Sonoma Valley is in Sonoma County, California, part of the San Francisco Bay Area of the United States. Sonoma Valley is a wine-growing region and is the birthplace of the wine-making industry in California.
The City of Sonoma, the only incorporated locale in the Sonoma Valley, is near the southern end of the valley. From north to south, the areas of the valley are:
- 1 El Verano, including Boyes Hot Springs and Fetters Hot Springs-Agua Caliente
- 2 Glen Ellen
- 3 Kenwood
- 4 Sonoma
Sonoma Valley is an international tourist destination, but, unlike its glitzy and more famous neighbor of Napa Valley, to the east, it is known for its rural landscapes, casual style, and slightly more affordable prices. Historically, Sonoma Valley was called the Valley of the Moon by the Indigenous peoples who resided in the area and lived here for more than 12,000 years prior to contact with Spanish, Mexicans and Americans.
In 1824, the last and northern-most Spanish mission was built in Sonoma. It is maintained today, along with numerous buildings in the area, by California Parks and Recreation, as a state park. In 1846, the Bear Flag Revolution took place, when a small group of Americans took over the region from the Mexican government; the "Bear Flag Republic" ended one month later when the U.S. Government took charge. Members of the revolt, and of the former Mexican government, played a large part in the early governments of California.
In 1857, Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian-American, opened the first winery in California - Buena Vista Winery. The winery is still operating today. This was the birth of the California wine industry as we know it. Today, thousands of people come from around the world to see the historic sites, explore the many parks, drink wine, and dine in Sonoma Valley.
English is the main language spoken in Sonoma Valley, but more than a quarter of the population is Latino and that percentage is growing; Spanish speakers are plentiful, though the population is primarily monolingual. Sonoma Valley also has one of the largest Nepalese populations outside of Nepal; many Nepalese work in the service industry, primarily at restaurants.
There are a few key terms used by locals that you should note:
- The Plaza: The City of Sonoma's historic plaza; this is "downtown" Sonoma
- The Square: another name for The Plaza
- Slownoma: a nickname for Sonoma
Wine Country Casual
Wine Country Casual is a type of dress code frequently seen for events and parties in Sonoma and Napa Valley. The evolution of the concept formed out of the chilly wine country nights - it can get pretty cold, and nothing is fun about shivering in a cocktail dress amongst Zinfandel vines or in a wine cave. There are two camps for this - people who believe you should dress how you want and others who define it as "relaxed elegance," and a more casual version of what one might wear to a formal office job. Despite these definitions, Sonoma Valley is known for being more laid back fashion-wise than Napa Valley, where you're more likely to see Versace in a vineyard versus some independent organic linen handmade Zen buddhist designer's styles in the caves at Gloria Ferrer.
Locals are often dressed in mixes of arty pattern linens with chunky jewelry (women) and men often wear Tommy Bahamas and slacks. If you're traveling form out of town, women are suggested to pack light colored, breathable clothing. Wearing flats is generally acceptable - don't wear high heels, or you'll be crying for help when you're stuck with your heals in vineyard mud. For men, light-colored suits are nice: button-up with no tie. But, in the end, as Elaine Yourick from Healdsburg's Circe clothing store says: "Casual means not having to be vigilant about sucking in the stomach, keeping the bust in or straps up."
Sonoma Valley is served by a number of different airports:
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO IATA) is the largest and is 56 miles away. From SFO you'll either rent a car or a limo to take to Sonoma Valley. If you are staying in Santa Rosa, you can take the Sonoma County Airport Express which can drop you off, for a cheap rate, at various locations around Santa Rosa. Avoid a cab - it's over $250 from SFO to Sonoma and it's cheaper just to rent a car for the hour and a half drive.
- Oakland International Airport (OAK IATA) is the second busiest hub in the Bay Area. Certain flights from Europe and many from across the United States and Hawaii use OAK. It's little under an 1 1/2 hours from Sonoma Valley. Traveling from this airport you'll either rent a car, a limo, or take the Sonoma County Airport Express if you're staying in Santa Rosa. Cabs will be super expensive, so best avoid them.
- Sacramento International Airport (SMF IATA) is about 1 1/2 hours away from Sonoma Valley. Select international US-based carriers fly here and many regional. To get to Sonoma Valley from SMF you'll have to rent a car.
- Sonoma County Airport (STS IATA) is named after Snoopy creator Charles M. Schulz. It's located about 45 minutes north of Sonoma Valley and is the closest airport. It is served by Alaska Airlines and California based private flights. From here you can stay in Santa Rosa or head directly to the Valley. If staying in Santa Rosa, take a cab - but, you'll most likely need a rental car to get around the area. So rent a car and head to your destination.
