I can't think of a better holiday than one enriched
by great scenery, food and wine, and good friends.
And so, as a Valentine's present to ourselves
and our friends, my wife and I met five other
couples at Sacramento Airport, piled into a fifteen
passenger van, and took off for Sonoma.
We had been to Napa Valley several times. We had
never been to Sonoma. Napa is California's most
famous wine growing region. Sonoma, just a dozen
miles further east, also has a reputation for
great wines. But while Napa is upscale, chic,
nouveau riche, Sonoma is less touristy and still
has a charming small town, old west feel.
I decided to stay in the heart of old town Sonoma.
My grand plan was to bike ride from the town to
several nearby wineries: Gundlach-Bundschu, Bartholomew
Park, Buena-Vista, and Sebastiani. The roads are
less heavily trafficked in Sonoma then those in
Napa. But the vagaries of February weather and
the infirmities of our group, led me to put that
plan aside and drive to local wineries. Judging
from the raucous good humor that soon arose after
our "tasting" began; I think it was
a wise decision. The country roads and vineyard
covered rolling hills of Sonoma, however, are
beautiful. So, if you're braver, younger, and
can remain more sober than our group, call Doug
or Penny at Goodtime Bicycles in Sonoma, (888-525-0453).
They'll deliver bikes to wherever you're staying
and either guide you through the valley or help
you map your own trip.
The town of Sonoma is anchored by its town square.
It's an enormous shaded plaza rimmed by historic
adobe buildings - a former Mexican army barracks,
the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma - the
northernmost of California's chain of 18th century
Spanish missions, 19th century hotels, and boutiques
and gourmet restaurants. Sonoma's City Hall sits
in the center of the town plaza with its country
charm underscored by the ducks and chickens strolling
along its sidewalks and steps. At one corner of
the plaza's park, there's a bronze statue of an
early California settler holding the Bear Flag.
The statue honors the events of 1846 when, for
one month, Sonoma was the capital of another country.
At that time American settlers declared themselves
independent of Mexico and made Sonoma the capital
of the new Republic of California. A month later,
however, the American flag was raised and California
became part of the United States.
We stayed at the Cottage Inn and Spa (800-944-1490)
- a seven-room inn on First Street, just fifty
yards from the Plaza. Rates start at $140/night
but most rooms run from $200-300. You can easily
walk to the Plaza or bike to nearby wineries from
here. The inn sits almost hidden behind a high
white stucco wall and can best be found on First
Street by looking for its unique bell tower. Each
room has its own private entrance with romantic
gardens and fountain courtyards. There are fireplaces
and spa tubs in most rooms, cathedral ceilings
in several, and queen and king beds. But the Cottage
Inn advertises itself as a bed & breakfast
and a spa - and it is really neither. There's
a small outdoor courtyard spa. But it is not very
inviting. And breakfast is continental. In the
evening, a table is set in your room for the next
morning's breakfast. There's cereal on the table
and milk and juice are stocked in the refrigerator.
An assortment of rolls and pastries are placed
on your door in the morning. The inn is a collection
of private bungalows. The Cottage Inn does not
have an inviting sitting room nor offer the home
cooked breakfasts that I've come to love about
most bed & breakfasts. But its rooms are spacious,
the setting intimate, and it is perfectly located
in the heart of downtown Sonoma.
Touring wineries is always an education - for
mind and palate. We began our tour of Sonoma wineries
at Gundlach-Bundschu, a small winery that lays
claim to being "the oldest family owned winery
in the United States," releasing their first
vintage in 1858. At our next stop, Buena-Vista
Winery, our guide announced it as "the oldest
premium winery in the state of California,"
founded in 1857 by wine pioneer, Hungarian Count
Agoston Haraszthy. And Sebastiani Winery lays
claim to an even earlier heritage. Some of their
wines will say vineyards established 1824, although
the Sebastiani family didn't arrive until 1869.
The renown of an ancient heritage is often in
the eye of the vintner.
At every winery we visited, we had great guides.
Their jobs may not have great pay or benefits,
but I think they thoroughly enjoyed their work.
Their job is sort of like being a teacher with
a wine glass in hand all day. They get to stroll
in beautiful surroundings, describe the history
of their winery, and educate people about winemaking.
All while sipping the local brew and encouraging
guests to drink up. There cannot be many better
Our guide at Gundlach-Bundschu took us on a tour
of their long tunneled caves. Once you get below
ten meters underground, we were told, the temperature
is pretty constant - 58 degrees all year round.
A cave is cool and humid and keeps the evaporation
of wine, stored there in wooden barrels, to about
2 percent. A cave is also more economical for
storing wine than a warehouse. The cost of electricity
to cool a warehouse is expensive and air-conditioned
air is dryer. So, barrels stored in warehouse
conditions lose 7-10% of their volume by evaporation.
