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Contributing editor Julie Van Rosendaal takes us on an eating and drinking adventure through Sonoma County, California.
People often default to Napa when considering California as a wine destination, but just a short drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma offers not only 50 state and regional parks, 55 miles of stunning Pacific coastline and ancient redwood forests, but more than 425 wineries (!), along with breweries and distilleries that offer tastings, tours and blending seminars to keep you relaxed—and informed—during your days in the sun. Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery was founded back in 1857.
After flying into San Francisco, it’s easy to hop in your rental car and head north—once you hit Sonoma County, chances are you’ll come across gems at every turn. With hundreds of wineries to choose from, it’s tough to settle on a few, but Buena Vista is one of the first: founded in 1857, it has a colourful history and is now considered a historical landmark. The buildings, fountain and champagne cellars, renovated and restored in 2012, are surrounded with green, grassy grounds that are perfect for picnicking. Or be a winemaker for a day, guided through the art of blending by one of their wine educators, to create your own custom bottle of red—complete with your own label. You even get to cork it yourself.
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Just a few minutes from downtown Sonoma, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn welcomes guests with a glass of bubbles before ushering them into a luxurious foyer and beyond to a pristine pool, manicured grounds and breezy rooms. One of the only luxury resorts in California with its own natural supply of thermal mineral water, flowing from over a thousand feet below, the 40,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa has been rated among Travel + Leisure’s top 25 spas in the world.When it’s time for dinner, the Michelin award winning Santé Restaurant has been a recipient of the AAA Four Diamond Award and Michelin designations and is known as one of the finest restaurants in the area. The wine list features more than 500 Sonoma and Napa area wines. If there’s time in between the spa and dinner, the sleek 38˚ North lounge pours a selection of 50-plus wines by the glass, both local and imported. (Photo: Megan Steffen // the Girl and the Fig.)
Close by in the open Sonoma Plaza (their town square), the Girl and the Fig is worth the short car (or cab) ride; the café and wine bar is known for its Provencal-inspired local, seasonal cuisine. Sit down for a French aperitif at the antique bar, try their housemade cocktails or choose from an award-winning Rhone-Alone wine list. (They have a gorgeous all-season patio, too!)
A short drive north, Jack London State Park provides the perfect backdrop for a sunny stroll—or hop on horseback to explore the home and surrounding buildings that once belonged to the author, journalist, activist and agricultural pioneer—on your own or with an experienced docent. We love a good rummage through one’s historical living quarters.The history of Jack London, most famous for his literary accomplishments, is encapsulated in a short half-mile loop or a more leisurely walk through and past examples of his early sustainable farming practices, including experiments growing spineless cactus to use as livestock feed—he was unsuccessful, but the strange-looking fenced cactus garden remains.
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If you’re looking for a break from wine, Russian River Brewing, founded amid redwoods and vineyards along the Russian River, has a popular brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa where they focus on traditional, aggressively hopped, California-style ales, Belgian-inspired ales, and barrel-aged beers.
Just west of Santa Rosa (and about 20 minutes from the ocean), the small town of Sebastopol is home to the Barlow, a small, hip community of artists and makers, with local food, art and wine gathered in a former apple cannery. Request your favourite vinyl as you taste your way through a flight of Wind Gap Wines, made with grapes from across the state and along the Sonoma coast, and check out the craft spirits made from organically grown California red winter wheat at Spirit Works Distillery. They’re the only distillery in North America to distill true sloe gin, using frozen sloes (a tiny, tart stone fruit) directly from the U.K., and are conducting an experiment by playing music to barrels of whiskey by way of Ipods and big, padded headphones strapped to the top—24 hours a day for two years. (They say you can already taste—and in some cases smell—a difference between the casks.)
If you have plans to hit the coast, Monterey is famous for its aquarium, and the (almost next door) Spindrift Inn was part of the revival of Cannery Row in the 1980s; it’s a small, European-style inn with feather bedding, wood burning fireplaces and windows (with built-in cushioned seats) that open onto McAbee Beach, allowing guests to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves, and hopeful seabirds waiting for scraps from morning breakfast trays.
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A couple blocks up the hill you’ll find the also famous Sardine Factory, a favourite spot for celebrities, world leaders and entertainment icons since it opened in October of 1968. Several scenes from Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me were filmed at the bar, and its gaudily decorated dining rooms have been frequented by the likes of Julia Child and Prince Albert II of Monaco. Owners Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino are still in the kitchen and front of house, welcoming guests to an unforgettable dining experience, with over-the-top ornate rooms and an old-school menu (try the abalone bisque) with classics like oysters Rockefeller and their famous cheese bread.The legendary Sardine Factory wine program features over 1,800 labels and 32,000 bottles; one of the most extensive wine lists in the world. Down below, its cellars are spectacular, piled with dusty bottles behind padlocked gates, with an extravagantly decorative dining table and plush seats for a dozen or so.
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