Our definitive guide to Sonoma and Napa Valleys

By Heather Smith MacIsaac
June 01, 2009

Sonoma Valley

How does a green and gold valley roughly 17 miles long and eight miles wide absorb 21/2 million visitors a year?By luring them to the main route, Highway 12, then leading them off it. Set atop ridges and buried in leafy canyons are wineries turning out great Zinfandels (Ravenswood and Kunde) and Cabernets (Arrowood Vineyards). Narrow roads lead to outstanding olive oil and lamb, apples and cheese (goat and dry jack), all notable products of a county still defined by a relaxed rural air. Gather local bounty as you cruise, and choose a place to plant your picnic blanket: a tranquil hillside with a view of Jack London's Beauty Ranch; a fragrant spot amid the lavender gardens of Matanzas Creek Winery. Even the most winning small towns-- Sonoma in the south, Healdsburg in the north-- have perfect green plazas. Sonoma County inns tend to be as peaceful as parks; the locals, sophisticated yet practical. The only slick polish you'll find here is on the pickup trucks. This valley is happy to leave the fancy jeeps to that other valley, its friendly rival due east.

Where to stay in the Sonoma Valley

At the El Dorado Hotel (405 First St. W., Sonoma; 707/996-3030, fax 707/996-3148; doubles from $90, including breakfast), the five rooms-- including two with enormous terraces-- that overlook Sonoma's plaza book first since they offer front-row seats for events like the Fourth of July parade and the Vintage Festival at harvest time. All 26 rooms, however, have French doors leading to balconies and, considering the modest rates, are tastefully if simply outfitted with surprising comforts like down duvets.

Beltane Ranch (11775 Sonoma Hwy., Glen Ellen; 707/996-6501; doubles from $110, including breakfast) has the best porch in Sonoma Valley, a wraparound double-decker outfitted with a swing and hammocks for catching the sunset. There are only five rooms and 1,600 acres, so guests have plenty of privacy and space to roam-- but so do the cougars in the hills. Take a pal with you on the eight-mile trail that winds through the property.

Even guests who aren't drinkers (in wine country?) should plan their day around cocktail time at Above the Clouds Bed & Breakfast (3250 Trinity Rd., Glen Ellen; 800/600-7371 or 707/996-7371; doubles $155, including breakfast). From its perch up in the Mayacamas Mountains, the circa 1850 house overlooks a vast sweep of Sonoma's Valley of the Moon, all ablaze at sunset. Dinner options are wine-country-wide: a left turn out of the driveway takes you three miles down to the floor of Sonoma Valley; eight miles in the other direction and you're in Napa. Come back to rooms (there are only three) as neat and sweet as the proprietors.

It took no time at all for leafy vines to enshroud the newer stuccoed structures at Kenwood Inn & Spa (10400 Sonoma Hwy., Glen Ellen; 707/833-1293, fax 707/833-1247; doubles from $225). Guests mosey in from 12 rooms to the Tuscan-style main house for luscious breakfasts hot from the open kitchen. Brilliant blue (the pool) and lush green (persimmon trees, rosemary, and ivy) furnish the courtyard of this compound, which resembles an Italian hamlet. Unfortunately, no amount of skillful landscaping can mask the rumble of the Sonoma Highway, just steps away: piped-in music simply piles on more noise. (For information on the spa, see .)

Streets packed with shops and restaurants circle the redwood- and palm-shaded central plaza in Healdsburg, such an appealing town that you might as well stay in the heart of it. Two blocks from the plaza, the Camellia Inn (211 North St., Healdsburg; 707/433-8182, fax 707/433-8130; doubles from $75), an Italianate Victorian, has nine comfortable rooms, big buffet breakfasts, and a pool out back. Oh, and 50 varieties of dreamy camellias.

Where to shop in Sonoma Valley

Tom Swain's business card for his shop, Acanthus (22 Boyes Blvd., Boyes Hot Springs; 707/935-7950), defines the inventory as "nothing ordinary." If the mix of minerals, decorative objects, and eclectic furniture is a bit odd, his collection of vintage costume jewelry is nothing short of extraordinary. Slip on a dazzling choker and let your Oscar acceptance speech roll.

