How to Vacation in Sonoma’s Wine Country

December 19, 2018

Locals often say, “Sonoma is for wine, and Napa is for auto parts.” (Of course, people in Napa have been known to respond, “Sonoma? I think I’ve heard of it.”) Good-natured rivalry aside, there’s no question that Sonoma is less famous than Napa. But it’s also a premier wine region that draws people back again and again. And though there are plenty of well-known wineries in the county, it’s easy to get off the beaten path to discover California’s original winemaking culture with family-run wineries, sprawling estates and hidden gems. 

In fact, Medlock and Ames put as much thought into the food they produce as the wine. A flight may include fresh vegetables from their garden, some local cheese, or salami produced by a neighbor. The wines tend to be fruit forward, with a sauvignon blanc you will never forget. They also make a rose that pairs with just about everything they serve. 

In Sonoma, a winery is typically much more than a place where they produce wines. At Medlock Ames, this is especially true. The young winery has only produced six vintages, but their wines convey a mature sophistication. And they grow a lot more than grapes on the 335-acre plot at Bell Mountain. They also grow produce and herbs, using principles of organic farming that brought owners Ames Morrison and Christoper Medlock James together at Tulane University.

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Along with the wine, they offer a selection of organic produce for sale in the tasting room, but that’s not the only thing that will surprise you here: There’s also a secret bar. The Alexander Bar is hidden away, in speakeasy form, behind a tasting room wall. It opens in the evening, when they serve handcrafted cocktails, also using their fresh-grown ingredients, as well as artisan spirits and local brews. It’s just one more unexpected treat at Medlock Ames in the Alexander Valley. 

There is no prettier winery in the spring and early months of summer than Matanzas Creek, located in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. Grapes are, of course, the primary crop at the vineyard. But the lavender fields have their own fan club. The lavender gardens come to peak bloom in late June, which handily coincides with the annual Lavender Festival. Soon after the lavender harvest it’s time to start picking grapes and making wine. The lavender is used in the kitchen as well as in a line of spa products available at the winery as well as a couple of local spas. Bennet Valley received an American Viticultural Area designation in 2003. Sonoma, Bennett and Taylor mountains grab the fog and cool air, courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. This cooling effect, known as the Petaluma Wind Gap, produces a microclimate similar to the Russian River Valley’s. It allows for a long growing season as grapes ripen a little at a time. Matanzas Creek wines are both interesting and well made, capitalizing on the superior fruit the vineyards offer. 

It’s hard not to be immediately taken by the beauty of the Michel-Schlumberger estate, even before you discover what makes this winery unique. The vineyards stretch across 100 acres on the foothills of Dry Creek Valley and, as you walk through the vast land, you’ll find breathtaking views from every angle. Beyond the 20 blocks of grape vines lie an olive orchard and vegetable gardens, alive and vibrant with butterflies, bird and bees, chickens, sheep and goats.

The fauna at Michel-Schlumberger serves a purpose: The bees naturally pollinate the landscape; the chickens eradicate outbreaks of pests; the goats clear the scrub on the hillside; and the sheep mow the grass. Jim Morris, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, sums it up: “Our world is all about building a healthy ecosystem.”

And that’s exactly what the Michel Schlumberger estate is: a self-sustained, eco-friendly environment that runs with little electricity, gasoline or excess water. They have earned some impressive awards in sustainability, but let’s not forget that it’s all about making wine — excellent award-winning wine. 

The acclaimed movie director’s estate is certainly no secret. But it’s an experience in its own right and worth the visit. Over the past 25 years, Coppola has reclaimed all of the original Inglenook vineyards. And in a nod to the estate’s storied history, it was renamed Inglenook in 2011, but still very much carries the Coppola brand name.

When you enter the big gates of the winery, you aren’t quite sure if you’re going into a movie set or an Italian castle. Unlike most wineries, this one is built with the entire family in mind, a place where you can spend the day with excitement for kids of all ages to enjoy. 

Outside of the winery is a swimming pool, café and changing “cabines,” which include pool passes and towels. There are also four full-size bocce ball courts and special events and concerts throughout the spring and summer. Rustic Restaurant, inside of the winery, serves “Francis’ Favorites,” such as Marrakesh Lamb and Braciole with Rigatoni in Meat Ragu. Indeed, the Coppola estate is a destination in its own right.

