Sonoma, California, a region located in the heart of America’s top winemaking region, has been named the best small town to visit in the country by US News & World Report.
The accolade came as a surprise, largely because Sonoma is a county made up of 13 cities — including the city of Sonoma — and several unincorporated towns. The region has flown under the radar relative to Napa Valley, with its elite wineries and globally known brand. But Sonoma has become more popular in recent years because of its laid-back vibe and affordability.
US News and World Report described Sonoma in glowing terms, calling it “Napa’s rustic, less-refined, and more-relaxed sister” that comes without the crowds and high price tags.
I recently spent the day in Sonoma County to see why wine-lovers are abandoning Napa for wine country’s lesser-known hotspot.
Located about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, Sonoma stretches across three times the land area of Napa County. The region includes redwoods and a 55-mile coastline.
Because it's so large, you can't easily bike or use a ride-sharing service from one winery to the next. I enlisted my boyfriend as a designated driver for the day.
Our day started in the city of Sonoma, where Mexican colonial-style structures form a charming plaza. In one corner of the downtown square, I spotted three tasting rooms.
Here, you can hitch a ride on Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley, which transports guests to four wineries over a half-day. The tour costs $99 per person and doesn't include tastings.
We enjoyed brunch at The Girl and the Fig, a farm-to-table eatery located downtown. The restaurant is known for its award-winning wine list and cheese and charcuterie platters.
I filled up on a pancetta-and-goat-cheese omelet -- but envy set in when I saw my boyfriend's bacon, egg, and cheese croissant sandwich land in front of him.
We drove about 20 minutes north to Benziger Family Winery. On a tour and tasting that cost $25 a head, a tractor carried us around the property and made pit stops along the way.
The winery sits in the crater of an extinct volcano, which gives it a variety of different sun exposures, elevations, and soil types that make it ideal for producing diverse wines.
Father-and-son duo Mike and Bruno Benziger founded the winery in 1981 with a desire to bring sustainable farming practices into the mainstream.
The pair experimented with methods like crop rotation, tillage, and natural composts to maintain soil health. They planted homeopathic teas underground to enrich the land and built flora-filled 'insect sanctuaries' to attract critters that would eat vine-munching pests.
In 2000, Benziger Family Winery became the first vineyard in the US to be certified biodynamic -- a holistic method of grape production that's goes beyond organic farming.
I'm not sure I could taste the difference in a biodynamic wine, but I wouldn't say no to a second glass of the crisp and silky 2015 Signaterra West Rows Chardonnay.
Sonoma County is known not only for its wine but for its craft breweries. In the sweltering heat, we stopped at Russian River Brewing Company to quench our thirst.
I baked under the sun for about a half-hour before getting inside. Once you're let into the brewpub, you enter a second waiting list for a table.
Pliny the Elder is one of the most sought-after beers in America. The official magazine of the American Homebrewers Association named it the best beer in the country for eight consecutive years until 2017, when the Bell's Two Hearted Ale knocked it from the top spot.
You have to like IPAs to appreciate Pliny the Elder. The double IPA is super dry and hoppy. But it's a surprisingly drinkable beer that was worth the hassle of getting into the brewery.
Our food, however, fell short of our expectations. I would recommend buying a growler of Pliny the Elder at the merchandise counter (where there's no line) and eating elsewhere.
By mid-afternoon, I was feeling burned out from zipping across the county all day. We returned to the city of Sonoma for a visit to Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.
For my last experience of the day, I opted for a casual atmosphere. There was no wait for a table for two in the outdoor Vista Terrace, which has panoramic views of the vineyards.
I ordered the Glorious Wine Flight with chocolate pairings for $35. My server set down the glasses on a placemat that said a little about the wines and the sweets that go with them.
The flight featured two sparkling wines (which Gloria Ferrer is best known for), a chardonnay, and a pinot noir. Glasses in hand, I relaxed into vacation mode.
I tried a chardonnay at every winery I visited, and the 2015 José S. Ferrer Selection Chardonnay was my least favourite. The taste of boozy pineapple was overpowering, like drinking the bottom of a Mai Tai cocktail.
Fortunately, the tasting was fully redeemed by the sparkling wines.
I found the cure for the dog days of summer in a glass of 2014 Brut Rosé. It greeted my senses with vibrant aromas of strawberry, cherry, and pomegranate. The texture was full and creamy.
A visit to Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards is a must, even if you don't have time for a tour.
There's something for everyone in Sonoma County, whether you're a wine snob, outdoor adventurer, craft brewer, or foodie. And it's relatively affordable. I spent about $US60 a person on wine tastings and tours and about another $US40 on food, not including tax and tip.
However, I realised that calling it a 'small town' is a mischaracterization.
While the city of Sonoma is quaint, Sonoma County is huge. I spent nearly as much time in the car as I did enjoying the wineries. In retrospect, I wish I had made fewer plans and allowed myself to stop at the fruit stands and charming town squares that I passed along the way.
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