Home furnishings emporium Sloan & Jones (100 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707/935-8503) has been attracting more attention than ever since its recent move, a block and a half west, to Sonoma's plaza. Thanks to Sheelagh Sloan and Ann Jones's sophisticated vision, giant French stone urns, lacquered apothecary chests from Korea, Mexican cathedral candles, and English Bakelite flatware all make simpatico housemates.

A vintage stove is admittedly a bulky souvenir, but the ones at Johnny's Appliances & Classic Ranges (17549 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707/996-9730) are so chubby, gleaming, and characterful, they're worth a time-travel detour back to an era of aproned pie bakers.

Readers' Books (131 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707/939-1779), just off Sonoma's plaza, makes you wish for rainy days so you can spend them among its meandering shelves. Back at your hotel, curl up with great reads you might never have discovered were it not for owner Andy Weinberger and his literate staff.

Of the 8,000 rare and used volumes at Plaza Bookshop (40 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707/996-8474), roughly a fifth are devoted to the American West, with special attention to local author Jack London-- and to wine, of course. All the books are collectible, from first editions to an 1814 printing of a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

You can be sure all 15,000 of the toys work at Toyworks (103 Plaza St., Healdsburg; 707/433-4743), because they have been tested by experts: the owners' son and daughter and the manager's four children, among others. Toys that are interactive, educational, or just plain fun get the green light.

The selection of decorative objects is tempting at Leftovers (421 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707/433-3652). One month the windows were dressed in Art Deco and "genteel poverty" themes. Venture inside, and you'll find a gilded ballroom pediment, an 1860's student's lamp, and 1960's Italian silver picture frames.

Where to eat in Sonoma

If you left San Francisco hungry, you'll be especially happy to spy Viansa Winery Italian Marketplace (25200 Arnold Dr., Sonoma; 707/935-4700), just 45 minutes out of the city, anchoring a hill as you enter Sonoma Valley. Take your selection-- a slice of torta rustica, a glass of 1995 Piccolo Toscano, and a fig bar-- out to one of the tables beneath a shady pergola, and try to identify all the waterfowl in the 90-acre wetland preserve below.

Piatti (405 First St. W., Sonoma; 707/996-2351; dinner for two $40) may be part of a chain, but its spit-grilled chicken is moist and flavorful, its patio cool and popular. Best of all, it serves until 10 o'clock, 11 on weekends (late in these parts), so you can have dinner after catching an indie movie or a poetry reading at the Sebastiani Theater across the plaza.

The menu changes weekly at Bistro Ralph (109 Plaza St., Healdsburg; 707/433-1380; dinner for two $50), except for favorites like the Szechwan pepper calamari, whose absence would cause an uproar. Chef-owner Ralph Tingle draws exclusively from the Healdsburg area for his organic produce, lamb, breads, and wines; fish swim in on ice (but never frozen) from San Francisco.

Until the Flying Goat Coffee Roastery Café (324 Center St., Healdsburg; 707/433-9081; coffee and pastries for two $8) arrived, there wasn't any real read-the-paper-all-day hangout in Healdsburg. Now half the local population seems to spend half the day here, nibbling on panini or slices of coffee cake amid the aroma of roasting beans. Tuck a Goat Bar (chocolate, oats, and walnuts) in your pocket for a quick pick-me-up later.

Ravenous (117 North St., Healdsburg; 707/431-1770; dinner for two $45) is what you will no longer be when you've had a meal of mahimahi with black rice and tropical salsa at this eight-table café. The adjoining movie theater, the 600-seat Raven (707/433-5448 for show times), is the largest in Sonoma County. An evening divided between the two spots makes for a perfect low-key, low-cost date; a black T-shirt with a red raven makes a squawkin' souvenir.