From San Francisco you can take a Greyhound to Santa Rosa. That is the closest stop to Sonoma Valley. From there, you will need to transfer to a Sonoma County Transit bus (the #30) or rent a car. Sonoma is approximately 18 miles south of Santa Rosa.
Having a car is important for controlling your own trip in Sonoma Valley. You can also rent a private car or a limo. But, for your own fun... it's nice to have a car. Highway 121 is the first introduction from the south to Sonoma Valley. Highway 12 is the primarily route that runs through the town of Sonoma and all of the other areas of Sonoma Valley.
Do note, Highway 12 is also called "Sonoma Highway" and Highway 121 is also called "Arnold Drive".
- From San Francisco
- Go north over the Golden Gate Bridge (Highway 1) and follow Highway 101 north. Go east on Highway 37. Go north on Highway 121. Go north on Highway 12.
- From East Bay
- Go north on 580 towards Point Richmond. From Point Richmond take the Richmond Bridge. Head north on Highway 101. Go east on Highway 47. Go north on Highway 121. Head north on Highway 12.
- From Santa Rosa
- Go south on Highway 101. Go south on Highway 12.
- From Sacramento
- Go west on Highway 80. Go west on Highway 12. Go north on Highway 29. Go west on Highway 12.
Having a car is pertinent to Sonoma Valley - for most people. If you are staying in downtown Sonoma you can get around the downtown area without any problem, but, getting out into the country to go wine tasting or go hiking, a car is a good idea.
Public transportation is rather sluggish for visitors, and isn't very impressive to the locals. Bicycling is also welcome, however, mixing drinking with biking is not always the best idea. But, if you are here for a real bike riding experience and you are a hobbyist, Sonoma Valley has excellent biking. If you want a real special treat, rent a car - it's better to have someone else drive you while you drink, then you drink too much.
There are two options for getting around by car in Sonoma Valley: renting your own car and driving yourself, or paying someone to drive you. It's pretty common, and rates vary. Rent a car at the airport, it's cheaper and easier. Check this section to find links about the airports that serve Sonoma Valley, from those websites you can find rental car links.
If you're looking to hire a tour guide or a private car here are some good options:
- Sonoma Wine Tours, +1 707-486-0377
- Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley, +1-877-946-3876. A refurbished gas powered trolley that travels throughout Sonoma starting at $99/person.
Sonoma Valley's mild climate and beautiful scenery make it great for walking or riding a bike. If you want to rent a bike or take a bike tour, your best bet is to rent in Sonoma:
Sonoma County Transit connects Sonoma to the surrounding cities and towns in the county. Their website has information about how to purchase passes and taking your bicycle on to buses.
If you find yourself stranded at a vineyard after too many tastes of Pinot Noir, it may be handy to have the number of someone who will pick you up. These taxi services primarily serve the town of Sonoma, El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Agua Caliente and Fetters Hot Springs.
- Vern's Taxi Service, 254 1st Street East, ☏ . This was the one and only taxi service in Sonoma until 2013.
- Sonoma Taxi, +1 707-889-1266. A Sherpa-owned and -operated taxi service.
Sonoma Valley has a vast array of parks with historical and natural significance. What is listed below is for the areas outside of the cities and towns that are within Sonoma Valley.
- 1 Quarryhill Botanical Garden, 12841 Sonoma Highway, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 9AM-4PM. Privately owned botanical garden specializing in Asian plants. 25 acres with over 20,000 species of plants. They have one of the world's largest collections of documented Asian plants in the world. Lots of special events, and a nice escape from wine country landscaping. Great birding. $10 adults; $5 students 18+; Free 17 & under.
- Cornerstone Sonoma, 23570 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Gardens: 10AM-4PM daily; restaurant, shops, and tasting rooms: 10AM-5PM. A marketplace that includes a collection of art-inspired gardens, shops, boutique wineries and tasting rooms, artisanal foods, live music, and the Sunset Outdoor Kitchen and Test Gardens No charge to walk through the gardens.
- 2 Sonoma Raceway, 29355 Arnold Dr (at Highway 37 & 121), toll-free: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. With beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and vineyards, there is no racetrack in the country like this one. Sonoma Raceway has Indy Car, NHRA, MotoGP, classic car races, and night drags. Varies.
- Above the Wine Country Balloon Tours, 397 Aviation Boulevard, Ste A, Santa Rosa, ☏ . One of the most romantic and awe-inspiring experiences you can have in Wine Country - a balloon ride is a slow paced, magical experience. It's expensive, $225 per person give or take, but it will be an experience you'll remember forever. Morning and evening flights. $225 (discounts for children and seniors).
- 1 The Olive Press, 24724 Highway 12 (inside Jacuzzi Winery), toll-free: . 10AM-5:30PM. Owned by the Cline Family (Jacuzzi Winery, Cline Winery), Olive Press makes over 50 types of olive oil and balsamic onsite. You can call ahead and take an informative tour of the facility and sample unique combinations of their products. $10-$15.
