Wine tours in California come with an implied question: Who’s driving? Even a cheap chauffeur will run you hundreds of dollars that could be better spent on tastings, and while the Napa Wine Train welcomes visitors to tour Napa Valley from the comfort of an antique railcar, it rules out snap detours or lingering over your favourite sips. (Plus, it seems some patrons are more welcome than others.)
But license-less oenophiles need not taint their pinot with tears: There’s a perfectly good way to experience California wine culture on foot. Turns out Sonoma, best known as Napa’s rustic sister county, is also a charming little town, which offers a range of tasting options and a fair bit of history for the automotively challenged.
Staying at a downtown hotel is convenient but expensive. If you do, you may as well book the Ledson, an upscale old-world boutique spot right on Sonoma Plaza. There are also plenty of private rental options that offer easy bike access to the wineries in the countryside just beyond the city limits. (You can rent a bicycle in town for US$30.)
Two of the best satellite vineyards are conveniently located within minutes of each other, and offer a chance to experience both the mighty and most intimate ends of the tasting spectrum. On the big side, Gundlach Bunschu (that’s “Gun Lock Bun Shoe”) is the oldest family-owned winery in California, opened in 1858 by German transplant Jacob Gundlach. Called Rhinefarm, it’s a vast estate featuring sweeping valley views, cave tours and a tasting room that feels as cozy as an old saloon. The wine is lovely, refined stuff, and you can occasionally enjoy it while listening to live shows by indie rock royalty like Cat Power or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, both of whom play at Rhinefarm in September 2015.
In Sonoma, the best way to follow up wine and cheese is with more wine and cheese
A rigorous but rewarding pedal along Napa Road is Canihan Wines, an organic outfit that offers private tastings in a tiny barn. Winemaker Bill Canihan will often host you for a friendly quaffing through his unique, dangerously drinkable pinot noir and syrah varieties, although a visit with marketing manager Amy Tormey wins the bonus of time with her dog, Finnegan. All three will happily sit with you to talk, sip wine and nibble at a melty wedge of Saint–André next to the sun kissed, dry farmed vines.
In Sonoma, the best way to follow up wine and cheese is with more wine and cheese. A ride back downtown to Sonoma Plaza yields plenty of options. On the north side, near the old mission where Franciscan padres planted the region’s first vines, the Sonoma Cheese Factory is a large deli-style spot that’s ideal for grabbing picnic fixings (cheese, wine) to enjoy in the park across the road. If you’d rather dine in, the Basque Boulangerie Café serves up crepes, sourdough baguettes and croque monsieurs in a French bistro atmosphere.
Wine, of course, is everywhere. Stop into the Corner Store to grab some gifts for the poor suckers back home, and you’ll find the tasting bar for Highway 12 Vineyards, offering free sips. Over a glass of cold sauvignon blanc at the nearby tasting room for Kamen Estates, you might get the chance to meet winemaker Robert Kamen, screenwriter of films like The Karate Kid and Taken, to discuss his very particular set of skills.
An afternoon nap is wise before heading back to the plaza for dinner at venerable restaurant The Girl and the Fig. The rich French country food — think steak tartare, custom cheese boards and duck confit — is best enjoyed under the golden lights of the big, lively back patio, with a zippy glass of local carignane. Reserve ahead, preferably by months.
All of this, which merely sniffs at the bouquet of central Sonoma, is within a distance of under five kilometres and doable in a single day. If you fit it all in — and on your own two feet, no less — why not reward yourself? Wine and cheese is strongly suggested.