Without so much as a table, the Downtown Bakery & Creamery (308A Center St., Healdsburg; 707/431-2719), on the square in Healdsburg, always draws a morning crowd. Almond pecan twists and focaccia pizzas are best eaten on the spot. A jar of fig jam is a packable memento, though it will make you long for this bakery's modern wonder breads. Sourdough baguettes and sticky buns are best-sellers.

The prosaic name suits the Jimtown Store (6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707/433-1212). Neighbors come in to pick up toilet paper and six-packs along with newspapers and gossip, and travelers stop for fresh-squeezed lemonade to go with Brie and olive salad on baguettes. Children or the child-minded flip for baskets brimming with balsa-wood gliders, drawstring bags of gold gum nuggets, and Myrna Loy paper dolls. En route from the store to the picnic tables on the patio, check out the folksy antiques from America's heartland.

Napa Valley

Considering Napa Valley's status as the most densely concentrated winery region in the world-- 240 wineries in the 30-mile stretch between the towns of Napa and Calistoga-- it's still a relatively peaceful place. Just about the only time you'll have to wait in line is when the traffic slows along Highway 29, the two-lane main road. Still, 29 is a thoroughfare you can't and wouldn't want to avoid utterly, lined as it is with worthy restaurants and shops, in addition to tasting rooms. As you travel north, you'll pass signs for lanes that traverse the valley floor. Take one so you can shift from highway to byway, and from the vein of commerce to the land of glens and pastures and rhythmic rows of vines. The Silverado Trail runs parallel to 29 along the eastern side of the valley, but at a more relaxed pace. After a few days of exploring and sipping, you'll no longer dismiss Napa's hokey billboards that declare, " . . . and the wine is bottled poetry. . . ." Yes, even Robert Louis Stevenson fell under the area's spell.

Where to stay in Napa Valley

Oak Knoll Inn (2200 E. Oak Knoll Ave., Napa; 707/255-2200; doubles from $225) may be conveniently close to Highway 29, but the 600 acres of Chardonnay vines that surround it ensure guests the greatest luxury of all-- quiet. The veranda and views are broad; the pool, Jacuzzi, and arbor, perfect elixirs for hot summer days. There are only four (huge) rooms, which means a lucky few get all of the above to themselves.

David Jackson and Craig Claussen are restless types, forever tinkering with their 20-room project, La Residence Country Inn (4066 St. Helena Hwy., Napa; 707/253-0337, fax 707/253-0382; doubles from $150). Flanking a trellised pool area are an 1870 mansion with tall Victorian interiors and a French barn with larger rooms, done up à la Pierre Deux. Live oak centenarians filter the summer sun, though not the hum of traffic. Care for a little Italian with your French?Popular Bistro Don Giovanni is a five-minute walk up the road.

Waterways course through the Eden-like grounds and tidy clusters of two-story buildings that make up the Vintage Inn (6541 Washington St., Yountville; 800/351-1133 or 707/944-1112, fax 707/944-1617; doubles from $150), a lucky thing since the gurgle and splash help mask the noise of nearby Highway 29. Rooms on the ground floor lead to rosebush-bordered patios; the ones upstairs soar to cathedral ceilings and open onto verandas. And in any of the 80 rooms, you can light a fire; too bad the logs are artificial.

The juiced-up scale of Michael Taylor's 1981 interiors now seems more amusing than chic. Still, the 52 guest rooms are oh-so-comfortable. After all these years, no inn tops Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800/348-5406 or 707/963-1211, fax 707/963-8764; doubles from $350) for indulgence-- in terms of space, sun, and privacy. With a pool, tennis courts, sculpture trail, deep views, and the most romantic restaurant in the valley, the Auberge makes sure you never need or want to leave.

El Bonita Motel (195 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-3216, fax 707/963-8838; doubles from $87) is so fastidiously cared for and charmingly embellished-- with window boxes, trellises, and potted topiary-- you can't help falling for it as a model of its kind. Rooms in the newer two-story building at the back are larger and quieter. Families will appreciate the kitchenettes and the supply of cribs and rollaway beds.

