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Sonoma County

by Mary McHugh

You have to take a wine-tasting tour of Sonoma County in California.
I just got back from a wonderful trip from one end of Sonoma to the other, staying in delightful  hotels, eating great food, sampling some of the great wines of the world, pampering myself with massages at the spas, visiting old missions, parks, gardens, and buying unusual gifts in the shops in the wineries. 

You can really go at any time of the year, but I think the ideal time is in the spring or summer, or better yet in September when the weather is lovely, the gardens are in full bloom, and you can get all your holiday shopping done in one fell swoop. 

One way to get to Sonoma is to fly US Airways to the city by the bay, San Francisco, and treat yourself to a nights stay at the Hotel Majestic, a charming, old-fashioned hotel with a wonderful restaurant, the Perlot, which has been called the most romantic restaurant in San Francisco. Be sure and go down to the waterfront to see the seals lying about in the sun, barking and splashing. Take a ferry to Tiburon and eat in the Mexican restaurant, Guayamas . Climb Mt. Tam to get yourself in shape for the eating and drinking waiting for you in Sonoma.

Then hop in your rented car and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sonoma County, where there are many delightful inns and hotels (I have listed them in the sidebar on details and addresses), but I think my favorite was The Inn at Occidental, the most charming bed and breakfast you will find anywhere. You can use this as your headquarters as you visit the wineries and little towns, especially those in the lower part of the county. 

Each room is perfection, decorated with exquisite taste by Jack Bullard, the owner with his son Bill, of this inn, which is an ideal combination of old and new. Now retired from managing law firms, Jack travels around the world collecting wonders to put in his rooms. My room was called the Carnival Room and had costumes of  Pierrot and Pierette on the wall over the Jacuzzi, which is big enough for your whole family, little wooden shoe trees to fit childrens shoes which marched up the wall, a standing lamp clad in Jacks fathers chesterfield coat that he wore at his wedding at the turn of the century, next to one wearing his grandmothers lace wedding gown.  The quilt on the bed is from Jacks collection of magnificent quilts, and you can wake up in the middle of the night to a fire in the fireplace that lights itself when the temperature drops to a certain point. 

If you are traveling alone and want to watch television, request one when you make your reservation.  Jack does not provide them ordinarily because he is a great believer in couples talking to each other when they are on vacation. I happened to arrive there on election night so requested a set to find out who our next president would be. Ha! I still dont know. The restaurant at the Inn is superb - dont miss the pecan waffles in the morning. 

Rested and well fed, you can start out on your tour of the wineries in the southern part of Sonoma. Be sure and eat as you sample all these wines and do some shopping or go sightseeing in between so you wont drive into a tree.  Actually, I found that I took only a sip or two of the wines and poured the rest into the handy little jar they have there.  It was all very satisfying and I felt mellow but not drunk. 

Your first morning, you might head for the town of Sonoma, where you can tour Sonoma State Historic Park near the Town Square.  A guide will take you to the Mission San Francisco, the Barracks, the Toscano Hotel, the Casa Grande Servants Quarters and General Vallejos Home, and give you a fascinating history of the early days of this part of California. 

When you get hungry, drive to the Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace in Sonoma. Its wonderful in there.  Theres a huge marketplace and tasting room where you try some wines and choose a selection of sandwiches, salads, freshly made lasagna or baked ziti, and other delicious foods, or order a large lunch outside overlooking the vineyard. Then check out their huge assortment of gifts that are unusual - things like ceramic ware, table linens, flavored olive oils and vinegars, little pots of mustard. Its a bonanza.

Stick all your purchases in the trunk of your car and head for Petaluma, an adorable little town with ironfront buildings. The shops are delightful, if youre not shopped out.  If youre in the mood for more sightseeing, take a walking tour of the Victorian homes, or of the city itself. Check in at the Chamber of Commerce for brochures of a self-guided tour.

When you get hungry again - this is not a weight-losing trip - go to J.M. Rosens Waterfront Grill for dinner, where I highly recommend the crabcakes in lobster sauce. Or if you like Cajun food, try the Cajun Moon and dont miss the Jack Daniels Chocolate Cake. Then drive back to The Inn at Occidental, where you can jump in the Jacuzzi and if you have somebody to jump in there with you, enjoy!

The next morning, after another of Jacks sumptuous breakfasts, head west toward Bodega Bay. The coastline is unbelievable.  If youre from the East coast, as I am, you will be bowled over by the wild and savage ocean smashing into the rocks below. Nothing like our Atlantic Ocean. The wind may blow you away, but youll feel like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. 

Stay in the mood with a visit to the schoolhouse where Hitchcock filmed The Birds, in Bodega. You enter a large room, where the sound of rather tame birds twitters around you.  I longed for the loud caws of the movie birds, but then we wouldnt have been able to hear our guide.  She was such an ethereal, spiritual young woman that you wondered how her feet stayed on the floor.  She will tell you of ghosts and doors that open and close mysteriously, of little girls who materialize and disappear, of odd places in the room where you can feel the aura of other beings.  You dont have to believe any of this stuff, but it is really fun to listen to.

 Are you hungry yet?  If so, you have a splendid choice of restaurants for lunch. Theres the Duck Club Restaurant at the Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa, The Tides Wharf restaurant at the Inn at the Tides, or the Bodega Harbour Restaurant.  All look out over the water. 

