California Wine Country is as generic to Napa and Sonoma as copies are to Xerox. Napa and Sonoma are California’s brand. Last year, we visited Napa and discovered a vibrant, dynamic appellation that is accessed by two roads, Hwy 29 and the Silverado Trail - both sourced out of the City of Napa. They are the arteries and the distribution system to Wine Incorporated. Everything Napa is tight and organized. Winery after winery after winery. After Napa, we looked forward to a trip to Sonoma to experience the other side of the mountain.
The first step was planning the journey, and we solicited the help of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, www.sonomacounty.com, whose mission is to promote Sonoma as a destination. Their motto: “Do You Speak Sonoma?” And we discovered that Sonoma is much more bucolic, with more wineries than Napa, spread out over a network of highways and back roads. The region is divided into three signature areas:
South: with the City of Sonoma as the hub.
Central: with the City of Santa Rosa as the hub.
North: with the City of Healdsburg as the hub.
Each of these areas are individual Sonoma destinations and each produces varietals that are indigenous to the region. We embarked on a three-day journey from San Francisco - to the North and Central points from Santa Rosa and to the South from the city of Sonoma.
We caught Golden Gate Transit which took us from Downtown San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge directly to Santa Rosa arriving at the Vintner’s Inn, our first stop. The Vintner’s Inn is owned by Ferrari Carano Winery and is located amidst vineyards that are perfect for a morning walk. It’s a pastoral setting, yet it’s close to everything in Santa Rosa. Vintner's Inn is a collection of two storied “mini mansions” with fountains and walkways. The rooms are comfortable with log burning fireplaces and four-poster beds featuring crisp linens. These rooms are sure to de-stress even the toughest road warrior. A couple of days at the Vintner’s Inn is a prescription to mellow out and leave the cares of the world behind.
Santa Rosa is home to the historic Railroad Square and on our first day we had the chance to stroll the shops and take in the sights. The square was glowing with the spirit of the season - all decked out for the holidays. We retreated to our room, which was so inviting that we decided to order in and had “room service” delivered. What a great introduction to Sonoma!
The next morning we were greeted by Earl King from Royal Pacific Limousine. A limo is the only way to visit Sonoma wine country. No worries about drinking and driving, and no worries about taking a wrong turn here or there and winding up lost on some back country road. We began at the Healdsburg town square. Healdsburg is the hub of the north region which includes the Dry Creek appellation. Healdsburg is the hub of the north region which includes the Dry Creek appellation. Healdsburg has a Mayberry - feel to it, with shops and restaurants clustered around a town square. We spent some quality time walking around the square, stepping into some of the many tasting rooms that are in the middle of town. Actually one could spend a “walking day in wine country” just staying on the square. Its got a modern element as well, as the Hotel Healdsburg is as hip a lodging experience as you’ll find anywhere and it boasts the Dry Creek Kitchen with cuisine by Master Chef Charlie Palmer.
Finishing up on the square, we headed to our first winery, SEGHESIO Family Vineyard. One word: Outstanding. The entire experience had an element of class and offered the best of what Sonoma is known for: great wine. Our next stop was MICHEL-SCHLUMBERGER which is affiliated with Schlumberger of New Orleans. We enjoyed a fireside private tasting of fine Sonoma wine. It was a relaxed experience that is not to be missed. Yet, one must have a driver like Earl King, because the winery is on some back road and it looks like a private home.
A couple more wineries and we finished the day at FERRARI CARANO, the estate which is the owner of Vintage Inn. Ferrari Carano must be seen to be believed. It’s a European Chateau with sculpture gardens and a Bordeaux-type grand palace that rivals anything - worldwide.
One cannot do more than four wineries in one day, so it was time to get back to the Vintner’s Inn and prepare for dinner at John Ash, the on-property gourmet restaurant at the Vintner’s Inn. At John Ash, we enjoyed a sumptuous repast that included gourmet appetizers and entrees. Especially noteworthy was the escargot on special as an appetizer and the surf and turf combo.
The following day we were going to explore the South Region of Sonoma. We started at D’Argenzio in Santa Rosa where we enjoyed chatting with the winemaker and tasting a delightful flight of Pinots and Zinfandels that was concluded by a private barrel tasting in the back room. Barrel tastings are fun because the wine is drawn directly from the barrels, as they are aging. The wine is still very young, but it give the opportunity to taste a developing wine. And judging by the samples we tasted, there is some really good stuff coming up the next season.
We drove down the road to LEDSON. Right off Hwy 12, Ledson is a remarkable place. Its a true French Chateau, conceived and constructed by one of the wealthiest men in Sonoma County. Sparing no expense, Ledson has it all. Private tasting rooms with fireplaces, some that are pet friendly. The tastings are presented by staff sommeliers that go the distance explaining the wine, and carefully hand-rolling the glasses so that the wine can breathe.
At ARROWOOD we had a private sit-down tasting hosted by Dave Cassetta, We were treated to the type of tasting that goes on in wine competition. It was very rewarding. And, by the way, the wine was really very nice. We finished the day a HANZELL, at the top of a steep hill, and one must know where this place is, otherwise you would never find it. Well, Earl knew and he took is to the top of the mountain. Once there, we toured the facility, climbed a lot of stairs, and tasted at a long table that resembled a Medieval feast venue. The views, the atmosphere, the wine...it was all intoxicating. Great to have a limo. No way to navigate this on your own.
Making our way to the City of Sonoma we checked into MacArthur Place, in the middle of town. MacArthur Place is a “place” you cannot miss. It’s a joy. Number one accommodations. Number one location. Number one restaurant...Saddles, which is themed western, to the point where the “chairs” in the lounge are saddles. Because we were spent from all the wine, we opted for room service and Saddles was eager to accommodate. The room service was over the top with entrees and appetizers: a gourmet dinner in the best of the best locations...your own private suite at MacArthur Place.
It was time to bid Sonoma farewell, so we got up early to catch the connecting transit to the Valejo Ferry to make it back to San Francisco. We left a 5:00 AM wake-up call. To our surprise, a steward, knocked on our door BEFORE anything was open, delivering a pot of coffee and fresh-baked muffins and juice. Turns out the hostess at Saddles was aware of our early departure and made arrangements for the breakfast to be delivered before anything opened formally. That is serious service. That is MacArthur Place.
On our way to catch the ferry, we drove through the CARNEROS region which is at the top of San Francisco Bay and is known for its Chardonnay. The Carneros region is a major appellation that does not claim exclusive identity to either Napa or Sonoma County. It is a buffer region that can be identified with both areas. Carneros produces world class Chardonnay, as it sits in an ideal micro climate for growing and harvesting those magnificent grapes
We made our way to the Valejo Ferry terminal and got back to San Francisco. The Valejo Ferry is operated by the Blue and Gold Fleet and is one of many daily routes through the San Francisco Bay. It’s a great way to get from point A to point B. It even offers boat tours under the Golden Gate Bridge.
We returned to San Francisco relaxed, refreshed, and educated about the wonderful place known as Sonoma County. Do we speak Sonoma? You Bechta...can’t wait to return.