now: Russian River Valley Chardonnay Reserve | Cellar: Alexander Valley Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Eat, drink, shop
For breakfast: THE SPINSTER SISTERS
The brunch menu at this eclectic eatery is brimful of delicious options. Riffing on the classic eggs Benny, Joe’s Benedict teams poached eggs with prosciutto, red onion, arugula, avocado, herb hollandaise and challah, while the Rancho Gordo bean tostadas are a zesty Cali-Mex mix of black beans, cabbage, radish, queso fresco, avocado and salsa verde.
For lunch: THE GIRL & THE FIG
At this restaurant where French-led fare both comforts and delights, it’s a tough choice between housemade charcuterie, pastis-scented mussels, duck confit and steak frites. Our pick? The rich yet impossibly delicate flounder meunière, which has been a mainstay here for 20 years. The wine list of Rhône varietals caps off the experience beautifully.
For dinner: SANTÉ restaurant
Upscale cuisine, mood lighting, soft music, plush armchairs and a wine list more than 500-strong – Santé works hard at being far more than a hotel restaurant. The menu is all about classic dishes with a twist. Think tuna tartare with yuzu aïoli or filet mignon with herb-crusted bone marrow served in the bone.
For taking home: DRY CREEK GENERAL STORE
Established in 1881, this authentic general store is stocked with covetable giftware, housemade pickles, locally produced olive oil, jams, preserves and cheeses. If you’re peckish, the onsite deli serves a lipsmacking menu of salads, sandwiches and more.
GAIGE HOUSE + RYOKAN
Best described as “Cali-Zen”, Gaige House + Ryokan is a 23-room property amid woodland that blends the sophistication of a Californian boutique hotel with the serene styling of a traditional Japanese inn. The top picks are the Ryokan Zen Suites, featuring a Zen rock garden – which separates the bedroom and ensuite – and a large granite soaking tub. Nods to Japanese culture include yukata robes and geta and zori slippers, laid out ready to use. Breakfast and the nightly wine-and-cheese hour are included.
This historic ranch house built in 1892 has five beautifully appointed antique-chic rooms and a cottage. Breakfast is served in the communal dining area of the property’s main house but you can opt to eat on your balcony or in the verdant garden when the weather is fine. Leave time to wander the 42-hectare estate. With its vines, horses, tractors, olive orchards, chooks and kitchen garden, it’s a bucolic slice of heaven.
Wine Country Car & Driver
“No tour is ever the same,” says Wine Country Car & Driver owner Lori Waldinger, whose intimate, bespoke itineraries are based on her guests’ preferences. Lori is a warm, knowledgeable and well-connected guide so you’ll visit wineries that not only suit your tastes but also represent the best of the region.
Here are our insider tips from local Jennifer Jespersen, Lead sommelier at the Farmhouse Inn.
Which wine sums up Sonoma County in a bottle?
The region is so diverse and has so many microclimates that there isn’t one varietal we focus on. We’re not like Napa Valley. If I say Napa, you think cab sav. And if I say Barossa, you think shiraz. But here it’s about the individual AVAs: Dry Creek Valley does zinfandel; in Alexander Valley, it’s cabernet sauvignon; and Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast do pinot noir and chardonnay.
What local wine should we drink now?
You can buy pretty much any wine from Scherrer Winery. Fred Scherrer sits on his wines and releases them only when they’re ready so they drink beautifully right away.
And what should we cellar?
Eric Sussman at Radio-Coteau makes pinot noirs and syrahs that you can lay down for eight to 12 years. They’re beautiful wines that can hold their own.
You have $20 to spend. What would you buy?
Dry Creek Vineyard makes a stellar sauvignon blanc – bright, fruit-driven, not overly grassy and nicely balanced.
And if money were no object?
Occidental produces stunning pinot noirs. The one I love is the 2015 Bodega Headlands Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth.
Here's a selection of Sonoma Country wines that you can enjoy at home. Buy from Qantas Wines to spend or earn more points.
Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel
2014 / $137
Legendary winemaker Paul Draper’s 2014 Lytton Springs is 69 per cent zinfandel, backed by petite sirah, carignane and mourvèdre. Intensity and density meet here with abundant black-fruit flavours, tightly constrained tannins and a long, powerful finish. Try it with venison pie.
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
2016 / $30
The Jackson family has changed the Californian wine landscape with this Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay. It’s a full, rich style, with ripe peach and toffee apple aromas backed by a whiff of sweet vanillin oak. Expect lots of stone-fruit and melon flavours with a bright, spicy aftertaste. Grilled lobster, please.
La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
2015 / $59
New Zealand-born winemaker Craig McAllister sources fruit from six AVAs for La Crema’s portfolio, which includes this benchmark Sonoma Coast offering. It’s lush and plush, with oodles of plum and pomegranate perfumes and a hint of chocolatey richness. Gently persistent tannins drive the finish. Barbecued quail would be the perfect pairing.
Littorai Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
2015 / $180
Ted Lemon crafts his delicate pinot noirs in the mould of the great wines of Burgundy. This one is made with 30 per cent whole clusters, giving it a touch of wood-smoke complexity. It’s an intense, gently persuasive drop, with red-berry flavours enhanced by earthy truffles and a sprinkle of dried herbs. The pumice-like tannins would work with duck.
Stonestreet Estate vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
2014 / $85
Established in 1995, the Stonestreet estate covers 2225 hectares of rich volcanic soil in the Mayacamas Mountains. This cornerstone Californian cabernet sauvignon says it all with an intense cassis, mulberry and cedarwood bouquet and a tight, sinewy profile. The bold flavours complement the fine-grained tannins. Roast beef is a solid match.