While many San Franciscans head to Lake Tahoe for skiing in January, we decided to take our first trip up to wine country. As we didn’t want to do a lot of driving, we headed to Sonoma Valley rather than its more famous cousin Napa.
One benefit of taking a trip to Sonoma in winter is that it’s quiet and offers a more intimate experience. We also managed to bag an upgrade in our hotel and a last-minute reservation in a popular restaurant by visiting outside of peak season.
Although still stunningly beautiful we did of course see bare vines instead of the fields bursting with juicy grapes which would have been far more impressive!
There are several iconic vineyards I really want to visit that are located at the at top end of Sonoma Valley (Francis Ford Copolla and Ferrari-Carano to name a couple). As we were driving up from San Francisco and only had one night we decided to focus on the South of the valley and the tasting rooms in Sonoma instead, which of course gives us a reason to go back.
Setting off from San Francisco just after 11am, driving to Sonoma begins with crossing Golden Gate bridge which is an excellent start to any road trip! Thankfully the morning fog was burning off by this point and from the moment we crossed into Marin County we enjoyed glorious sunshine.
Imagery Estate Winery
This tasting room and vineyard was top of our list to visit for its rare wine varietals, art collection and location. The beautiful airy tasting room was the busiest we experienced over the weekend, but the friendly staff still did a great job and were keen to share their knowledge and help everyone get the most out of the experience.
We loved this stop because we got to taste largein (a rare Italian grape variety we’d never heard of, never-mind tasted), enjoyed a tasty soup sample to accompany the wine (which they only do in January) and loved that each bottle label features a work of art (from album covers to classic paintings).
VJB Vineyard & Cellars
Our next stop was for lunch, so we headed to VJB Vineyard & Cellars to enjoy a pizza outdoors from their wood oven, a real treat in the middle of winter.
This vineyard only opened fully in 2012 so is less traditional than some of the more established wineries. The story behind the family vineyard is a sad one; VJB is named after one of the founding brothers who sadly died before realizing his dream of opening the winery.
As we had hired a car we unfortunately didn’t try any of the 15 wines produced here. Onsite at VJB there is a chocolate and truffle counter, well stocked delicatessen, beautiful courtyard, tasting room and the ‘barrel room’, making this a great stop for families or to treat a driver to some chocolate or an espresso.
After lunch we headed to Sonoma town to check into our hotel, the delightful McArthur Place Hotel & Spa. Located just four blocks from the town plaza, we were able to walk to enjoy some more wine tasting and also to our evening meal.
I was reluctant at first to visit the tasting rooms in Sonoma town, and felt that somehow this experience would be less authentic than visiting the vineyards themselves. To my surprise I found the opposite to be true.
Heading straight to ‘Vine Alley’ just off the plaza, our first stop in Sonoma was at MacLaren Wine Company. Specializing in cool climate Syrah, this family owned winery make about 1,000 cases a year. Here we were served our tasting flight by the winemaker himself, Steve Law, who moved from Scotland to France before he landed in California. We loved being able to ask Steve questions directly and hear him talk about the wines.
Our final tasting flight of the day was courtesy of Westwood, located just off the square in Sonoma.The feel of the Westwood tasting room is intimate and classy. Here we enjoyed a Rhone flight, which is offered half price to guests of McArthur Place. Most of the places we visited had offers and were happy to recommend other tasting rooms, which I felt reflected the community feel amongst the winemakers.
Not being a wine connoisseur I can’t offer any tasting notes other than to say that it was all delicious!
By this point, we’d run out of time (if we were to be able to get ready and arrive reasonably sober for our dinner reservation), but if we’d had more I definitely would have visited Pangloss Cellars to enjoy the stunning surroundings alone.
Dinner at The Girl and the Fig was a delight, it’s been heavily hyped up but with good reason. It was packed and hard to get a reservation even in January, so a meal here needs to be booked in advance. We were grateful our hotel was within walking distance from the restaurant so we didn’t have to worry about driving or getting taxis.
The following morning a hearty breakfast at the hotel and strong coffee gave us the energy and will to squeeze one more vineyard visit in before we had to head home. I am so glad we managed to do so because our final stop was my favorite.
The Ledson Winery & Vineyards building is a 6,000 square foot French Normandy winery known as “The Castle” and it’s not hard to see how it earned this nickname. Fog clearing over the valley as we arrived gave the estate a fairytale appearance.
Ledson wines are sold exclusively at the winery in Kenwood, online, and at the Ledson Hotel in Sonoma. The grounds are stunning and even the public tasting room was very grand. Their shop offers a wide variety of wines, olive oils and other local produce. We picked up sandwiches from the deli counter and enjoyed them outside in the grounds, which was the perfect end to our trip before we had to head back to the city.
There are so many affordable options to visit Sonoma and Napa without hiring a car, from group tours that pick you up from the city to hiring a limo or minibus. Next time we hope to do this because although we had an incredible trip, it wasn’t fair for the driver (thanks Matt!) to miss out on some of the tastings.
I’m looking forward to a Spring or Summer visit already.
My tips for visiting Sonoma (on a one night stopover):
- Pick 2-3 Vineyards you want to visit
- If you’ve hired a car, don’t feel too bad for the designated driver! The tasting rooms in Sonoma are really great and you’ll have a more intimate experience than at some of the larger wineries
- Consider parking at your hotel in Somona and cycling to some of the local vineyards for the experience of tasting at a vineyard (Buena Vista and Gundlach Bundschu are close enough to cycle to)
- Plan your meals, not all of the vineyards sell or serve food, and restaurants in Sonoma get booked up even off-peak