Millions of people from all over the globe visit the infamous California Wine Country every year. Most stay on the beaten path, follow their tour books and restaurant guides, stop at the same roadside grocery stores and visit the same picturesque and historic wineries. Sadly, most end-up in the same traffic jams on the same roads, wait in the same lines, and bring home a similar version of the same photographs.
Texans like to do things differently. They need room to roam and the opportunity to explore, places to discover on their own rather than following the crowds. They need to be able to relax and feel welcome in a place where they can be themselves. No stuffy tasting rooms where service is dependent on the size of the diamond on your finger or the label on your handbag. Sonoma County is the place for Texans in the California Wine Country.
After spending six months in Sonoma on a work assignment last year, this Texan discovered what few Texans know about Sonoma County. Read on to hear more about my experience and recommendations for my fellow Texans with the same spirit of independence and adventure. First, let’s look at some of the facts:
It is Big – Sonoma County covers more than 1 million acres of beautiful, rugged and diverse land, including 13,000 acres of public parks, endless acres of agriculture and pastureland (you may even spot a longhorn or two) and 76 miles of breathtaking coastline and beaches made for watching the sunset. All that land and open space with a population of approximately 500,000 lucky people.
It is Pristine – Surrounded by towering redwood forests (Muir Woods is worth the stop if you are coming from San Francisco), the county includes countless acres of wetlands and seven marine protected areas, dense forests of redwoods, rocky cliffs and unspoiled beaches. The coastal area is home to enough wildlife to make any Texan feel at home.
It is Historic – Founded in 1850 (the same year Texas gave up New Mexico), Sonoma County is home to the first wineries in the California Wine Country. This is where it all started, and the wineries tell the story. You can even find a preserved Spanish Mission from 1823 — about 100 years after than the Alamo construction — in the middle of downtown Sonoma.
It is Delicious – Famous for farm fresh produce, prize-winning livestock and dairies, the famous Petaluma chicken and of course a diverse range of grape varietals from 13 different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and more than 400 wineries. To the surprise of many Texans, Sonoma County is the largest wine producer in the California Wine Country.
It is Friendly – Sonoma County was voted the Happiest Place in California and lives up to its reputation. Say goodbye to crowds of the rich and famous and hello to a place that feels like home. The people are humble and known for taking life slow and easy – refreshing for a Texan looking to relax and enjoy time with family and friends.
Downtown – Sonoma Plaza
The city of Sonoma is built around a beautiful and peaceful downtown square with a historic Spanish Mission from 1824, the site of the Bear Flag Revolt. You can tour the old Mexican Army barracks and peak into a preserved hotel lobby. The surrounding Sonoma Plaza includes countless boutiques, galleries, bakeries, cafes, restaurants, tasting rooms and an old time theatre. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grassy square where you can feed ducks with the kids, or enjoy a casual dinner at one of the excellent restaurants. My favorite is The Girl and the Fig where you can show up in faded jeans and cowboy boots to enjoy an amazing country French dinner or enjoy drinks at the antique bar (try the Fig Kiss or Fig Fashioned)
Buena Vista Winery and Bartholomew Park Winery
These two must-visit wineries are located on connecting properties a few miles from Sonoma Plaza. Dating back to 1857, Bartholomew Park Winery is considered the birthplace of modern winemaking. The grounds include a beautiful 400-acre park with grassy hills and plenty of shady spots for a picnic. If you like to hike, bring your hiking shoes and enjoy miles of well maintained trails with amazing views of Sonoma Valley. The trails are open to the public and loop back to accommodate a leisurely walk or a vigorous and challenging hike. Don’t miss Buena Vista Winery to experience the history of Sonoma County winemaking, and ask to try their red wine blend named Sheriff after the sheriff of San Diego County who moved North to start the winery.
Russian River Brewing Company
Sonoma County is not only famous for great wine. The county is home to many excellent breweries (think Lagunitas, Bear Republic, and – of course – Russian River Brewing Company). Russian River is world famous for their award winning beers, many of which can only be found at the brewery. They have been so successful over the years they are not even willing to take on new distributors, so your best bet is to wait in line at the brewery in Santa Rosa. I shared a sampler with 18 different beers, including everything from Belgian style ales to California IPAs, barrel-aged sours and the world famous Pliny the Elder. This is one place where you will have to wait in line, but it is well worth it for the Texan beer lover.
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
For those Texans who want a little pampering, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is ready to deliver with a 40,000 square foot spa and its own source of thermal mineral water. The resort is home to natural mineral hot springs, the source of 135-degree mineral water from 1,000 feet below ground. The water is stored in a large water tank overlooking the resort and used in all the pools and spa areas. The beautiful grounds are spread out with private suites in smaller buildings. Be sure to ask for a suite with a fireplace, and they will bring you fresh firewood every day. The spa includes an indoor European-style bathing ritual pool with beautiful ceiling paintings of the Sun and Moon at opposite ends. Don’t miss my favorite Sonoma County Michelin rated restaurant, Santé, located at the resort. If spas aren’t your thing, bring your clubs for a round on their 75-year old championship golf course.