By Alison Bailin Batz
Did you know the true birthplace of California wine is Sonoma, where the first wine-making grapes were planted by Russian colonists in 1812, and then developed and farmed by the Franciscan mission fathers in the 1820s?
Since then, Sonoma County has grown to more than 425 California wineries. Today, thanks to daily 90-minute flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport directly into the Santa Rosa Airport in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, it is easier than ever to make the trip up north for a wine country adventure unlike any other. Here is how to taste your way through it all:
The Farmhouse Inn
Hello, Gorgeous. Somehow, The Farmhouse Inn (a favorite of celebrities) manages to be rustic and romantic, grand and intimate, luxe and laid-back all at the same time. Voted both the 2017 “Best Hotel in Northern California by Conde Nast Traveler and 2018 “Best Hotel in California” by Travel & Leisure, the inn actually got its start thanks to hops – a.k.a. the key ingredient in beer – neither grapes nor wine. In 1911, Italian immigrant Domenico Giovanetti, moved onto a portion of the land that would become Farmhouse Inn to work the land (and work toward his own version of the American dream). Within a few years, he earned enough money to buy 84 acres, the total land area of the Farmhouse Inn today. And though the space went through several iterations over six generations, when Joe and Catherine Bartolomei – a sister and brother team who are direct descendants of Giovanetti – took over the space in 2001, they transformed it into the preeminent wine country paradise. Think cozy rooms with fireplaces, yet also with sommelier-curated wine fridges. Think rooms with clean, white accents, yet also with flat screens and heavenly feather beds. Not only is there an on-site winery, but the inn also partners with several of the most lauded winemakers in the region to offer private and special VIP tastings – often getting tasting fees totally waved. Oh, and then there is the restaurant, simply called The Farmhouse Inn Restaurant, which boasts the coveted Michelin star rating and makes perhaps the most mouth-watering seasonal sensations of all time.
Adventures in Cycling
Ever been on a bike wine tour? What about an electric bike wine tour? Adventures in Cycling, a family owned business, offers both types of tours through Sonoma Wine Country. The more traditional bike wine tours – available daily – take guests anywhere from 5 to 20 miles through wine country, often customizing the tour based on guests tastes in wine. There is a big, red wine tour, for example, as well as one focused more on chardonnays and whites. And then, there is the electric bike tour. In unfamiliar, an electric bike has an actual motor (no, it isn’t scary) so that riders can rev up and get a little help on harder hills (or, if they just want to go a litter faster for fun), and cover more ground in the same amount of time. While there are several options, novices should opt for the day tour that takes them to three to five wineries at their own pace. Most tours, including that one, also offer a lunch – and it is far tastier than some of the basic “picnics” offered by other bike outfitters. Think steak, salmon, hummus and dessert.
With more than 700 wineries, where does on begin when it comes to tasting? A sure bet is to focus on elevated experiences versus big-box winemaker’s basic offerings. Some of the very best include:
The Bubble Room at J Winery: If looking for further gourmet experiences in the area, look no further than J Winery, known for both its sparkling wines and its acclaimed “Bubble Room” salon, which offers a five-course tasting menu accompanied with their most popular varietals several days a week. The menu, which was named a top “Food and Wine Experience” in the region by CellarPass, is both organic and almost completely locally sourced. It succeeds in awaking every sense. The winery itself is the brainchild of second-generation winemaker Judy Jordan, whose family owns the nearby Jordan Winery, among the most exclusive brands in California.
Medlock Ames: Located on Bell Mountain, this working eco-friendly ranch offers tours twice daily of their vineyards, olive groves, and organic gardens as well as an in-depth look at its state-of-the-art winery and barrel cellar. Don’t miss its Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. And, if you don’t have time to venture up the mountain, check out their tasting room just down the way, which used to be a biker bar!
Iron Horse: Three generations, ranging in age from 23 to 88, live on this property, all dedicated to estate-grown wines and remaining fiercely independent. There are several exclusive tasting experiences available, but a can’t-miss for all levels of wine drinker is its VIP tour and tasting, offered weekdays. An intimate look behind the scenes of winemaking, the reserve wines they sample on the tour are boutique and some are only available there on property.
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery: Looking to be inspired? Try the Inspiration Tasting at this award-winning vineyard. It not only includes six highly rated Pinot Noirs from across the Russian River Valley, but is led by an on-site sommelier who takes the time to show the actual soil, land and history of the area – as well as pairing the wines with delicious small bites.
Lambert Bridge Winery: Nestled among redwood forested hills and rolling vineyards, Lambert Bridge looks like a scene out of the most romantic of movies. And the wines live up to the views. Beyond basic tastings, the experiences onsite range from sampling wines in their barrel room to taking on a flight in their cellar. Our advice: choose the tasting they pair with some of the best cheeses in the world. You will not be sorry.