This California Destination Has Charming Small Towns, Incredible Wine, and a Stunning Coastline

The world’s most sustainable wine region offers far more than vino, though it does that beautifully as well.

Vineyards and hills of Sonoma County with a glimpse of the San Francisco Bay in the background.

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As California wine goes, Sonoma County is a recognizable name, boasting some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay in the country. But there’s more to Napa’s ample neighbor than meets the eye — or in this case, palate. There are 425 wineries and 60,000 acres of vineyards — 99% of which are sustainable — but also 55-plus miles of coastline, including deserted sandy beaches, sheer cliffs, and turquoise coves. And then there are the epically beautiful inland landscapes containing glittering rivers, forested trails, and stalwart old-growth redwoods. There’s history, too, from a 19th-century Spanish mission to landmarks dedicated to local luminaries including author Jack London and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. 

With three iconic valleys — Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander — Sonoma is the most sustainable wine region in the world with lots of permaculture and biodynamic farming of not only grapes but bounteous produce, and plenty of sustainable and ethical farms raising livestock and producing dairy. Generally speaking, it’s a slightly more laid-back and family-friendly destination than Napa, and the cost of wining, dining, and overnighting in Sonoma is typically more affordable. 

Many small, friendly towns make up the county. Those include the colonial town of Sonoma itself with Mission San Francisco Solano; artsy up-and-coming Sebastopol; bucolic culinary destination Glen Ellen; architecturally significant ‘60s-era Sea Ranch; Petaluma with award-winning distilleries and small cheese farms; and Healdsburg, which has as much charm as it has immaculate food and drinks.  

To reach this idyllic Eden, fly into Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS) — nonstop from more than 10 major airports — if you’re taking a weekend trip and want to avoid the traffic from the Bay Area. Otherwise, rent a car at SFO and drive the hour-plus up the 101. Then, prepare for your multi-sensory feast of an adventure to unfold. Here, find everything you need to know to savor Sonoma to the fullest no matter when you go. 

Jordan Winery & Vineyard, Sonoma, California

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When to Visit Sonoma 

As with most wine regions in the Northern Hemisphere, peak season in Sonoma is fall because of the yearly harvest. But after the exciting crush, as autumn’s flaming reds and oranges shape-shift into winter and winter blossoms into early spring, there’s lots to see and do — and also deals to be had. Mustard season, as January to April is known, is still quite sunny and, like the weather all year round, is subject to wild swings in temperature throughout a single day, so pack layers. That even goes for undeniably gorgeous — and typically incredibly busy — summer, since intensely hot afternoon temperatures can dip down low at night. Seafood lovers should also note that Dungeness crab season starts in November. 

Things to Do in Sonoma  

Wine may be the main event, but it’s far from the only attraction in Sonoma, where wellness and outdoor pursuits are aplenty. Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and SUP-ing — the vast and spacious ecosystems are ripe with opportunities to breathe in fresh air and get physical. Camping is an option, too. There are wildflower walks and vineyard yoga classes (like at Bricoleur), ancient trees to hug at Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve, and “wiking” tours, which marry wine and hiking (such as at Jordan Winery). Spas scattered throughout Sonoma offer proven therapies and detoxifying rituals using farm-fresh ingredients from the fertile destination — think honey, lavender, and grapes, of course, plus seaweed and shells at The Lodge at Bodega Bay. Get into the mix at you-pick farms offering sustainably grown produce ranging from apples and peaches to olives and citrus. 

As healthy as Sonoma can make you, there are numerous chefs at the ready to plump you back up with world-class cuisine, much of it truly Californian, fueled by the farms, ranches, and fishermen of Sonoma. Eating, specifically eating well, is a definite to-do in the wine region that claims the three-Michelin-star SingleThread Restaurant, where the husband-and-wife owners, a chef and a farmer respectively, produce each exquisite element of their 11-course tasting menu, informed by the local terroir as well as their time in Japan. Other reservations to snag ahead of time include the culinary couple’s plant-based Little Saint, the Michelin-starred Barndiva, homegrown chef Dustin Valette’s The Matheson, and the magnificent Farmhouse Restaurant

Sonoma has a cheese trail for the dairy obsessed, and for those craving variety, the town of Sebastopol features The Barlow. This 12-acre outdoor market district is home to distilleries and craft beer brewers as well as wineries (the Old World–styled Pax Wines is especially worth a stop); endless mouthwatering food options (everything from Detroit-style pizza to sushi); and the studios and shops of artisan makers who craft their products onsite. 

