March 20, 2016 Leave a comment
Napa started it, of course, the wine revolution in the state of California. Like a typical big brother, it lords its tenure and viniculture muscle over little sister Sonoma. The two counties are both known for their beautiful wineries and rolling hills crawling with grape vines. Napa Valley may boast bigger and more well-known properties, but Sonoma Valley guards its own superlatives, which in many ways make it a more well-rounded destination. As spring’s warmth begins to coax out fresh green vineyard canopies, add these six Sonoma Valley benefits to your travel plans.
Free wine tastings
Along Wine Road, you will find more than 400 wineries that welcome the public for tastings of their wares and a chance to purchase wines that are often unavailable or difficult to find elsewhere. At more than 60 of the wineries you can score free tastings: Some simply don’t charge; others are on the Visa Signature Perks plan, where if you show that particular credit card, you get complimentary tastings for two. Tastings usually run around $20 or more per person, so you can realize great savings if you plan ahead and get on the Visa Signature program, which also gets you discounts on purchases made at the qualifying wineries.
The charming town of Sonoma
Smaller and more neighborly than the city of Napa, downtown Sonoma orderly comports itself around a square with a park at center and the historic city hall. Known as Sonoma Plaza, it ranks as the largest plaza in California. A state historic park takes up one block of Spain Street, which borders the plaza on one side. It encompasses a number of Spanish colonial sites including the circa-1823 Mission San Francisco Solano — the 21st and last mission built in Alta California. The historic El Dorado hotel with its highly hailed Kitchen restaurant overlooks the plaza. Or keep in the mission theme at elegant Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn a few blocks from the plaza. Its Santé restaurant absolutely shines at fine California cuisine. Or go for craft cocktails and modern munchies at Whiskey Bar & Grill downtown. Among the shops and galleries around the square, foodies should not miss the Sonoma Cheese Factory, so much more than its name implies.
The equally charming town of Healdsburg
A shopper’s and diner’s delight, Healdsburg too centers around a town plaza. Wine tasting rooms, galleries, and fun gift and clothing shops surround the central park and the block to the north. Check out Studio Barndiva for local artworks and wine sipping. Circa 1902 Healdsburg Inn will put you up in style in the thick of all the charm and action.
For inimitable historic lodging and over-the-top dining experience in the Healdsburg area, Madrona Manor revolves around a beautiful Victorian mansion built in 1881. The grounds overlook vineyards and hold gorgeous gardens of flowers, statuary, a lovely pool, citrus trees, and vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Luxury accommodations live in the mansion, the Carriage House, the School House, and other cottages and vintage structures. The dining room too occupies the mansion for an elegant foray into molecular gastronomy that wows the taste buds course after course.
Home to nationally televised NASCAR, Indy-car, and motorcycle races, the Sonoma Raceway is a little-known bonus to car enthusiasts visiting the area. Right at the southern threshold to wine country, it lets visitors tour around the scenic, hilly track for free when there are no racing events. Many days you can watch drivers enrolled in its Audi Sportscar Experience take to the track. Or suit up and try it yourself. Don’t miss the spit-and-shine garage housing McLarens and other luxe cars. Then wash away the road dust with a short drive to Ram’s Gate, Viansa, and Jacuzzi wineries. (The latter offers free wine tastings to the general public.)
Sonoma’s best edge over Napa Valley just might be what lies at the edge of its western shore – Pacific Ocean beaches. Rugged cliffs overlook golden sands and migrating gray whales for more than 55 miles along the dramatic coastline. (In spring the whales are heading southbound from Alaska to Mexico, and volunteers are on hand at Bodega Head to help spot them and answer questions.) Other favorite beaches include Bowling Ball Beach, Goat Rock State Beach, and Salmon Creek Beach.