Most of Sonoma Valley’s wineries are easily accessible from downtown Sonoma. Traffic on Hwy 12 backs up on weekends (but it’s nothing like on Napa’s notorious Hwy 29). As an alternative, take Arnold Drive, but it lacks Hwy 12’s long vistas and stunning pastoral scenery.
I’ve not featured the giant, corporately owned wineries, or any of the grocery-store wines like Ravenswood or Sebastiani. Instead I list only family-operated wineries known for their small-batch production. Small is good. Think of it this way: You’re invited to two dinner parties, one for 100 people and one for 10 people. Which one will have the better food?
The following are laid out in south-to-north order. If you’re coming from San Francisco and you’re tight on time, choose one the wineries at the beginning of the list. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from one end of the valley to the other.
There’s nothing pretentious about folksy Homewood, an itty-bitty, Carneros District winery. “The redder, the better,” says the winemaker. Indeed, Homewood makes big, jammy fruit-forward wines, and they’re all vineyard designate (meaning they don’t mix grapes from multiple vineyards). Ask about chocolate pairings. Bottles costs $16 to $27. Free tastings.
Score one for the little guys. Robledo was founded by a former Mexican grape-picker who worked his way up to being a vineyard manager, then founded his own winery. And he makes terrific vino, including a crisp sauvignon blanc; an inky-dark syrah; a bold and spicy, long-lingering cabernet sauvignon (an excellent cigar wine); and a light-acid pinot noir, bright with cherry. Alas, the tasting room (read: garage) has ugly fluorescent lighting, but I love the hand-carved Mexican wooden furnishings that fill the room. They’re so not what you expect in Wine Country. Bottles cost $15 to $42. Free tastings.
For the grand, château-like experience, head to Gundlach-Bundschu, the oldest family-owned and operated winery in Sonoma County. Surrounded by 320 acres of vineyards and rolling, oak-studded hills, the moody, dark tasting room was built in 1858, and feels like a room inside a story-book castle. There’s a lot of history here: GB was the first in America to produce a 100% merlot. The wines change every year, but standouts include a long-finish Russian River pinot; and a spritely gewürztraminer. Cheese and bread are for sale to take outside to the lush picnic lawns. This is a great bike-to winery, just far enough from town for a light workout, but not so far that you can’t pedal back with a buzz on. Most bottles run $20 to $35. Tastings cost $5.
Want a crash course in large-scale wine-making? Head directly to Benziger, where you ride a tram through the vineyard, then tour the caves. The wines are pretty good – they’re mostly cabernets – and some are biodynamically grown. But it’s the tour that’s really great. If you’ve never been to a winery, make this your first stop. Bottle run $20 to $50. Tastings cost $10 to $15. Tours start at $15, including tasting.
Cabernet sauvignon and olive oil are the standouts at BR Cohn, a hilltop winery where you can picnic in an olive grove overlooking Sonoma Valley. Some of the wines are pricey, but if you’re into big, smoky cabs, they’re worth it – especially the reserve-label Olive Hill. If you like olive oil, head straight for the green, slightly acidic picholine oil, made from trees right outside. A curious detail: The winery’s owner manages the Doobie Brothers, and the tasting-room walls are lined with the band’s gold records. Bottles run $20 to $50. Tastings $5 to $10.
Old-vine zinfandels are the star attraction at Wellington Vineyards, where some of the vines date back to 1892, yielding stunning depth of color to the wines they yield. The Noir de Noirs (actually an alicante bouschet), is a cult favorite for fans of heavy, meaty, chewy reds. The port is good too. Bottles cost $16 to $32. Tastings $5.
You feel like you’re in on a secret at Loxton Cellars, where you taste inside a small warehouse that looks like a big garage. The Australian winemaker does a damn good job with syrah, but there’s also a terrific port; a low-oak, fruit-forward chardonnay; and a peppery zinfandel – all designed to pair well with food. Bottles cost $15 to $26. Tastings free.
You can bring your kids and dog to Kaz, the only winery I know that offers Play-doh, grape-juice tastings flights, and dog biscuits. It’s all about blends here: whatever is in the vineyard winds up in the bottle. They use lots of lesser-known grapes here, making Kaz a favorite of wine fetishists. In true Sonoma form, there’s nothing fancy about the place, just a low-ceilinged tasting room with concrete floors and classic rock playing quietly in the background. Picnic outside by a koi pond. Bottles cost $11 to $42. Tastings $2.