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Should I visit Sonoma or Napa?
Whenever I say we're heading out to "California wine country," people generally assume I mean "Napa." While Napa is often part of the plans, of course Napa is a distinct city (and a valley), Sonoma - the home of California wine - really should be just as synonymous with sampling California varietals.
Established as a Spanish mission, and later a Spanish military base to protect San Francisco's northern border, Sonoma's Spanish heritage is still widely visible - including through many historic sites (see discussion of General Vallejo's home, below). Even in these early stages of settlement, the Spanish were planting vineyards, and grapes/wine quickly became an agricultural staple of the region. The first commercial winery was established by a Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy, at what is now called Buena Vista Winery, in 1857. And, of course, you're reading this post because, today, Sonoma County is one of the largest producers of wine grapes in California (even more so than Napa Valley).
But, even with that said, Sonoma has escaped much of the commercialization that has taken hold in parts of the Napa Valley. If you're looking for a quaint experience in California wine country, please do visit Sonoma. I'd strongly recommend making it your home base in the region. Surrounded by wineries (some are as close as 10 minutes away from downtown), and only half an hour from Napa and most of that valley's vineyards, you really can't go wrong. You don't have to stay in Napa to experience this region. We loved our experience at MacArthur Place, which, incidentally, has also been newly renovated. For more on the city center itself, grab yourself a glass of vino and keep on reading!
Sonoma is home to some of wine country's best restaurants - all of which are housed in almost impossibly cute, historic buildings.
We decided to go big or go home upon our arrival in Sonoma, and were lucky enough to use the time change to our advantage, to be able to walk into The Girl & the Fig the second they opened. That said, within a few minutes of sitting down, the place filled up. Definitely make a reservation, if your heart is set on eating here, or if you want to come for dinner! We kicked things off with an excellent cheese plate, featuring local cheeses and, of course, figs and fig-based jam. As it was lunch, we kept it light with soups and salads, all of which were delicious and featuring the much-loved fruit. I'd love to see their dinner offerings - guess I'll just have to drop by again!
If you're looking for something a bit more casual / an easy place to grab lunch before hitting the wineries, I can't say enough good things about Basque Boulangerie Cafe. In my book, you can't beat a ham and Swiss on a freshly baked baguette - for a reasonable price, no less! From the woven chairs to the wide variety of coffee options, this place rivaled any French cafe I've visited - bon apetit! Though neither of us was willing to share, my husband's salmon looked excellent as well ;)
And, if you're looking for a fancy evening, I'd recommend the new Layla at MacArthur Place. For regular readers, you'll already have heard me drone on about how much I enjoyed it, in my recent post on our stay at MacArthur Place.
And, though of course they offer the fruit of the grape, if you're looking for a more casual, but no less tasty, option, HopMonk Tavern offers a pub-style atmosphere, with upscale dining options and local beer.
Tasting Rooms on the Sonoma Square
I knew that vineyards and wineries surrounded Sonoma, but I had no idea how many of the nearby wineries actually have tasting rooms on the Sonoma square. In fact, Sonoma's town square is the largest in the U.S. (Who calculates these things? What counts as a town square?), but it's so lovely to know that the largest is hugely devoted to sipping our favorite beverage! Most of the tasting rooms are fairly small - a few seating areas and likely only one employee. They're fairly hidden - some are only the size of a boutique shop - so keep your eyes peeled!
Pop into any of the tasting rooms around the square and you're fairly likely to pay around $20-$30/ person for often a 5-sample tasting. That said, if you're nice and good pupils, you'll generally get far more than that. The reality is, if you're a loud party not listening to what they're saying about the wine...you won't. In fact, expect to spend about 20% of your time discussing with the employees how frustrated they are with those particular tourists. (Be good tourists, friends!!). (If you haven't done so already, you have to watch Wine Country once you get back from your trip out there - it has some great sketches about tastings). In addition, some places allow you to just order a glass or two, but tasting the different options and learning is so much more fun!
As far as specific tasting rooms go, we really enjoyed our time at the Bennett Valley Cellars tasting room (Bennett Valley is one of the regions newest AVAs). Kendall-Jackson's grapes come from here - and I know you all know them! But, Bennett Valley was founded by Italian immigrants and has been around a bit longer. Check it out!
Wineries Outside Sonoma
Of course the tasting rooms are the highlight of downtown, but Sonoma is smack-dab in the middle of so many gorgeous wineries. You'll see them on your way into and out of town - and just because a winery is close to town doesn't mean it's a less-desirable option! Take advantage of Sonoma's excellent location and pop around to as many as you like. For more on where we visited, here's my full post on Exploring California's Wineries.
Shopping in Sonoma
On all sides of the town square, in addition to the square itself, Sonoma is filled with quaint shops - from boutiques to homewares, and, of course, wine supplies, I am consistently pleasantly surprised with the variety and quality of Sonoma's shops. And don't forget to check out the original Williams Sonoma! It's OK if you hadn't realized the origin of the name - it's so common now that most people don't!
General Vallejo house
If you're in the market for a bit of history, a very easy (and charming) walk beyond the town square, General Vallejo's 1850 home is available for tours. Check out the parks department website for more information. If you're watched Ken Burns' The West, you're familiar with the unfortunate fall of General Vallejo - from respected Spanish administrator, to leader of the Californian push for admission to the United States, to victim of encroachment onto his lands from the country he chose to join. Vallejo also served as mayor of Sonoma, so you'll find a nice statue of him in the town square.
Thanks so much for stopping by and I hope you're able to have as wonderful a visit to Sonoma as we always do! Happy tasting! xx
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