- Classic car races. Take place annually at Sonoma Raceway. Thousands gather to watch hundreds of vintage cars tour the track and visit the Sonoma Square. Guests can sample Sonoma County wines while watching classic cars race. Proceeds go to charity.
Wine drinking is the primary reason people come from all around the world to Sonoma Valley. For those who don't drink, many wineries often have non-alcoholic cider or other options (call ahead to be sure). Most wineries charge for tastings, but will waive fees if you buy wine. You can pick up tasting passes for free or discounted tastings at hotels and the tourism office in the town square. If you're a Visa Signature credit card holder you can also get free and discounted tastings throughout the area at select wineries.
These wineries are primarily located outside the cities, towns, and villages within Sonoma Valley. Sonoma and Glen Ellen both have tasting rooms located in their downtown areas, as described on their WikiVoyage pages. And of course, this is just a sampling of the wineries and tasting rooms available to you. The Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau website has information on other winey options.
- 2 Anaba, 60 Bonneau Road, Sonoma, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 10:30AM-5:30PM. Named after the evening winds that help cool the Valley and make it perfect for wine growing, Anaba is a contemporary tasting room in a small 100-year old farmhouse. They make a variety of red and whites and also ports. Interior tasting room is rather uneventful but the patio overlooks the vineyards. Wines are sustainability produced.
- 3 Bartholomew Park Winery, 1000 Vineyard Ln (From Sonoma Plaza, turn right on E. Napa St., turn left on 7th St. E., turn right (or veer) onto Vineyard Lane), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 11AM-4:30PM. Located in a park-like setting in a historical building that was a former hospital, Bart Park Winery offers indoor and outdoor tastings of their wines, many of which are certified organic. Group reservations and special tours are available. $10; tasting fee is waived with the purchase of wine..
- 4 B.R. Cohn Winery, 15000 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, toll-free: . 10AM-5PM. Owned and operated by the Cohn family since 1974, it was founded by Bruce Cohn, the long-time manager for the Doobie Brothers. They make a variety of whites and reds, including a super tasty rose. They also make kosher wines which they sell out of quickly. The inside tasting room features the platinum albums that Cohn received for the Doobie Brother's successes. The gift shop sells not only award winning olive oil and balsamic, but also smoking pipes (only in California...). They are also known for live music events where the Doobies, Melissa Etheridge, and other award winning musicians rock out in front of the vineyards to huge audiences. $10, $15 for a tour and tasting.
- 5 Benziger Family Winery, 1883 London Ranch Rd, toll-free: , ✉ email@example.com. 11AM-4PM. Located on an amazing property, Benziger was one of the first fully sustainable biodynamic wineries in the world. They offer affordable tastings with a tour of the property - starting at 11:45AM. You get on a tram, and an informative guide explains their biodynamic properties and then drops you off for a tour through the facilities and a tasting. Well worth the trip for a first time visitor.
- 6 Buena Vista Winery, 18000 Old Winery Rd, toll-free: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 10AM-5PM. This is the oldest winery in Sonoma, established by Count Agoston Haraszthy in 1857, and it's a national historical landmark. There is a tasting fee for wine. You can also call ahead and pay extra ($20-90) for special tours of the facility, and even blend your own wine in the caves. $15.
- 7 Cline Cellars, 24737 Arnold Dr, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 10AM-6PM. One of the first wineries that visits you when you drive in the Valley from the South, the Cline family are legends in Sonoma Valley. They make sustainability farmed Rhone-style wines and offer one of the few free tastings left in the region. They have ancient vine wines, too, which date back to the 1800s. Family friendly tastings, as there is a carp pond where kids can feet the fish, a California Missions Museum, and two adorable burros named Pudding & Fancy. The Clines also own the Jacuzzi Winery across the street. $5 for a flight of three reserve wines; free admission to the museum..
- 8 Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, 23555 Arnold Dr, ☏ . 10AM-5PM. The first sparkling wine house you pass when coming in to Sonoma Valley from the south, Gloria Ferrer makes Méthode Champenoise style sparkling wines and Pinot Noir still wine. Sit on the terrace overlooking Sonoma Valley and sample glasses of sparkling or get a bottle instead. You can also take a tour of the property, three times a day. Cheese and snacks are available. Reservations are advised. $18-30.
- 9 Gundlach Bundschu Winery (Gun Bun), 2000 Denmark St, Sonoma, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 11AM-5:30PM. The second oldest winery in Sonoma Valley, Gundlach Bundschu (pronounced "Gun Lock Bun Shoe") is as famous for its wines as it is for it's events. Have a tasting, but also check out their website for special event such as their indie music festival, Shakespeare festival, and classical music series. $10.
