Starting this weekend, thirsty tourists begin to flock to wine country for the high season, which lasts through the fall harvest. It’s an incredible place to visit, but if planning a weeklong trip of palate-crushing wine tastings seems daunting, that’s because it is. Fear not, because with a well-planed itinerary you don’t necessarily need days upon days to get a complete wine country experience.
Start in San Francisco and simply focus on quality over quantity. It’s the best way to avoid the ubiquitous bachelorette parties and busses full of wine country newbies crowding into too-tiny tasting rooms. By picking just a few incredible wineries with unique tasting experiences you’ll get to enjoy your time and your wine without getting too burnt out by the time you get back to the city.
The first step is to pick a region. While there’s endless debate about the best place to taste, Sonoma is always a safe bet, especially if you’re relatively new to winery hopping. It’s lower key and accessible than it’s Napa neighbor, but still full of world class wines that you’ll want to stuff in your suitcase. The fact that everyone there seems to be happy all the time (not hard to understand why) doesn’t hurt either.
There are hundreds of wineries throughout Sonoma all within easy driving distance, but for a quick overnight in the country you’ll want to pick a home base of either Sonoma square in the south or Healdsburg further north. Check out the following itineraries for two different yet equally incredible 1.5 day adventures, or put them together for a killer wined-out weekend.
Note: Unlike the tasting rooms, all of the recommendations below are by appointment only, so be sure to plan ahead and reach out for a booking.
A DAY IN SOUTHERN SONOMA
Depart San Francisco via Route 1 and head to the Muir Beach Overlook for a quick detour and gorgeous views of the coast.
Stop off for an early lunch at The Marshall Store, a barebones oyster joint positioned right on the water that’s not to be missed. Pair their famous grilled bivalves with some crab salad and a half bottle of Muscadet before heading east to Sonoma.
High on a hill overlooking Sonoma, Hanzellis an iconic staple of California wine. Careful and small production have kept their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the minds and lips of sommeliers and wine buyers alike. Visits are slightly pricey, but worth every penny.
Finish your day of tasting at Three Sticks Adobe. The historic adobe was built in the 1870’s and restored over the last 60 years before becoming the tasting house for Three Sticks winery. Sample their incredible range of Pinots while you tour and learn about the history of the region and the centrally-located home.
Work off your wine by wandering Sonoma Plaza, where you’ll find shops, local bars and be able to scout your restaurants for dinner.
There is no shortage of incredible places to eat in Sonoma, but if you want to stay on the square, try the backyard at Harvest Moon Café or go upscale at Oso Sonoma. Both boast impressive wine lists and creative seasonal cuisine. Let the sommelier pair your wines with your meal for an indulgent dining experience.
Skip dessert at the restaurants and grab a cone of Ice cream at Sweet Scoops Homemade Ice Cream. The lavender honey is a perfect palate cleanse after a long day of wine sipping.
Wake up and head directly to The Fremont Diner for a hearty breakfast and a solid cup of coffee. Grab a teal picnic table out back and feast on brisket hash, poached eggs and their famous buttermilk biscuits. If you’re unhappy here there may be something very wrong with you.
Head up a small hill for a tasting at Scribe Winery overlooking their vineyards and historic hacienda. Scribe was started by two brothers focused on making terroir-driven wine. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve tapped into the joy of a relaxed and languishing tasting experience. Pick a table or a picnic blanket, nosh on some cheese and homemade pickles and you’ll be asking for a job here in no time.
Head back to the city with a car full of wine.
Treat yourself to a little history at the El Dorado Hotel in the center of town or go full-scale country lux at the Ledson Hotel, also on the square.
A DAY IN NORTHERN SONOMA
Depart San Francisco. Take the faster 101 straight to Healdsburg if time is of the essence, but if you wish you can replace the morning activities with the more scenic Route 1 if coastal views are on your bucket list.
Climb the road to the Blue Rock tasting room, which is actually an idyllic cottage in the center of their vineyard that seems like a place Julia Child may have lived. The setting is remarkable, but it’s their award winning wines, which are slightly difficult to find outside of California, that make it worth the stop.
Lunch in Healdsburg on the square is your best bet. If you’re lucky there might be an outdoor market going on to stroll through to work off your meal and plenty of tasting rooms around the square to pop into if you’re so inclined. Don’t skip Campo Fina for an al fresco lunch of antipasti with a side of bocce.
Medlock Ameshas both a modern tasting room, which doubles as a bar with concerts in the evening, and a working farm not far from the tasting room. Head for the farm, where you can tour the property, eating strawberries out of the patch, and perusing the winery with a glass in hand. It’s a unique experience punctuated by, of course, a lineup of incredible wine.
The only suggestion on this list that doesn’t require an appointment, the tasting room at Unti, isn’t much to look at, but the wines need no aesthetic accoutrements. Winemaker Jason Valenti is a master at pairing Rhône and Italian varietals with California terroir. Don’t miss their rosé’s, which are a favorite in the area, even with other winemakers.
Dinner should be at Diavola Pizzaria or Catelli’s. They’re next door to one another in the small “town” (read: street) of Geyserville, which is just up the road from Healdsburg. Both are local favorites and, like most restaurants in Sonoma, they allow you to bring your own wine for a small corkage fee. Reservations are helpful, but not always essential depending on the day of the week.
If you’re still going, check out Bergamot Alley back in Healdsburg. With an impressive lineup of wines from around the world (a rare find in California) plus a fantastic craft beer selection, it’s a great place to wind down after a day of tasting. Try the local beers like Racer 5 or anything from Anderson Valley Brewing Company while you listen to live music and muse about why you’re not a card carrying Sonoma resident.
For breakfast, hit up Downtown Bakery & Creamery. A Healdsburg institution. The fresh breads, pastries and new cafe menu of pancakes and eggs will set a terrific tone for the last half day of the trip.
Take your coffee and pastries and start driving back towards San Francisco with a slight detour towards Gundlach Bundschu Winery. A low key vibe plus an idyllic setting and solid wine selections is the cherry on top of a perfect Sonoma jaunt.
Return to San Francisco
Comfortable and convenient, The Geyserville Inn is a good choice for a basic and affordable night’s stay or live it up at the Hotel les Mars if you prefer to be right in town and are feeling fancy.
By: Nora O’Malley