Most people know that "Sonoma" refers to a wine region in California north of the Bay area next to Napa Valley. However, it wasn't until recently when I actually visited Sonoma that I began to appreciate the various nuances of what that word means.
There is Sonoma County, a large area with close to half a million people that includes the cities of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa (home of the Charles Schultz museum, Russian River Brewing, and much more!) and Sonoma. It includes the "American Viticultural Areas" (AVA) winemaking regions of Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and more.
Sonoma Valley is an AVA region that is only about 17 miles long and includes the city of Sonoma as well as parts of Santa Rosa and the towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood.
Historic Sonoma Plaza is the bustling town center in the city of Sonoma. It is filled with cute cafes, excellent restaurants, and numerous wine tasting rooms. It's a lovely place to stroll around, enjoy some wine tastings, and a meal. Partly because of my long standing relationship with the Sonoma Valley Visitor's Bureau, I have visited numerous times and always enjoy coming back. Here are some places that we have visited and enjoyed.
Stop by Basque Boulangerie, a bustling bakery that makes all sorts of crusty loaves, cakes, pies, and cookies. Try their signature dessert, the Beehive Cake, a sweet Danish cake made with custard and honey almond praline. Rachel Ray featured this dessert on her show, “Forty Dollars a Day.” You can buy a whole cake or order by the slice.
The bakery draws its inspiration from its founder who opened the bakery with the intent of bringing in traditional baking techniques from the Basque region in Spain. The original owners brought over old world European baking methods, producing beautifully crusty loaves using traditional stone hearth ovens.
If you're willing to drive just a little up the road from Sonoma Plaza, check out Crisp Bake Shop, a lovely bakery serving exquisite pastries, excellent coffee, and amazing cookies. It's definitely worth the detour.
The Red Grape is a local favorite when it comes to thin crust pizzas. The family-friendly spot is filled with brick ovens churning out delicious thin-crust pizzas all day long. Voted as a favorite lunch spot in Sonoma, locals love this casual, low-key spot for its fantastic pizzas and excellent pasta dishes.
A plethora of excellent dining choices exist right in Sonoma Plaza. One of our favorites is The Girl & the Fig, a rustic, neighborhood restaurant serving local and seasonal ingredients executed with solid French techniques. It is the quintessential wine country dining experience. Cafe La Haye is another excellent choice. This cozy, romantic restaurant serves a constant-changing seasonally-inspired menu and rustic favorites at reasonable prices.
There are many other solid choices. El Dorado Kitchen, located inside the El Dorado Hotel, offers dishes made from farm-fresh ingredients. This very popular restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and includes a bar area as well as patio seats. Harvest Moon Cafe also focuses on sustainability and partners with many local sustainable farms. The above-mentioned The Red Grape is also open for dinner, and offers a casual, family-friendly environment for excellent wood-fired pizzas and Italian dishes.
Kamen Estate Winery
We love the wines from Kamen Estate Winery, so much so that we signed up as wine club members in 2013 after discovering their wine at Sonoma County Wine Weekend. The owner, Robert Kamen, is a Hollywood screenwriter. He has written tons of films over the last 20+ years, including the Karate Kid series, the Transporter series, The Fifth Element, and Taken.
His viticulturist, Phil Coturri, is a genius when it comes to wine making and is well-respected in the area. All of the wines are made using biodynamic methods. The vineyard itself is stunning, and is definitely worth a visit (you can book a private tour, which they offer daily by appointment only).
When wineries in France or Spain can be hundreds of years old, there are many very new wineries popping up in California. Corner 103 is one of the newest, having opened their doors in April of 2015. Corner 103 is named after the corner at which the tasting room is located in Sonoma Plaza.
The founder, Lloyd, wanted to create a tasting room and wine experience that was inviting to everyone - regardless of whether one was a “wine person” or not.
Too often Lloyd sensed that some people think that they are not “wine people” and thus can’t tell the difference between a good wine and a bad wine. Lloyd’s philosophy is that everyone has an opinion and a palate. He tries to set up his tastings in a way that encourage everybody to really taste and discover what they like or don’t like.
Stop by the cozy tasting room and sample a variety of wines that Corner 103 is making. Because the company is relatively new, they only have wines that were released in 2015 (2012 vintage and aged for 3 years).
Sojourn Cellars is another newer winery, having come on the scene with its first vintage in 2004. Sojourn is best known for its Wind Gap Pinot Noir, a beautiful, balanced wine that tastes great on its own but also pairs beautifully with all sorts of food.
However, the winery makes a whole line of wines, everything from chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s fun to taste through a large part of their (still very manageable-sized) collection.
The tasting room at Sojourn is located inside a quaint house just a half block off the main square. One of the guides will take you through a tasting of their two white wines, their pinot noirs, and even one of their Cabernet Sauvignon (which is quite good, actually!).
Biking Tour of Vineyards
A super fun, slightly more active way of visiting the vineyards in the area is to explore by bike. You can rent bikes at Wine Country Cyclery, right in Sonoma Plaza, where they will also provide you with a map showing bike routes to nearby vineyards as well as discounts to tastings at those wineries. They have plenty of parking for cars, so it's a convenient place to leave your car if you want to explore all day via bicycle. Click here for more details about which wineries are part of the bike route, as well as photos and our thoughts about the whole experience.
All in all, Sonoma Plaza is a fun square to visit. There are often festivals going on right in the middle of the square. The weekend we visited, we stumbled upon Oktoberfest right in the square. They had beer, all sorts of food, and live performances.
Disclaimer - I partnered with Sonoma Valley Visitor's Bureau for this series. They helped me set up several of these visits. As a result, the places that I have or have not visited in Sonoma are inevitably influenced by this fact. Nevertheless, all opinions are my own. I did not pay for the experiences that were part of the itinerary and I was not paid to write any of these blog posts.