Top Wine Stories of 2007

Wine Country Travel Guide:
First Time in Sonoma

by Courtney Cochran

HOW TO GET THE MOST OF SONOMA
YOUR FIRST TIME AROUND

Though neighboring Napa gets the lion's share of renown when it comes to California wine country, Sonoma County may be more significant when it comes to history. Boasting an almost unreal variety of vinous terrain and less than an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma is experiencing a renaissance when it comes to culinary and bacchic offerings, making this region a worthy destination for oenophiles of all stripes.

ESSENTIALS

Timing Is Everything: It's possible to get a good feel for the breadth and character of Sonoma in three days' time. We recommend visiting two to four Sonoma wineries a day, a schedule that enables you to gain a sense of the area’s key vinous sub-regions while allowing time for extra-tasting-room activities such as cave and vineyard tours, sit-down or reserve tastings, long lunches, shopping and perhaps even a Sonoma golf or Sonoma spa excursion. CLICK HERE for seasonal considerations when visiting Sonoma.

Lay of the Land: Sonoma is relatively large, especially when compared to Napa: It comprises more than 200,000 acres of varied terrain between the Pacific Ocean and the Mayacamas Mountains, making it a region as renowned for its sheer size as well as for its remarkable diversity. Boasting no fewer than13 sub-appellations, a dizzying array of grape varieties produced and a colorful winemaking past that pre-dates the Mission era, Sonoma offers a wealth of opportunities to expand your vinous horizons, although you'll need to be strategic about how you spend your time. You may wish to divide it, for example, between the region's most renowned winegrowing regions: Carneros, Sonoma Valley/Valley of the Moon, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Anderson Valley. Several of these are close together and can be traversed in the same day.

Tasting Room 2.0: Variety rules in wine country, especially in Sonoma, where numerous micro-climates create environments for a wide scope of varietals and styles. While here, take advantage of this variety and try to visit at least one sparkling producer, a winery with a cave or barrel room you can tour, and at least one architecturally unique winery (your options include a Sonoma Valley "castle," repurposed historial hop kiln, and much, much more!). Expect to taste about five wines at each winery, and look for the spittoon – a bucket-like container for spitting out wine you don’t want to swallow – on the bar, and plan to use it if you’re driving. Tips are not expected at tasting rooms, but wine purchases and thank yous are always appreciated. CLICK HERE for tasting room etiquette.

Money Matters: Expect a range of low, moderate and steep wine tasting room fees in Sonoma. Depending on where you go, fees range from free to $50+/person, with the average clocking in around $10. Though many Sonoma wineries will waive tasting fees with wine purchase, some do not. Whether you're looking to save money or moderate your intake, it's completely acceptable to share a tasting with a travel companion! As far as hotel and restaurant prices go, you can dial it up – all the way up to five stars and the best Michelin has to recommend – in Sonoma or make low-cost or moderate selections. On average, Sonoma hotels run about $125 a night and up, and a meal at Sonoma restaurants about $50/person for appetizer, entrée, dessert and gratuity (excludes wine).

Sonoma's popular new food trucks offer values for casually-inclined diners, and picnics boast the dual benefit of saving time and money. CLICK HERE for the inside scoop on gourmet food trucks in the area, and ask your concierge or tasting room staff for more on where to pick up picnic provisions.

Extracurricularly Inclined: There's plenty more to do in Sonoma than enjoy the fruits of the vine; the challenge for first-time visitors is prioritizing a few key extracurriculars that won’t take too much time away from must-see sites and tasting rooms. From outdoorsy activities such as ballooning, canoeing, hiking, bike riding, apple picking and farmers market-going to indoors-inclined excursions like catching a flick at the Sonoma International Film Festival, checking out galleries, art exhibits and even live music, Sonoma offers no shortage of inspiration for activity.

Tip: Some wineries offer wine-oriented extracurriculars – including cooking lessons, wine tasting classes and the like – on site, a good bet if you're looking to work in one of these extras between tastings.

New to Wine: If you're an oenophile in training, consider taking a class on wine tasting to kick off your visit (you'll get a lot more out of your stay if you do!). Micro-crush facility and educational hub Crushpad - which recently moved into the historic Sebastiani winery in Sonoma - offers beginner courses in wine tasting and blending. Beyond, inquire with your concierge about wineries that offer education alongside tastes, and be sure to take at least one winery tour, where you’ll gain an overview of the winemaking and aging process – often with a glass in hand.