Russian fur trappers used to roam the area now known as the Wine Road, looking for otters in the myriad rivers along the coast. Though the fur trade has all but disappeared, farming and viticulture have carried on in a big way throughout the valley.
Now the less polished, more sustainable younger sister to high-profile Napa (which is often described as the “Disneyland of wine tasting”) is one of the last stands for an authentic California wine experience, where family operations still thrive and land stewardship remains a top priority.
I’ve done my fair share of wine tasting for birthdays and bachelorette parties, but I’m a far cry from a sommelier. Lucky for me, I was about to learn a lot, including fun new terms like sur lie, cordon pruning, and cork hopping. I would also learn that Sonoma is the land of owl boxes, enigmatic dog ambassadors, and fun-loving people who work hard while making it look easy.
Each day I visited one of the three main regions of the county: the Russian River, Dry CreekAlexander, and valleys. The regions all possess a unique microclimate and soil type that yield an impressive palette of varietals with distinct terroirs (which I learned is essentially a wine’s thumbprint — environmental variations that give it a flavor unique to where and when it was grown).
Here’s my itinerary — Use it as a template to create your own personalized tour!
Day 1: Russian River Valley
The Garagiste Winery
Husband-and-wife duo Barb and Stew run Lauterbach Cellars out of their garage. Locals know them for their “Will Work for Wine” crew — friends and family, including the local deputy sheriff, who help package their entire yearly yield of a few hundred cases in a matter of days.
They may be a physician and a legal director by day, but both step seamlessly into the winemaker role, especially Stew, the “Mad (Wine) Scientist” who treats visitors to barrel tastings extracted with a “wine thief.” Guests get to compare the same vintages aged in new oak versus neutral oak, and at various stages of aging. The real fun starts when Barb whips out the graduated cylinder, and they begin mixing the vintages to demonstrate how to build complexity.
Tapas & Wine, Catalan Style
Despite being located in the foggiest part of the region, it’s hard to miss Marimar Estate thanks to the three enormous statues of the vineyard’s Springer Spaniels. Owner Marimar Torres built the vineyard by blending Old-World class (complete with Catalan-style fountains shipped from her homeland in Spain) with New-World freshness.
In 2003 Torres’ operation was certified organic after she sought help from a 60-year-old white Rastafarian organic guru who goes by “Amigo Bob.” Despite the success she’s had employing his methods, less than 2 percent of the vineyards in the region are certified organic, making this female vineyard owner even more of an anomaly.
Zip-Lining Through Redwoods
Craving a side of adventure with all that wine? Find it along the Bohemian Highway at Sonoma Canopy Tours. You might still feel tipsy after slashing through the air, but this time it won’t be from the wine.
The guides make the experience memorable and fun by pointing out “unicorns” and flashing creepy faces at perfectly inappropriate times (ask for Sarah and Luke, though I’m sure they’re all great!).
Situated on a creek where salmon still come to breed, Osmosis is no ordinary spa. And that goes double for its cedar enzyme bath. Spend a relaxing and detoxing half hour covered chin-to-toe in cedar chips rendered spongy by thousands of enzymes that raise the temperature to 130 degrees, and tell me you don’t feel like a new person.
Michael Stusser believed so strongly in the treatment after it cured his sciatica that he brought the concept back with him from Japan and opened up his own spa to share the love. After founding the Green Spa Network in 2006, a community of health and wellness businesses committed to making the industry more efficient and Earth-friendly, Stusser led the way with a complete eco-renovation of his spa and its traditional zen garden.
Pork Palace Perfect
It’s hard not to smile when you walk into the long red roadhouse that is Zazu. If that doesn’t get you, the sunny restaurant, homegrown menu, and quirky husband and wife owners will. Former Iron Chef contestant Duskie Estes, who often sports pink Converse sneakers and glasses designed by her friend Lisa Loeb, is known for her creative twists on American classics, while hubby John is responsible for the hand-made pasta dishes, Black Pig Salumi and dry-cured applewood smoked, brown sugar-glazed bacon from heritage breeds, and gelatos (try the espresso flavor with bacon toffee crumbles).
Keep an eye out for the new Zazu opening this spring in The Barlow, a former industrial space in Sebastopol that was converted into a “venue for wine makers, food producers, and artisans” that are interested in connecting customers with quality products and educating them about the production process itself.
If you’re looking for a home base while you’re exploring the Wine Road, the circa 1907 Hotel La Rose is a good place to start. Its location in Santa Rosa, the largest metropolis between San Francisco and Portland, makes it a prime launch pad for oenophiles.
The ever-friendly hotel manager, New Orleans transplant Dade Vincent, informed me that Alaska Airlines recently added non-stop flights from San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, so book your flight today!
For more information about the Wine Road in Sonoma check out the Wine Road Association, which was instrumental in helping me plan my trip.