Vineyard Country Inn (201 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-1000, fax 707/963-1794; doubles $195) has none of the dolls and dainty dishes that characterize so many of its kin. Instead, it has handsome pencil-post beds, walnut armoires, and wrought-iron lamps in 21 spacious suites, most of which look out, through windows unobstructed by swags, to rows of mature vines. Dancing across the slate roofline are spiraling brick chimneys for the wood-burning fireplaces that are in every room.

The accommodations at the Inn at Southbridge (1020 Main St., St. Helena; 800/520-6800 or 707/967-9400, fax 707/967-9486; doubles from $195) are the most refreshing in Napa Valley. Ceilings open to the rafters make the second-floor rooms lofty; white piqué cotton bedspreads and pickled-fir woodwork lend them a lightness; fireplaces, fruit, and candles make them notably luxurious. The inn has little in the way of public rooms or facilities, but who needs lots of lobby when you have all of St. Helena at your doorstep, or sports equipment when you have privileges at sister resort Meadowood, less than two miles away?The inn is opening its own spa this summer.

As you wind into the canyon where the White Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa (3100 White Sulphur Springs Rd., St. Helena; 707/963-8588, fax 707/963-2890; doubles from $85) takes shelter, ignore the private property sign and take note of established 1852 engraved in a stone pillar at the entrance. For a modest price you get rustic lodging at the inn, or in the carriage house, or in a cottage-- as well as dips in the hot springs (spa treatments available), trails winding into redwoods, waterfalls, songbirds, and a creek skipping past your door.

Calistoga has no shortage of cottage accommodations, but none are better-conceived than those at the new Cottage Grove Inn (1711 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 800/799-2284 or 707/942-8400, fax 707/942-2653; doubles $175). Each of the 16 storybook structures has a front porch with wicker rockers, a fireplace, TV/VCR, wet bar, and deep Jacuzzi tub. Twin armchairs and bedside lights keep couples happy.

Indian Springs Resort & Spa (1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-4913; doubles $160) is a bungalow colony where Adirondack chairs pair up on the lawn and croquet mallets are left out for pickup games. Welcoming porches front the 17 little houses; out back are hammocks and Weber grills; across the way is the 1913 bathhouse for spa treatments and mud soaks. When it's too cold for a cookout, it's just right for a dunk in the Olympic-size pool, whose 100-degree water is supplied by a thermal geyser.

By the time you've pulled up to Meadowlark Country House (601‚605 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga; 707/942-5651, fax 707/942-5023; doubles from $125), you've crossed a narrow bridge and passed a suits-optional pool and a meadow with frisky horses raised by innkeeper Kurt Stevens. The sun, the shade, and the silence will hold you-- but break away long enough to see the world's largest petrified forest, just up the road.

Where to eat in Napa Valley

In spite of its French moniker, Bistro Don Giovanni (4110 St. Helena Hwy., Napa; 707/224-3300; dinner for two $45) sets a spread that is pure Italian, meaning the vegetable of choice is garlicky broccoli rabe, the pesto ravioli is house-made, and dinner can be as simple as pizza with fennel sausage (from a wood-fired oven, of course) and a glass of Barbera d'Asti at the bar.

It's worth rising early so you can squeeze in breakfast at your hotel, plus: cornmeal pancakes at the Yountville Diner (6476 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2626);a morning bun from Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. (1400 Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-1183); and a cranberry-orange buttermilk scone from the Model Bakery (1357 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-8192).

At the French Laundry (6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2380; dinner for two $150), the problem for diners who'll try anything once is that 1+1+1+1+1+1+1 spells R-I-C-H. Though the portions are reasonable in Chef Thomas Keller's tasting-menu dishes, the ingredients are the likes of foie gras, caviar, and wild mushrooms. The strategy: Fast all day before dinner, pace yourself during the meal (take advantage of the thoughtful selection of half-bottles on the wine list), and if you edge near the precipice of complete overindulgence, borrow the clothespin that came with your napkin and apply to lips. Choose from a five-or seven-course tasting or vegetarian menu and reserve a table well ahead, in the garden if possible.

