Sonoma Valley: The Best Wineries, Restaurants and Hotels
A few weeks ago, Ben and I embarked on a whirlwind wine tasting adventure in Sonoma, followed by a romp through San Francisco. Our trip was short—just three-and-a-half days—but incredibly fun and worthwhile. We had just one full day in Sonoma Valley and visited some of the area’s best wineries, restaurants, and a stunning hotel.
A bit of background for those who are new to my travel posts: I travel often, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is the value of researching ahead, especially if you only have a short time for your visit. Our trip to Sonoma and San Francisco was no exception. I selected each Sonoma winery, restaurant, and hotel based on a combination of meticulous online research, Google Doc-ing, and talking with trusted friends who live in the area.
Whether you have a full week in the Bay area or only a few short days, this post is here to help you make the most of your time. Or, if you’ve been thinking of visiting Sonoma/San Francisco but have yet to book your ticket, I solemnly hope this post and my upcoming recap of San Francisco will be the final kick you need pack your bags (and your corkscrew) and GO!
Due to the length of each travel guide, I’m breaking our trip into two parts, one for Sonoma Valley and one for San Francisco. You can read the San Francisco travel guide here. This post is for Sonoma Valley. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and let’s dive in to the Sonoma’s best wineries, restaurants, and hotels.
Sonoma Valley in One (Full) Day: The Best Wineries, Restaurants, and Hotels
KEY TIPS TO PLAN YOUR VISIT TO SONOMA VALLEY
- Wineries generally start tastings at 10 or 11 am and close around 4 or 5 pm. Be sure to check the times of the wineries you most want to visit and plan accordingly.
- Allow more time than you think at each winery. We started at 10:45 am and barely made it to four wineries by 5 pm, including time for lunch. One of the best parts of visiting the wineries we selected was the friendly, knowledgeable staff. If you love wine, it’s easy for an hour to pass chatting with staff members who love it too. Before you can say “Cabernet,” an hour can pass.
- Don’t count on cell phone service as your only means of navigation. Signal can be spotty throughout Sonoma, as we learned the hard way. Although I’d carefully planned our itinerary based on each winery’s location, loss of cell phone signal early on in the day caused us to take a wrong turn and set back our tastings.
- Plan your tastings based on winery location. We started at the top of Sonoma Valley, then worked our way down. It was perfect, and we didn’t waste precious wine time back tracking.
- Drive safely! Many affordable options are available to hire drivers.
SONOMA WINERIES TO VISIT
I selected these wineries based on recommendations from two family friends who have visited Sonoma and Napa extensively over the years. Their picks were spot-on. Each winery was unique, offered gorgeous views, and produced some of the best wines I have ever tasted. In order of our visits, we had the pleasure of tasting wine at each of the following top Sonoma wineries.
What sets it apart: The view, winery grounds, and architectural grandeur of Ferrari-Carano Winery were the most striking of our Sonoma visit. Although I can’t imagine a Sonoma winery that lacks a view, Ferrari-Carano boasts what must be one of the most stunning panoramics in all of Sonoma, and its expansive gardens add a unique layer of beauty. I also love that the winery is still family owned. Husband and wife team Don and Rhonda Carano even have their own personal wine cellar on site. Or, as one might more appropriately call it, the two have a wine library on site.
Fun Fact: The “Ferrari” in “Ferrari-Carano” is in honor of Don’s grandmother, Amelia Ferrari. The winery also produces a Chardonnay called “Amelia” in her honor.
While you’re there: After sampling a few of Ferrari-Carano’s flagship wines outside on the terrace or at the main tasting bar overlooking Sonoma Valley (pictured below), head downstairs to the reserve tasting bar Enoteca. The wines here are more limited in production, pours are bigger (you are more than welcome to split a tasting), and the staff is especially knowledgeable about the wines’ history and the thought process that went into producing them.
Top wine picks: My top two of Ferrari-Carano’s flagship (widely distributed) wines were the Fume Blanc, a well-balanced crisp white that I want to sip on my back porch every summer night for all eternity and the Siena, my ideal Friday night or grilled pizza wine. Our favorites of the reserves were the Sky High Pinor Noir and the Prevail Back Forty Cabernet Sauvignon, or as the Ferrari-Carano staff calls it The One. As its nickname suggests, the Back Forty Cab is outstanding.
Francis Ford Coppola
What sets it apart: An extra lively atmosphere, phenomenal restaurant, and Hollywood glamour make Francis Ford Coppola Winery a must-visit. The winery’s owner, Francis Ford Coppola, is the Academy Award-winning director of a few films you may have heard mentioned (*cough* The Godfather *cough*). It offers a vibrant mix of 5-star dining (see my review of Rustic in the Sonoma Restaurants section below), homage to Francis’ illustrious Hollywood career, breathtaking views, and of course, excellent wine. Visiting Francis Ford Coppola is just plain fun. I felt like I was at a Hollywood party!
Fun fact: The winery offers two enormous swimming pools, and families can stay in cabins on site.
While you’re there: Eat at Rustic. (More in the Sonoma Restaurants section below.)
Top wine picks: The vingoiner was light, lovely, and paired perfectly with my seafood lunch, but it was the Archimedes, a luscious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, that stole the show.
Chateau St. Jean
What sets it apart: Intimacy. From the moment we walked in to Chateau St. Jean, I felt as if I were being welcomed into someone’s (very grand) home.
