The fresh air and cold water of Sonoma make for a fantastically chill vacation.
While Sonoma and Napa are often grouped into one category—California wine country—the reality is that, notwithstanding their proximity, they couldn’t be more different. Napa leans toward Falcon Crest excess and occasionally Disneyland-sized crowds but Sonoma with its ocean, vines and quirky towns keeps it pretty real—or as real as it can be in a place that’s equal parts beautiful and bountiful.
Driving up from San Fran, you have two options once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge: make time on the drab 101, or lose yourself on Highway 1, the famed Pacific Coast Highway that sees a fraction of traffic here than it does at points south. Zip through the charming town of Point Reyes Station because you have to get to the tiny little burg of Marshall before the sun sets. It’s home to Hog Island Oyster Company (hogislandoysters.com)—famous for selling its wares to California’s swellest restaurants, but up here, far from the bright lights of the city, they’ll let you reserve an oceanfront picnic table and supply you with a shucker, a grill, some lemons and more oysters (Kumamoto and Pacific Sweetwater) than you can reasonably handle. Bring your own hooch. Gorged on bivalves, hop back into your car, point north on the PCH and in less than half an hour you’ll be at Bodega Bay Lodge (bodegabaylodge.com), a historic arts-and-crafts-style outpost on a pristine swath of the Pacific coast—like a low-key Big Sur minus the crowds. Open the sliding doors and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping at the shore. Hog Island Oysters.
As tempting as it is to stick to the coast, it’s time to head inland to experience that other thing Sonoma has going for it—the best cool-climate wines in North America. The first stop is the ”town“ of Occidental, a tiny enclave that has equal numbers of pinot growers and spirit guides (with the occasional side of bikers) and where everyone still uses ”man“ at the end of their sentence. Breakfast here is at Howard Station Cafe, a homey place that seems to attract every single person in town. It’s cash only, so don’t let the feds know the place is always packed, man. Between here and the larger but still funked-out town of Sebastopol lies the greatest concentration of pinot vineyards in the state, but don’t expect Napa-style tasting rooms stacked four deep with tour buses idling noisily outside. It’s grassroots here, which means you make reservations in advance and more often than not the person taking you around is either the owner, the winemaker or both. There are few bad options and a number of exceptional ones, among which Littorai is at the top of the list. Owner Ted Lemon worked at the biggest names in Burgundy before setting up shop here in the mid-1990s. It’s only been in the last few years that word of his handcrafted bio-dynamic pinots has leaked out of Sonoma and now it’s all waiting lists and frenzy to get them. Tapping a barrel at Littorai. If you haven’t made any advance reservations, shame on you, but all is not lost—both Merry Edwards, home of great pinot and maybe the best sauvignon blanc in North America, and Red Car, for pinot and amazing syrah (and not to be confused with the pedestrian Red Truck wines), are open to the public seven days a week. No matter where you stop, grab a bottle to take to dinner—common practice around here—at theFarmhouse Inn, just up the way in Forestville, yet another unbelievably quaint settlement. The 18-room inn is Sonoma’s answer to Napa’s famed properties (Auberge, Calistoga) in that it combines luxury and low-key like they’re meant to be together. The Michelin-starred restaurant has few parallels in the county and it also allows you to have one more glass before you stroll to your whitewashed modern room in a barn so chic it looks like Kelly Wearstler designed it for Ralph Lauren. Raising a glass at Red Car.
Ultimately you have to leave, and your options are west to Healdsburg and its classical square and dozens of also-excellent tasting rooms or, if you’re all wine’d out, south to the town of Sonoma. Fortify yourself with brioche French toast stuffed with fromage blanc covered in tart and tangy local huckleberries at The Girl and the Fig (thegirlandthefig.com) and then head five blocks to the head of the Sonoma Overlook Trail and an easy, gently sloped two-mile loop that rewards you with views over the town and its square (and all the way to SF on clear days). Make sure you borrow a few bay leaves from the abundant trees on your descent for that perfect foodie souvenir, and play name-that-winemaking-dynasty (Sebastiani, et al.) as you wander though the cemetery at the trail’s end. Kick the dust off your boots—you’re just over an hour from SFO. WL