This Sonoma, California Travel Guide highlights must-visit wineries in this scenic and rustic city located in the heart of Napa Valley. It also includes helpful tips for newcomers to wine country.
U.S. News recently named Sonoma, California the #1 best small town to visit in the United States, and I’m not surprised. Filled with rustic charm and miles and miles of notable wineries–many of which are proudly family-owned and operated–Sonoma gives its larger sister Napa a run for its money.
My husband and I recently visited Sonoma as part of our first wedding anniversary celebration. This Sonoma, California Travel Guide is the first of several recaps on Petite Chef and highlights our favorite wineries we visited while there.
Why Sonoma vs Napa?
You may be wondering why on earth you should visit Sonoma when the ubiquitous Napa is right next door, just 15 to 20 minutes to the east. Here’s my reasoning:
- It’s less crowded. Because Napa is so famous, many visitors flock there instead of Sonoma, its slightly lesser-known neighbor. This means crowds are sparser and you can sip on wine in an idyllic and peaceful setting with little to no waits for wine tastings and seatings.
- Family-owned wineries abound. Sure, it’s awesome to taste products from mass retailers you enjoy at home often (think Beringer, Robert Mondavi, etc). However, my husband and I liked supporting small businesses and sampling local wines we normally wouldn’t have tried.
- The food scene is vibrant. Just because the town is smaller and more quaint doesn’t mean that food options are lacking. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Many popular hot spots abound where I ate some of the best meals of my life. Full post on my Sonoma restaurant recommendations to come in Part 2!
Keep reading to find out where I recommend sipping some wine in Sonoma. Note that we stayed in Sonoma for 2 nights, and we devoted one of the two days to visiting wineries. We are definitely not wine snobs and enjoy white wines best, for what that’s worth. You really can’t go wrong, and I’m already dreaming about returning someday!
Must-Visit Sonoma Area Wineries
Benziger Family Winery
This was my favorite of the 3 wineries we visited! Located about 15-20 minutes north of Sonoma in Glen Ellen, CA, Benziger is set on scenic rolling hills packed with grapes. The winery’s biodynamic farming practices set it apart from others, as does its rather tasty yet affordable wines. We took the 45-minute Biodynamic Tram Tour & Tasting and enjoyed seeing how wine is made up close and exploring the property’s wine caves.
Location: Glen Ellen, CA
Cost: $25.00 per person / $10.00 for those under 21
Booking Information: Booking is required in advance for tours and can be done here
Favorite Wines: 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Frank Johnson Vineyard, 2016 North Coast Rose
While Benziger is much larger than Cline, Cline has a quaint feel to it and is set on a beautiful property with a scenic pond out back filled with koi fish and ducks (a guest on the property informed us the pond is where the original koi fish originated, but I haven’t fact-checked that)! Cline offered our personal favorite wines of the trip with unique hints of fruit such as grapefruit or orange blossom. Cline offers free tours, but we decided to go with a $10.00 per person tasting of 5 wines of our choice from a list. As a bonus, Cline fully applies the cost of the tasting to any purchase of wine.
Location: Sonoma, CA
Cost: $10.00 per person to taste 5 wines
Booking Information: Booking is not required for small parties of less than 7 individuals
Favorite Wines: 2016 Ancient Vines Mourvedre Rose, 2016 Cashmere White, 2016 Estate Viognier
Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves
If you’re looking for bubbles, Gloria Ferrer is the place to go in Sonoma! Of the 3 wineries we visited, Gloria Ferrer seemed the most upscale and the most scenic. Check out this view from just outside the main tasting room:
Note that Gloria Ferrer does not offer traditional tastings, but the most popular option seems to be their various wine flights (both sparkling and non-sparkling, or a combination of both) which can be enjoyed out on one of the most scenic terraces you’ll ever visit. We tried a sparkling wine flight to celebrate our anniversary and a small local cheese plate (which included an option from the well-loved favorite Cowgirl Creamery) and would highly recommend both!
Location: Sonoma, CA
Cost: $25 to $33 per flight (3 wines included) or wines by the glass
Booking Information: Reservations not necessary for smaller parties
Favorite Wines: 2013 Demi Sec
Other notable wineries we did not have a chance to visit but heard good things about include:
Buena Vista Winery
Gundlach Bundschu Winery
Jacuzzi Family Vineyards
Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery
Tips for First-Timers
- Bring plenty of water and sunblock. Sonoma is very hot and humid, and the climate is drastically warmer compared with San Francisco even though the city is just about an hour and a half away. When we went, it was 30 degrees hotter in Sonoma than in the city.
- Hire a designated driver. We used and highly recommend Wine Tour Drivers. Our driver was extremely friendly, came prepared with water and a cooler, and even picked up lunch for us to enjoy while we were tasting wine! While some wine driver services require that you physically visit your rental car insurance company to add them to your plan, this one didn’t (yet was still fully insured) and was even able to drive us around in our own rental car!
- Narrow it down to 2-3 wineries. It may be tempting to visit more than 3 wineries in one day, but we found this was the perfect amount in order to still feel relaxed, complete a tour, and even relax outside on the patio with lunch and a glass of wine. You can try 4 if you’re feeling ambitious, but definitely don’t plan to visit more than 4 total. Stay for another night or even a week if you really want to visit a bunch of different wineries.
- Create an itinerary. We created a loose plan to follow and mapped out how much time we’d like to spend at each winery, when we’d eat lunch, etc. Keep in mind that most wineries don’t open until 10 or 11 am and close by about 5pm.
I hope this was helpful and you are well on your way to planning your trip to Sonoma (or adding one to your agenda)! See you next time with Part 2 of this Sonoma, California Travel Guide, which will feature a recap of where we ate in Sonoma! Stay tuned because I had some of the best meals of my life.
Note: This is not a sponsored post and all opinions are my own. My husband and I simply booked a visit to Sonoma to celebrate our anniversary, and this Sonoma, California Travel Guide is intended to share our favorites with you!