Where to Stay in Sonoma County 

The exterior of the Durhing Building, in Sonoma

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Sonoma’s hotel scene is wonderfully diverse. For a rose-studded, wine-tinged stay with mythical cuisine, there’s Farmhouse Inn, where artisanal bath amenities are over the top and the owners’ generational connections to nearby winemakers, patissiers, brewers, cheesemakers, and other talented individuals make for highly customized, heavenly stays. On a larger scale, Montage Healdsburg is a slice of paradise where guest bungalows overlook rows of vines, Hazel Hill restaurant serves up the most flavorsome bounty plucked from Sonoma’s rich soil, and experiences from hiking to beekeeping await. 

Design aficionados will appreciate interior design master Jay Jeffers’ The Madrona, a lovingly reimagined Victorian manse that comprises 24 rooms and bungalows with breathtaking views plus lush gardens, intriguing art, and a restaurant worth dressing up for. Right along Healdsburg’s plaza, highly walkable options include the luxe Hotel Healdsburg, with chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, and h2hotel, an eco-aware gem that leans boho rustic and boasts a living green roof, complimentary bikes, and a solar-heated creekside pool. Sister property Harmon Guest House has local art galore and a similarly sustainable vibe, with chic, spacious rooms and free yoga classes for guests. 

In the heart of downtown Sonoma, there’s The Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection, a serene hideaway celebrating the down-to-earth spirit of Sonoma in a decidedly plush way, with some guest suites and cottages featuring outdoor soaking tubs and fireplaces, and a spa serving up treatments featuring found indigenous botanicals. Meanwhile, on the stunning Sonoma Coast, The Sea Ranch Lodge is a restored property and restaurant blending pristine natural scenes with iconic architecture. 

Long row of grape vines growing on trellises on a sunny day at a vineyard in the Sonoma

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Wineries to Visit in Sonoma County 

As mentioned, there are more than 400 wineries in Sonoma County, which means there’s no risk of ever having to search for vino. That said, when planning a vacation — and booking tastings ahead of time, always advisable and often required — there are definite must-visit wineries throughout the region to keep in mind. The Donum Estate is one of the most stimulating and elegant winery experiences in the county, thanks to its delectable organic pinot noir and chardonnay, of course, but also the ever-growing collection of both architecture and monumental sculpture art. See world-class works by the likes of Ai Wei Wei, Yayoi Kusama, Tracey Emin, Doug Aitken, and Louise Bourgeois. Reserve the Transcend Experience for a pairing of estate and library wines with beautifully composed bites inside Studio Other Spaces’ prismatic Vertical Panorama Pavilion, and allot time to wander the regenerative, museum-like grounds. 

Flowers Vineyards & Winery is equally an experience, with the opportunity for tastings in the House of Flowers that allow the sipper to truly appreciate the nuance and terroir of each wine, grown on the extreme Sonoma Coast since 1991 when the first organic estate vineyards were planted sustainably. Visit California’s oldest family-owned winery, Gundlach Bundschu, for 160-plus years of winemaking expertise that comes through in creative, cool-climate Bordeaux-style wines, soon to be certified regenerative organic. At Abbot’s Passage Winery & Mercantile in Glen Ellen, sit amid gnarled vines heavy with grapes to try sixth-generation vintner Katie Bundschu’s novel, experimental field blends that are beautifully named and happily surprising to the palette. 

The adventurous estate with shuffleboard, bottle service, and multi-course shared-plate offerings is very family-friendly, as is Bricoleur Vineyards outside Healdsburg, where co-owners Mark Hanson and his daughter named their first sparkling rosé, Isla Rose California Brut Rosé, after her baby girl, the sixth generation of this storied Sonoma winemaking family. With easy-drinking wines, excellent food pairing and picnic options (plus wood-fired pizzas), and delightful grounds to explore, it makes for a fun half day. (A father-and-daughter duo is also behind Vérité Wines, which has a salon 20 minutes from Healdsburg for intimate tastings.) Groups can spend even more time at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, where the spotlight is on the preeminent director’s many wines, but offerings also include two swimming pools, a full-service restaurant, bocce, and movie memorabilia. 

With its 1,200-acre sustainable estate and fine culinary experiences, the renowned French-style Jordan Vineyard & Winery gives guests opportunities to immerse in all things local and thoughtful. Far smaller in production, immense care goes into the bottles at DaVero, a regenerative vineyard and winery growing grapes — such as Sagrantino — many Americans have never heard of under the ethos of, “Grow what belongs here. Be patient.” In Dry Creek Valley, the holistic and tranquil Truett Hurst takes a similar approach, producing vinos that authentically impart tastes of the vineyards and characters who make them. And worthy wine tasting rooms in Healdsburg include Bacchus Landing wine cooperative, cool coastal chardonnay and pinot noir operation Marine Layer, and sommelier-owned wine bar Maison Healdsburg.

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