It’s big ― the size of Rhode Island, with 12 different appellations. It’s beautiful, with verdant valleys and redwood groves. It takes great pride in not being Napa. But its wine and food scene is getting better and better

While it’s impossible not to compare it to Napa Valley, its sibling rival to the east, Sonoma County takes great pleasure in not being Napa.

In part, Sonoma has the advantage of sheer size. At more than 1,500 square miles, it’s as big as Rhode Island, and those square miles manage to encompass all the best things about the entire state of California.

For old California-tinged history, stroll Sonoma Plaza and visit Mission San Francisco de Solano. For really big trees, hike Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. For a rugged coastline, head a few miles west to Jenner.

That roster of pleasures doesn’t even include what you came for: the county’s dozen or so appellations and 200-some-odd wineries. It’s only about half as many wine producers as there are in Napa Valley, Sonoma’s soft-rival sibling to the east.

And while it’s impossible not to attempt comparisons between the two preeminent wine regions in the state, the most that can be said is that Sonoma County takes great pleasure in not being Napa. And that says much about the experience you’ll have here.

Sonoma Valley’s wine history

If anything, Sonoma’s wine history reaches even further back than Napa’s (although they share some roots, so to speak). The first grapevines were planted at Mission San Francisco de Solano in 1824, and that vineyard was where George Yount got his vines to plant over in the Napa Valley a few years later.

In time, General Mariano Vallejo came to own the mission holdings here, built up the town of Sonoma, and planted his own vineyard. The first vintage produced from grapes grown on Jacob Gundlach’s Rhinefarm was poured in 1861–you drive through the vineyard to reach Gundlach Bundschu to this day.

By the late 1800s, there were in the neighborhood of 120 wineries in the county, including Korbel and Simi; Sebastiani came on the scene just after the turn of the century.

If Napa was the destination for the wealthy seeking a showcase retreat, Sonoma was home to winemaking religious cults, communes, and co-ops more interested in isolation, including the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti.

And while the old wine houses have grown into major operations now (some of the largest are here: Clos du Bois, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo), it’s still a place where ambitious winemakers–Rick Hutchinson of Amphora in Dry Creek Valley; Nick and Andy Peay and Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards on the coast–have a prayer of a chance of getting a foothold in the business. The result is a range of wine personalities.

Sonoma County: raw beauty

But beyond the eclectic nature of Sonoma winemakers, it’s the wildly disparate geography that makes the region impossible to summarize. The county sprawls through warm valleys shielded from any Pacific influence and cool ones defined by ocean wind and fog, over inland mountains cooled by altitude and coastal hills that poke above the fog for warmth.

It is largely temperature that distinguishes Sonoma County’s AVAs from one another, and determines the grapes that have become their various signature wines.

The town of Sonoma has its famous plaza and easy access to the wineries of Sonoma Valley and Carneros. To the north, Healdsburg is convenient for touring the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, and Russian River wine regions. It’s also become one of Northern California’s capitals of chic.

Explore its downtown, noting the mix of homespun stores and world-class restaurants and hotels, and you find yourself thinking: If Norman Rockwell and Miuccia Prada joined forces to design their ideal small town, it would probably be something like this. Santa Rosa, the county seat, is pretty much central to everything; Guerneville, on the Russian River, is good if you want to mix wine touring with camping, canoeing, and other outdoor activities.

On the eastern side, the cooling breezes off San Pablo Bay make the Carneros region (which Sonoma shares with Napa) a great place for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–both still and bubbly versions, from such places as Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer.

The cooling effect peters out as you get into Sonoma Valley proper, so warmer-weather grapes thrive: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah. Farther north, in toasty Knights and Alexander valleys, soft Cabs and Merlots reign; go no further than to Jordan Vineyards to find out why.

To the west, planting decisions are based on where you are in relation to the Petaluma Gap, which lets the Russian River out to the sea and sends mighty cool air in the other direction. The Russian River Valley is a remote and beautiful home for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–its Green Valley appellation, with the likes of Iron Horse and Marimar Torres, the coolest of all. But follow the Russian River north into Dry Creek Valley where Cab and Zin rule.

The very cold outer reaches of the Sonoma Coast appellation are becoming awfully interesting places for Pinot, Chardonnay, and Syrah; unfortunately, you can’t visit many of the wineries out there yet.

Next: Jack London and more Sonoma inspirations 

Sonoma Inspirations

It’s probably no coincidence that Sonoma County inspired three writers whose works evoked the California dream at its most pleasurable and potent.

America’s greatest writer on food, M.F.K. Fisher, had her loyalties to the Napa Valley–she lived in St. Helena for decades. Still, in the latter part of her life she opted to live and write in Sonoma County’s tiny Glen Ellen.

Not too far away are the stomping grounds of another symbol of American joie de vivre: Peanuts’ Snoopy, whose creator, Charles Schulz, called Santa Rosa home. If the leap from exuberant beagle to peerless Cabernet seems a long one, don’t forget–Snoopy’s capacious doghouse contained its own wine cellar.

Finally, there’s Sonoma County’s most famous writer, dashing Jack London, memorialized now in the Glen Ellen state park that bears his name.

His short novel Valley of the Moon told of a young couple’s journey up and down the length of California, seeking a place to call home. “What we want,” they said, “is a valley of the moon, with not too much work and all the fun we want. And we’ll just keep on looking until we find it.” As the name of the novel hints, they found that perfect place in Sonoma County. Chances are you will too.

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