Could it be that 20 years have gone by since Domaine Chandon (1 California Dr., Yountville; 707/944-2892; lunch for two $60), the area's only full-scale winery restaurant, threw open its French doors?Chef Philippe Jeanty hooks diners with seafood in particular-- tuna pepper steak topped by a leek tumbleweed, grilled salmon wrapped in pancetta, sea scallops with sweet-pea sauce. Try a different glass of sparkling wine with every course. And if you want to dine under a market umbrella on the terrace, surrounded by vineyards and towering oaks, reserve for lunch.

Locals stream into Gordon's Café & Wine Bar (6770 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8246; lunch for two $20) for cinnamon buns at breakfast, and niçoise or roasted tomato tarts at lunch. But they pile up on the front porch on Friday nights, the only time the café serves dinner, a wildly popular $30 prix fixe menu. No reservations are taken, but house-cured Italian olives and local wine, available by the glass or splash, help while away the wait.

The parking lot is always full at Mustards Grill (7399 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville; 707/944-2424; dinner for two $50), where the food has never wandered far from home cooking. Out of the smoker come duck and ribs; off the grill jump hanger steak and center-cut pork chops marinated overnight and rubbed with hoisin sauce. Garlic mashed potatoes are so popular they're whipped up all day long.

Brix (7377 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville; 707/944-2749; lunch for two $40) is especially fun at lunchtime, when you can watch the cooks pluck herbs, lettuces, and root vegetables from the raised beds while you sit back, relax, and chomp on a seafood cigar-- finely ground shrimp, salmon, mahimahi, and ono combined with minced vegetables in a lumpia wrapper. Having trained most recently with Hawaiian star Roy Yamaguchi, chef Tod Michael Kawachi brings a welcome Pacific Rim influence to wine country.

A call ahead to the Oakville Grocery (7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 707/944-8802), Napa Valley's best outpost for unconventional picnic fare, reserves a box lunch. Better yet, customize your basket by sampling from the charcuterie and bakery departments. The hummus with chipotle peppers, inspired by Oaxacan deli manager Angel Perez, is a must, as are crackling orange-ginger cookies for the road. Starting this month, Sonoma County gets to share in the bounty when a new Oakville Grocery, with outdoor seating, opens on the plaza in Healdsburg (124 Matheson St.; 707/433-3200).

The smell of steak cooking over a hardwood fire at the Rutherford Grill (1180 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford; 707/963-1792; lunch for two $25) lassos hungry drivers. Inside, they find red booths and dim lighting reminiscent of old Hollywood grills and one of the tastiest bargains in the valley, an $8.50 chicken dip sandwich, served with a heap of coleslaw or wild rice salad. Kids' portions of tender rotisserie chicken or leg of lamb are $6.75; a bone for your dog, free of charge.

With Pinot Blanc (641 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-6191, dinner for two $60), chef-owner Joachim Splichal brings his bistro empire north from Los Angeles. Tinted windows and a dining room that seats 170 hardly evoke a French country restaurant, but rabbit loin and roasted foie gras do. Other specialties of a chef known in the business as Mr. Potato: lasagna and a "layer cake," both made of spuds.

If there's one place to go with a gang of friends, Ristorante Tra Vigne (1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-4444; dinner for two $60) is it. Order a plate of pesci fritti (calamari coated in arborio rice flour, fried, and tossed with mustard-seed vinaigrette). Or when the restaurant is too mobbed, head for the tasting bar at Cantinetta Tra Vigne in the courtyard, and work your way through the house flavored oils and vinegars.

Kids and grown-ups alike love Tomatina (1016 Main St., St. Helena; 707/967-9999; lunch for two $20) for its straightforward menu of pizzas and pastas, free drink refills, fast service, and long wooden tables that encourage family-style dining. Look for the big red tomato out front.