I enjoyed our tour of Gundlach-Bundschu. Strolling
through their caves with the air filled with the
vapors of wine, one exits with a little inebriated
smile - and a little more educated.
Buena-Vista Winery was our second stop. Here is
perhaps the best place to relax and picnic in
Sonoma. You can buy some meats and cheeses in
their store or better yet, before beginning your
sojourn of wineries, stop to pick up the fixings
for a picnic lunch at one of the markets in town.
On the Plaza is the Sonoma Cheese Market where
you can first taste an assortment of cheeses and
meats and then order a lunch for later.
With our tasting at Buena-Vista, we learned a
little more about the process of winemaking. Wine
is aged in oak barrels because oak "smoothes
and softens" the texture of wine and adds
its own flavors. The majority of the barrels are
French oak, fewer are American. The choice is
up to the winemaker. Wine generally sits in barrels
for 1-2 years before their bottled. Barrels cost
about $700 and are re-usable for about six years.
Then they become junk and sell for ten bucks apiece.
Weather and soil shape the grape and the wines
made from them, our guide explained, and because
of those variations, acreage in a wine growing
region is given special appellations. The Sonoma
Valley has its Carneros region, Sonoma Valley
region, and Sonoma Mountain. And, depending on
the winery, you might find those appellations
as part of a wine's name.
Wine growers pay for satellite over-flights of
their vineyards. Infrared photos show which areas
are growing appropriately - dark green areas that
are overgrown and need to be pruned, brown areas
that need irrigation. The winemaker will then
choose the exact time to pick by based on a "flavor
profile" that's part subjective, the taste
of the juice of the grape, and part scientific,
testing for the quantity of sugar in the grape.
As picking season draws near, testing the "brix"
of the grape becomes more intense. Brix is French
for sugar. Winemakers send people out in the field
with refractometer to measure "brix."
When it's right, picking begins.
While the wine business is high tech, big business,
it is still, bottom line, farming. A winemaker
can make decisions based on science and experience
but will always be dependent on the whim of Mother
Just 10 miles north of Sonoma's Plaza, along Highway
12, is the hamlet of Glen Ellen, a one block town
center surrounded by several bed-and-breakfast
inns, a few restaurants, and several wineries.
The town seems centered around the memory of its
most famous resident, Jack London, author of "Call
of the Wild." There's a Jack London museum
and a Jack London State Historical Park. Just
past the park is Benzinger Family Winery, another
perfect place for sipping or an outdoor picnic.
Our next stop was Arrowood Winery, a relatively
new boutique winery (no "oldest" claims)
founded by classic winemaker, Richard Arrowood.
More tasting here and more education.
The flavor of the wine, our guide at Arrowood
explained, is in the skin. You want to have a
nice "skin to juice ratio." There's
even an art to picking grapes so as to not to
bruise them. The seeds and stems apparently put
bitterness into wine you don't want to have. At
the winery, grapes are put into a crusher where
they are "ever so slightly" cracked.
The best wine, we were told, comes from this "first
press" where the grapes are crushed by their
own weight. This is called "free run."
The winemaker gets the highest quality but least
amount of juice in this "first press."
The less "dear" wines come from the
second or third "mechanical" pressing
of the grapes.
That's why there are so many nuances to wine.
The soil matters, the climate matters, the sugar
matters, the picking matters, the pressing matters,
the barrels matter, and the aging matters. And
all I cared about was the drinking.
Downtown Sonoma has several excellent restaurants:
Maya serving spicy Yucatan; the Girl & the
Fig, French country; La Haye, California cuisine,
and La Poste, where our group dined, serving French
cuisine in an intimate atmosphere.
The Bistrot La Poste, does a wonderful job of
imitating a tiny Parisian bistro in the midst
of country Sonoma. Our party of twelve was gently
squeezed into a corner table, occupying half of
the restaurant. Our reservation was late in the
evening, and several of the entrees were "gone."
But we were treated like guests in a family home,
with humor and close attention. It seemed, everyone
else dining there had a birthday or perhaps "Happy
Birthday" is really a French ditty. By consensus,
the main course choices, and we tried most, were
all good. And while the cozy quarters made service
somewhat difficult, it also made the meal and
our friendships more intense.
At the tip of the Carneros Hills wine region,
as one leaves Sonoma and enters Napa, sits Domaine
Carneros with its landmark replica tasting rooms
modeled after a grand 18th-century French chateau.
This was our last stop. Here you can taste wines
on a grand terrace overlooking the winery's gardens
and vineyards or indoors in an elegant salon.
On the day we visited, a string trio serenaded
visitors on the terrace as we sipped Domaine Carneros'
renowned champagnes. As friends toasted each other
with the bubbly, I was too relaxed to learn much
more about wine and winemaking. Six twists open
a champagne bottle, I remember. But who really
Perhaps my next adventure will be to head further
north from Sonoma, to the Russian River Valley,
to new terrain, with new vintages to experience.