It’s harvest season in California wine country, so if you’re ready to travel, gold country is the closest most beautiful way to recharge and unplug without going to Europe. After making the one-hour trek north from San Francisco or Oakland, set down roots in sensational Sonoma County for a quick yet relaxing trip that can include picnicking, wine tasting, hiking, biking, beachcombing or spa time. Napa Valley? We’ll cover that on our next adventure!
Arrive early and ease into Sonoma’s slow-paced lifestyle in Healdsburg, a walkable 19th-century town and the gateway to the official Wine Road, which guides visitors through the many winery jewels throughout Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys. A major hub for fine wine-country fare, this destination offers a crash course in the bounty of Sonoma’s ingredients. Pick up a picnic lunch with artisan sandwiches, charcuterie and sides at Journeyman Meat Co. run by one of Sonoma County's oldest wine families. A few blocks away find Seghesio Family Vineyards, renowned producer of the region’s famed zinfandel since 1895. The relaxing winery sports a bocce court, shaded picnic grove for lunch, and a tasting room featuring flights and food and wine pairings.
Take a charming country drive out nearby Alexander Valley Road over the old Alexander Valley bridge, which crosses over the Russian River and opens to the breathtaking vineyard-filled valley. The first winery will wow—Jordan Vineyard & Winery, internationally renowned for its signature Bordeaux and Burgundian style varietals, European architecture including a chateau, and 1,200 acres of rolling hills and vineyards dedicated to agriculture, hospitality, and conservation. Reserve ahead for one of many signature tasting experiences including the vineyard tasting, estate tour and tasting, or a library tasting. Or, pop into modern Medlock Ames Winery right down the road and linger in the serene garden and olive grove over a tasting or grab a few bottles for the weekend.
Pre-dinner, snag a table for appetizers in the garden-chic setting at must-see Barndiva, an avant-garde and lofty remake of an old barn with a boutique attached. Then walk to Valette for an early dinner. Hold out for dessert at Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, where fruit-filled pies and palate-bending ice creams (think strawberry-sage) beckon. Turn in at Hotel Healdsburg, a central contemporary inn with a cool pool and spa. If booked, investigate their other concepts H2 Hotel and newer Harmon Guest House, the latter has an amazing rooftop bar.
To get off the wine tourist grid over the weekend, reserve ahead for an exquisite tasting with food parings led by famed chef Charlie Palmer nearby in Windsor at Bricoleur Vineyards. The charming family-owned winery has several other experiences to choose from including full picnic lunches made from garden ingredients or Rosé in the Roses among the amazing rose gardens. If you start early, you can book a hot air balloon ride at Up & Away Hot Air Ballooning, also in Windsor.
From the town of Healdsburg, head out Dry Creek Road to experience the rolling hills of Dry Creek Valley, which channels the Italian countryside. After you’ve scoped out the wine map and other landmarks to visit, stop at the iconic circa-1881 Dry Creek General Store for picnic supplies and shopping. Nearby Dry Creek Vineyard offers generously spaced shaded picnic tables and wine tasting or stop at Comstock Wines for the sprawling patio with vineyard views, easy lounging, and a bocce court (some days the pizza oven is fired up).
At the northern end of Dry Creek Road, grand Ferrari-Carano Winery beams, blooming with flower gardens, impressive fountains, koi ponds and Italian-style architecture. Visit the tasting room, shop for kitchenware and check out the terrace for mesmerizing sunset views! Further out Dry Creek Road, find Lake Sonoma, which is prime and hilly bike riding for fitness buffs and boating fun when the lake water is high enough (note that drought is common late summer and early fall).
Optionally, reserve ahead for Francis Ford Coppola Winery for a pool pass and exploration of this compound founded by director Francis Ford Coppola. After you bust out the swimsuit and bask in the sun, check out the tasting room, Coppola’s historical movie gallery, retail shops, and restaurants. You could easily stay here all day.
Start your third day by heading to the Sonoma Coast. Go west on the aptly named River Road, a scenic forested road that traces the Russian River flowing through the county all the way to the Pacific. Along the way are mellow wineries, like La Crema’s estate tasting room featuring a multi-level barn and picnics paired with Sonoma Coast pinot noirs. Take a break for brunch or lunch at Willow Wood Market Café, a favorite for California fresh-everything.
A short drive west of Guerneville, the majestic Sonoma coastline attracts people for what it lacks (crowds, tour buses, cell phone reception) as much as for what has (seabirds, shell-strewn beaches, stunning views). Goat Rock Beach is recommended for its dramatic cliff-side views and peaceful beaches conducive to walking, hiking, and picnicking.
The blink-and-miss-it town of Jenner sits at the intersection where the Russian River meets the ocean and is a good basecamp for renting kayaks or standup paddleboards from WaterTreks EcoTours to explore the estuary. When heading back to Healdsburg or Santa Rosa, stop off at Wildflour Bread for some of the best bread and pastries in the county. You’ll be glad in the morning.
Optionally, a few miles up Highway 1 is the reinvented Timber Cove on 25-acres of rugged coastline with trails, fire pits, and VIP views. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired A-frame structure, which was originally built as a meditation outpost, is a must for any design buff. And the seafood-focused menu at the property’s restaurant, Coast Kitchen, is worth exploring. Plan to stay the night on your next northern California trip. It’s quite romantic perched way above the beautiful crashing ocean and the sunsets are the perfect finale to any California day.