The Sonoma County wine region is on California’s North Coast, directly north of San Francisco. It borders the Napa Valley wine region to the east but extends farther north. Sonoma is more than twice as large as Napa, and the wineries are more spread out. You have to allow more driving time when visiting Sonoma’s wineries, which now number over 250.
Sonoma County's AVAs
Sonoma has 3 general American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and 11 specific AVAs, in addition to being part of the huge North Coast AVA, which takes in six counties north of San Francisco. Here are Sonoma’s general AVAs:
Sonoma County AVA
Northern Sonoma AVA (an area that includes Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Knights Valley, along with other territory)
Sonoma Coast, an elongated area in western Sonoma, along the Pacific coastSonoma County and its wine regions.
Comparing Sonoma with Napa
Sonoma differs from Napa in climate, in the wines that do best, and in attitude:
Climate: In general, much of Sonoma is cooler than Napa, especially in Sonoma’s coastal areas.
Top wines: The cooler areas of Sonoma, such as Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and the Sonoma Coast, produce some of California’s finest Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Zinfandels, and sparkling wines. Napa’s generally warmer climate provides an especially suitable environment for Cabernet Sauvignon, that county’s most renowned wine.
Attitude: Sonoma doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Napa Valley; it’s more laid back. One of the great benefits of this is that fewer tourists visit Sonoma’s wineries, and except during rush hour, you don’t find the traffic problems that you can find in Napa Valley, especially in the summer.
Sonoma has many of California’s largest and most famous wineries, such as Gallo Family Wineries, Kendall-Jackson, Korbel, Simi, Sebastiani, Jordan, and Gloria Ferrer. Serious wine lovers could easily spend a week each in both Sonoma and Napa, just visiting some of the top wineries.
Sonoma — an idyllic wine region
In many ways, Sonoma is the most charming wine region in California. It has everything, from Old World charm to modern wineries and fine restaurants. Going from the southern part of Sonoma to the north, some of its highlights include the following wineries, cities, and towns:
Gloria Ferrer Winery: In windswept, western Carneros, Gloria Ferrer is part of Spain’s Freixenet — the largest sparkling wine producer in the world. The winery is an architectural wonder, and its sparkling wines are among the best in California.
Buena Vista Winery: Also in Carneros, the dramatically beautiful Buena Vista is California’s oldest continually operating winery (since 1857). Guided and self-guided tours are available. Wines are reasonably priced.
Town of Sonoma: Dominated by its huge plaza, this fascinating old Spanish mission town is a must-see. Many fine wineries are nearby, including Ravenswood (the great Zinfandel specialist) and Hanzell (one of California’s finest Chardonnay producers). Great cheese shops and bread shops offer their wares for picnickers.
Village of Glen Ellen: Just north of the town of Sonoma and south of Santa Rosa, this beautiful little village of about 1,000 residents was the home of one of America’s great authors, Jack London, and one of its greatest food writers, MFK Fisher. Benziger Family Winery is also in Glen Ellen.
Santa Rosa: In the center of the county, Santa Rosa is the largest city in Napa/Sonoma wine country, with lots of hotels and fine restaurants.
Healdsburg: In Northern Sonoma, the town of Healdsburg is ideally located for winery visits because it’s surrounded by three great Sonoma wine regions: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Russian River Valley. Simi Winery is also in Healdsburg.