Are you ready for a little wine?  This is a wine-tasting tour, after all. Head east to Santa Rosa to the delightful winery, Martini & Prati.  If you are lucky, you will get Sandi Martini as your guide. A fifth generation Martini, and public relations director for the winery, she will tell you the family history, show you the huge casks and totally charm you.  I especially loved Uncle Elmo, who smiled out at me from the old pictures in the little store. 

The wines are wonderful and so is the small gift shop, with unusual china, dish towels, foods, art work and cookbooks.  The lady who pours the wine at the tasting bar is funny and knowledgeable and I highly recommend the Muscat dessert wine she pours at the end.

Time for more sightseeing while the wine wears off.  I recommend a visit to Luther Burbanks Home and Gardens. You can walk through the modest little house he lived in and stroll through the garden where he mixed and matched all sorts of plants, producing a spineless cactus for one, a plumcot tree with a fruit that looks like a plum and tastes like an apricot, white blackberries that wont stain a ladys gloves at tea,  and some beautiful roses. Inside the house youll see the famous photo of Burbank with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison as well as his other famous friends like Helen Keller and Jack London.  The guide will tell you all about his two wives (one at a time) and how he gardened in a suit and tie. Obviously, its best to see this house and garden in the springtime.

There is a wide choice of wineries and restaurants, national parks, spas, and hotels in every price range in Sonoma.  I have listed them in the sidebar accompanying this article, but I want to tell you about the ones I particularly enjoyed.  You can work out your own schedule of exploring this county, but do keep in mind that you want to alternate wine tasting with shopping, walking and eating, if you are driving.  If you can get together with some other friends and hire a car to take you around while you are there, you can drink the champagnes, cabernets, chardonnays, san giovaises, and merlots, to your hearts content and leave the driving to someone else.

Besides the Inn at Occidental, I stayed at a Quality Inn in Petaluma and at the Courtyard by Marriott in Santa Rosa, both of which were comfortable and reasonable.  Theres also a Holiday Inn in Sebastopol in the same price range. If you want to go a little higher, but still not pay a fortune, you can stay at the Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa, which has a marvelous restaurant called Equus, where I drank a superb Baystone 1999 Shiraz with my noisette of lamb bonne femme. The Glenelley Inn is a little higher, but delightful.  At Bodega Bay, the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa is expensive, but worth it, with a wonderful restaurant and golf and spa packages. The Inn at the Tides, also in Bodega Bar with lodges overlooking the bay, is also excellent.  For a truly beautiful, charming inn in the northern part of the county, try The Honor Mansion in Healdsburg.  Most of these hotels offer spas, exercise rooms and pools. I have listed their rates and their web sites in the sidebar so you can get an idea of what the rooms look like. 

 As for the wineries, you have 150 to choose from. As you drive around the incredible countryside, you will see acre after acre of golden vineyards gleaming in the California sunshine.  Several of the wineries I visited are surrounded by beautiful gardens, formal and informal, some planted with herbs like the one at Kendall-Jackson, some with roses and other flowers, like the one at Ferrari-Carrano with fountains, little footbridges, and benches hidden away in shaded arbors. They have a 1998 Chardonnay Reserve that will blow your mind. 

The most beautiful winery, to my mind, was Chateau Souverain, with formal gardens, a magnificent restaurant, and a gift shop I could have spent days in.  Im not a shopper. I really hate to shop, if you want to know the truth.  But this shop had such unusually exquisite china, scarves, travel and cook books, clothes (including a black leather jacket for $250, which I almost bought, but decided I wasnt the black leather jacket type), hats, French things, linens, glassware and wines like their superb 1999 Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a 1998 Dry Creek Zinfandel, and a 1997 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which we sampled as part of our wine tasting.

And, of course, you must not miss the Korbel Champagne Cellars, where a wonderful guide named Walter will take you down to the cellar and show you pictures of the Korbels (one of whom was spirited out of jail by his mother, who smuggled in street clothes for him, and he just walked out),  tell you the process that results in Korbel champagne, and then give you several different kinds to taste.  Lovely! You will also want to visit Arrowood Winery, Lake Sonoma Winery, and Topolos at Russian River Vineyards.

There are so many restaurants to choose from in Sonoma County that you will never be far from good food.  Besides the ones I have already mentioned, there are several in Glen Ellen you would like:  The Girl and the Fig (with a really neat gift shop across the street), Saffron, The Bistro and the Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant. 

When you are sated with wine and good food and just want to get outside and move your overstuffed body, you can go to the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and follow the trail through forests of oaks, madrones, douglas fir and redwoods to the remains of Jack Londons Wolf House. Its only about a mile round trip and will overwhelm you with the quiet beauty of this part of the county.  You can also hike or bike through the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, an awesome view of the kind of country we dont see in the east.

 As you travel around, you will make your own discoveries, taste your own favorite wines, lose yourself in your own place of beauty, but this will give you a start.  If you want more information about any of this, you can call the Sonoma County Marketing Consortium at 1-888-842-2684 or visit their website at

 Happy tasting.

Click here for Sidebar with Details and addresses about Restaurants, Hotels, Spas, Gardens, and other sightseeing.



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