While you’re there: Order a cheese plate and book a reserve tasting if you can. Ben and I were fortunate enough to land a tasting in the reserve room. Settled in front of a cozy fireplace, we nibbled gouda and sampled a selection of both Chateau St. Jean’s Reserve (limited edition) and flagship (more widely distributed) wines. All around us, groups were laughing trading sips. I felt as if I were at a classy party in the home of an old friend who happened to have excellent taste in wine.
Fun Fact: The winery was intentionally built as a European-style estate. I was impressed by how the winery managed to be breathtaking and cordial at the same time.
Wines to try: Although Chateau St. Jean makes many excellent wines, Ben and I both agreed that the winery’s flagship, Cing Cépages (a blend of five grapes) was our favorite.
What sets it apart: Hospitality. St. Francis was the last winery we visited, and we didn’t have nearly the amount of time I would have liked to sit and chat with the staff. Despite arriving near close, the winery still ensured that we had a chance to taste some of its signature wines and experience the tasting room. Even at the end of the day, the tasting room had a lively atmosphere and was clearly filled with people enjoying themselves. St. Francis also offers unique culinary programs, including a special wine and food pairing and a wine, cheese, and charcuterie pairing.
While you’re there: Book one of the special food/charcuterie and wine pairings. St. Francis has a charcuterie program, and you can enjoy your tasting overlooking beautiful views of Sonoma Valley. Be sure to book in advance—the food and wine pairing is especially popular and can fill up weeks ahead of time.
Fun Fact: St. Francis is a certified sustainable, family-owned winery, and it includes a 457-kilowatt solar energy system.
Wines to try: The zinfandel. Before visiting St. Francis, I didn’t think I like zinfandel wines. I was wrong, very very wrong. Their Old Vines Zinfadel was one of my favorite wines of the trip.
Can we talk about dream life? The grounds and buildings at Vintners Inn are pulled directly from a California fairytale. The Inn is comprised of several buildings, each housed around a central courtyard. Although our room was spacious and lovely, I found myself wanting to spend every moment we were there reading on a bench in the courtyard or wandering past the vineyard rows and beautiful flowers.
I was also touched by the staff’s flexibility and hospitality. Although Ben and I didn’t arrive in Sonoma until the unfriendly hour of 2 a.m., the check in desk welcomed us kindly and ensured that we had everything we needed for our stay. The pair of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies we found on our bed were exactly what I needed when we walked in exhausted (and hungry), and each hotel room also includes a complimentary half bottle of Ferrari-Carano wine.
Vintners Inn also has fabulous restaurant, John Ash & Co. Read more details in the Sonoma Restaurants section below.
John Ash & Co.
In addition to the beautiful grounds and hospitable staff, Vintners Inn has one other offering I cannot recommend enough: its restaurant, John Ash & Co. The first picture below is of the restaurant’s exterior. As you can see, John Ash & Co. has a beautiful outdoor patio (at night, heat lamps keep the temperature comfy), and the interior dining room feels intimate and special without being overly fussy.
We enjoyed our dinner in celebration of my 30th birthday, and I could not have asked for a better gift.
The food at John Ash & Co. is fabulous. I loved how fresh and seasonal the ingredients are and the balance of offerings on the menu. Our starters—an avocado seafood tartar and cauliflower soup—were delicious (as was the salted chocolate tart we had for dessert), but my absolute favorite was the halibut I ordered for my main dish. The fish was perfectly cooked and came with the most gorgeous fava bean puree. I adore fava beans but, as anyone who has ever cooked with them can attest, they are incredibly time consuming to prepare. To be able to enjoy them so beautifully presented was a true springtime treat.
When I look back at my lifetime of meals, our lunch at Rustic, the restaurant at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, is one that I will relive over and over again.
Picture as follows: a table for two overlooking the vineyard; a glass of the most crisp, refreshing white wine you’ve ever tried; a server whose recommendations are so spot-on, you’d trust him with your life; a parade of courses in which each tastes better than the one before it; enjoying all of the above with your favorite person on the planet while in California wine country. As I sipped my wine, smelled the aromas from the energetic open kitchen, and looked first at Ben across the table, then out to Sonoma Valley, then back at Ben, and I had the sensation that life truly does not get any better than this.
Honestly, you could close your eyes, throw a dart at the Rustic menu and be happy with your order. Everything we tasted was sublime, and I couldn’t help but admire the dishes at other tables too. Top picks: the zucchini fries (ask for a side of the house-made marinara); roasted lamb; grilled salmon; whatever wine your server tells you to order.
If you want a meal to remember for the rest of your life, carve out at least an hour (longer if you can spare it) from your Sonoma agenda, grab a table by the window or on the restaurant terrace, and settle in for an unforgettable experience at Rustic.
OTHER SONOMA SITES
My other top pick for a spot to grab lunch or a side excursion in Sonoma would be Healdsburg, a charming town that nearly every person I asked for Sonoma recommendations mentioned. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into our trip schedule, but if you have time, stop through downtown for a stroll or a snack.
THE QUICK & DIRTY: What You Need to Know to Visit Sonoma Valley
Could Have Skipped It: Getting lost due to loss of cell phone service. Be sure you have clear directions—I’d give anything to have the time we wasted taking wrong turns back so that I could spend it at any of the wineries we visited.
Next Time: Food and wine pairing at St. Francis; Tour Healdsburg.
Heading to Sonoma or Napa? Don’t miss my San Francisco Travel Guide!
Thank you so much to the wineries (Ferrari-Carano; Francis Ford Coppola; St. Francis) and restaurants (Rustic; John Ash & Co.) who hosted us and made our trip so memorable. Thank you also to Vintners Inn for offering us a special media rate.