At Terra(1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-8931; dinner for two $90), chef Hiro Sone, formerly of L.A.'s Spago, is a pilot who delights in an unexpected itinerary. You may touch down in Europe (panzanella with feta cheese) and Asia (sake-marinated sea bass) before circling back to the States (angel food cake with strawberries and lemon custard cream). It all adds up to a memorable meal, without a lot of fuss.

Like the students enrolled in the Culinary Institute upstairs, diners at the Wine Spectator restaurant (Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, 2555 Main St., St. Helena; 707/967-1100; dinner for two $55) delight in taking their t-buds on tour, a task made easy by the menu's extensive list of cold and hot tastings. The best thing about the fried-to-a-crisp fresh anchovies and the gigante beans in a tomato ragoût?Not having to slave over a hot stove, like the students upstairs, to enjoy them.

From under the wine country blanket of Mediterranean fare comes Catahoula Restaurant & Saloon (Mount View Hotel, 1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-2275; dinner for two $50), a Louisianan wake-up holler. Surrounded by two-dimensional Catahoula hound dogs, diners wash down Bienville oyster cakes and spicy barbecue shrimp-- chef Jan Birnbaum's nod to mentor Paul Prudhomme-- with Sazeracs, the house cocktail. The only way to drink this mix of Old Overholt whiskey, Herbsaint (an aromatic spirit), bitters, and sugar?Straight up in a martini glass.

On a balmy evening in Calistoga, the place to be is at a table under the grape arbor at Wappo Bar & Bistro (1226B Washington St., Calistoga; 707/942-4712; dinner for two $40), ordering something exotic. Try the seared Chilean sea bass with mint chutney and lentil crêpes, or the hornado, pork braised in chilies and beer. If you still have room, the caramel ice cream sandwich topped with caramelized bananas will take care of it.

Where to shop in Napa Valley

At her eponymous shop, Erika Hills (115 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-0919) knows better than to tamper with the finish on an 18th-century Venetian mirror. But Hills is free with a brush and milk-based paints when it comes to Austrian-style armoires and Louis XV‚style armchairs in need of embellishment. The icing on the cake: Limoges, Dresden, and Capo di Monte porcelain that seduces decorators from San Francisco to New York.

The ladies who give luncheons load up on Italian ceramics, natural-fiber table linens-- and paper goods in imitation of both at Vanderbilt & Co. (1429 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-1010).

You'll pay heavenward prices for the clothes in earthy hues at WilkesSport (1219 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-4323), but the swath you cut through the vineyards will be strictly sophisticated, in that understated wine country way.

Calla Lily (1429 Main St., St. Helena; 707/ 963-8188) stocks ultrafine bed linens from Italy and Ireland. A great find for travelers: the fast-drying Aquis towel, made of a Japanese microfiber that feels like terry but is five times as absorbent.

Coveting the antique corkscrews on view in many a winery?Richard Larson has a good supply at St. Helena Antiques (1231 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-5878), along with Provençal pottery and other mostly French objets.

At her shop Tapioca Tiger (1224A Adams St., St. Helena; 707/967-0608), Jamie Graff sells charming kids' clothing, handcrafted furniture, bedding, and toys. Her two-year-old son Jackson's favorites are the sand table filled with objects that can be moved by magnets, and the rocking tiger.

Hikers, bikers, and climbers who forget to pack the right layers will be grateful to Sportago (1224 Adams St., St. Helena; 707/963-9042) for stocking the perfect Patagonia shells and Royal Robbins shorts.

For the pet who barks or mews, "What did you bring me?" there is Fideaux (1400 Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/967-9935). Come home with a rubber animal that quacks or croaks, or a Fideaux futon, made exclusively for the store.

Michael Coon was with Williams-Sonoma for 2 1/2 years; now he's in charge of the Campus Store & Marketplace at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (2555 Main St., St. Helena; 888/ 424-2433 or 707/967-2309), the place to go for the latest gadgets, the sharpest knives, and the best selection of cookbooks in wine country.

Buried among the drippy, extravagantly sculpted oddities at Hurd Beeswax (707/963-7211) are all sizes of simple beeswax tapers and pillars that can't be beat.