- 10 Landmark Winery, 101 Adobe Canyon Rd, Kenwood, ☏ . 10AM-5PM. A beautiful and classy property, Landmark has indoor and outdoor tasting options of their estate wines. The property also has a bocce ball court and picnic area. From the winery, you can see Sugarloaf Ridge. $15.
- 11 Little Vineyards Family Winery, 15188 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 11AM-4:30PM. Located next to B.R. Cohn, Little Vineyards is owned by the Little's and is little in size. The owners love life music, and their wine reflects it in the names like "Band Blend". They specialize in red wines. They have many evening events with live music and food, too.
- 12 Loxton Cellars, 11466 Dunbar Rd, Glen Ellen, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 11AM-5PM. Owned by an Australian come Sonoman, Loxton has a laid back tasting room that is located in the heart of it's wine making facilities. Tasty wines with beautiful Aboriginal artwork. Often the winemaker is the one pouring your wine at the tasting.
- 13 Matanzas Creek Winery, 6097 Bennett Valley Rd, Santa Rosa, toll-free: , ✉ email@example.com. 10AM-4:30PM. A beautiful property that is just south of Santa Rosa in the Bennett Valley AVA, Matanzas Creek has great white wines and has one of the country's most beautiful lavender fields - they bloom in July. Make sure to visit then, and enjoy the festivities and beauty - it makes for great photo ops. They also have a gift shop selling their lavender products. $10-$15.
- 14 Ravenswood, 18701 Gehricke Rd, ☏ . 10 AM – 4:30 PM. Ravenswood is one of the largest and widest distributed wineries in Sonoma Valley — but one the most delightful and least obnoxious "big name" tasting rooms. You can find their wines in your local grocery store or in a cafe in Budapest. Big Zinfandel is the winner here, and you can try their exclusive collections of small-lot wines. Try the Barricia Zinfandel; it's tasty and goes down easy on a chilly Sonoma evening. Be sure to pick up their Zin flavored Sriracha sauce, it's made onsite and exclusive to the winery. $15.
- 15 Robledo Family Winery, 21901 Bonness Rd, ☏ , ✉ Lazaro@robledofamilywinery.com. 10AM-4PM. The first winery in the country founded by a former Mexican migrant field worker, Robledo is a serious family operation - Robledo family serves the wine you'll taste in the tasting room. Their wine has been served at the White House and their reds and whites are tasty. $10-$15.
- 16 VJB Vineyards & Cellars, 60 Shaw Ave, Kenwood, ☏ . 10AM-5PM. VJB is a family owned Italian style vineyard and cellar. This property is their tasting room, but it's unlike any other in Wine Country - you think you've entered a Tuscan town or visited Epcot's Italy. Try their wines, and also grab lunch or snacks. You can do a formal tasting, get just glasses, or buy bottles and enjoy them in the piazza. A family friendly experience - live music is frequent, shops are onsite, including a gelato shop. Be sure to check out the caged birds. $10.
Wine country is plentiful with fresh grown food, artisan cheeses, and other tasty morsels year around. This section is for those who want to "cook on the road," whether camping, renting a house, or perhaps just in the mood for a picnic. Many wineries offer to-go food, generally cheese and meats.
One of the primary reasons people visit Sonoma Valley is for just that - to drink. Wineries offer the biggest opportunity to imbibe and in Sonoma you can find a lot of wineries open later (i.e. 6-7PM) and wine bars. Most bars are going to be located in Sonoma.
Sonoma Valley is a rural area with a low crime rate, however, things do happen to the occasional visitors. Visible valuables in cars could lead to a break in, so keep them on you, in your hotel room or well hidden. If you are the victim of a crime call 911 as soon as possible.
The biggest issue is driving drunk - in a car or on a bike. While there is not a major police presence in Sonoma Valley, cops are always on the look out for drunken visitors and locals alike after wineries close and later in the evening. Don't be the drunk driver - be smart - hire a car or a cab and check to see if your hotel offers a shuttle. Also, be on the look out for drunken drivers - drive cautiously day and night. If you see a drunk driver or have been in an accident dial 911.
Sonoma Valley is on and near a number of faults. Earthquakes can happen anytime - you won't know it's coming. Check out Shakeout.org for information on what to do in the event of an earthquake for the able and those with disabilities. Be prepared!
- Napa Valley - the Disneyland of wine tasting - more glitzy and pricey than Sonoma Valley and home to legendary wineries and restaurants
- Novato - wealthy town with a suburban feel, good for big box store shopping for necessities and a visit to a nice art museum
- Petaluma - funky and laidback city just west of Sonoma, known for its arty vibe and beer
- San Rafael - former Spanish settlement turned commuter town with a beautiful historic mission
- Santa Rosa - just north of Sonoma Valley, the county seat and home to Snoopy and Luther Burbank