Midway between Sonoma and Santa Rosa is Kenwood, home to wineries such as Landmark and Saint Francis. Though St. Francis offers some nice food-and-wine pairings, there are other food options. The Restaurant at the Kenwood Inn and Spa is a beautiful spot for Mediterranean cuisine.

Open to the public for lunch and dinner, the large fireplace is usually going during the area’s short winter. The rest of the time, the dining room is open to the picturesque courtyard. At the other end of the spectrum is Cafe Citti. There is nothing elegant about it: Order at the counter and then take a seat inside or outside among what is bound to be mostly locals. But don’t confuse basic with lessthan-wonderful. The rotisserie chicken is great, as are any of the pastas. The white clam sauce is a staple, made with shelled clams sautéed with white wine and olive oil. The Casear salad is excellent, as long as you’re a fan of garlic.

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Sonoma Square is a sleepy little spot, just like the town itself. With a variety of restaurants and shops, it’s easy to spend time just cruising, tasting and exploring. Those wanting to fend for themselves in the kitchen should make a stop at The Sonoma Market, which specializes in higher-end products at reasonable prices. The selection of produce, meats and specialty items is excellent.

Vella Cheese Company has been a Sonoma mainstay since 1931. Made exclusively with milk from happy, livin’- large cows at nearby Merten’s Dairy, Vella cheeses have garnered a heap of awards over the years. Tucked just off the square on Second Street, the shop offers cheese samplings. Still owned and operated by the hands-on Vella family, the cheese company is most famous for its Dry Jack. Created accidentally during World War I when Italy stopped most of its exports to feed its soldiers, Dry Jack became a domestic option to Parmesan cheese. And during World War II, the cheese’s reputation got another boost in both popularity and national pride. These days the cheese isn’t used as a Parmesan substitute but as a cheese worthy of its own place at the table — or in the omelet, atop the pasta, or with some crackers. Vella Cheese Company is also the only commercial cheese outfit in the U.S. to make Toma, a soft, slightly ripened artisanal cheese that originated in Piedmont. Italian Table Cheese, Asiago and a whole fleet of full-moisture Monterey Jacks round out the company’s selections.

LaSalette Restaurant specializes in the fairly obscure cuisine of Portugal. Named for the chef-owner’s mother in honor of her heritage, the restaurant has garnered a reputation for excellent seafood. Portuguese food draws from the culinary histories of its former colonies throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, India and the New World. The result is a truly unique dining experience, especially in Sonoma surrounded by a plethora of French and Italian-influenced California cuisine. They do a lot of cooking in the wood-fired oven, and serve several Portuguese national dishes, such as the feijoada completa with smoky sausage and caldo verde, literally translated as green soup. 

People argue about Cafe La Haye — nobody can agree on a favorite dish. Some stick to the risotto of the day, period. For others, it’s all about the seafood special. Even the roasted chicken with caramelized chicken jus has a fan club. And that’s before anyone even mentions dessert, which ought to include butterscotch pudding. Foodies agree that Cafe La Haye is a special place. Owner Saul Gropman is usually the one to greet guests as they come through the door, and he knows how to welcome people in and make sure they’re well tended.

Girl + the fig brings vineyard-style eating to downtown Sonoma. Originally opened on the Glen Ellen estate, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein moved girl + the fig to the square when the Sonoma Hotel evacuated its spot. (She now has The Fig Cafe at Glen Ellen). Girl + the fig is a magical little spot, with a welcoming patio and warm service. Time slows down in deference to what is often referred to as a French country menu, though Bernstein insists it’s actually a Sonoma menu with a French passion. Sonoma’s farms supply most of the ingredients the restaurant uses, and the food is topnotch. But what has always distinguished the eatery is the hospitality. The staff, from hostess to bartender to server, literally welcomes each guest. Of course Sonoma wines are highlighted, and imbibing is encouraged through extensive by-the-glass options as well as a selection of wine flights. During the spring and summer months, wait for a table on the patio. It’s worth it.