I’ve been wine tasting many, many times. In Virginia, in Maryland, even in Texas. I thought their wine was wonderful – and I still do! But, y’all, California wine is next level and wine tasting in Sonoma County is incredible, especially when it comes to the reds. And, in Sonoma County alone, there are over 425 wineries. You can’t drive more than a few miles without running into another vineyard.
WINE TASTING IN SONOMA COUNTY
Our home base for our wine tasting weekend in Sonoma was Healdsburg, California, a charming and walkable city located in Northern Sonoma County. Just a short drive from some of our favorite wineries we visited – and with a tasting room located right downtown – Healdsburg was the perfect jumping off point for spending a few days exploring the best of California wine.
In this travel guide, I’m going to walk you through how to get to Sonoma, how to plan your wine tasting trip, the kinds of wines you’ll encounter, my favorite wineries we visited, and a few pro tips to remember during your stay.
SHOULD YOU GO TO SONOMA OR NAPA?
In full disclosure, I’ve never been to Napa, but, while I was in Sonoma, I did hear a lot about the differences. From what I can tell, there are two key differences. The first is the wine. In Napa, you’ll find chardonnays and cabernets. In Sonoma, it’s all about the pinots and the zinfandels.
The second is the vibe. Napa is often compared to the Disneyland of wine – it’s all about big names and glitzy presentation. Of course with that comes crowds and tourists. Sonoma is more laid-back with smaller scale wineries and off-the-beaten path names.
So, if you’re looking to drink some familiar wines in their home county, head to Napa. If you’re looking for a low-key wine excursion, head to Sonoma.
HOW TO GET TO SONOMA COUNTY
If you’re headed to Sonoma from anywhere that’s a flight away, you’re probably going to want to fly in to San Francisco and drive. Make the most of your trip by spending a day or two in San Fran first, and then renting a car to get out to Sonoma – and make a stop in Sausalito for lunch on the way.
We got lucky and the rental car place had run out of all cars except convertibles – is there a better way to drive out over the Golden Gate Bridge and into wine country than in a convertible? I think not.
ORGANIZING YOUR WINE TASTING TOUR
We spent two days touring the wineries in Sonoma. The first day, a friend who had been to Sonoma before organized a tour through 3 wineries for a large group of us. We hired drivers to drive our rental cars, which came out to about $50 a person plus tip at the end of a 5 hour day. I had never heard of this arrangement before, but it certainly made more financial sense than renting a van or just hoping on ubers.
We did regular tastings at two of the wineries, but at Macrostie Winery and Vineyards, we had the most lovely tasting set up overlooking their vineyards. Timing-wise, it worked out to have two wineries where we did shorter tastings with one leisurely and seated tasting in the middle.
The second day exploring Sonoma wineries, Adam and I went out on our own. We stopped in 3 different wineries, just choosing them based on what was convenient to each other and our plans, and what was on our bed and breakfast’s wine partnership. Even on a Saturday, we found that the wineries were low-key enough that we didn’t need reservations. We could just walk in, request a tasting, and spend time taking in the ambiance of the winery.
THE WINES YOU’LL TASTE
If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, then Sonoma is your place. I love a light, jammy red, so I couldn’t get enough. Every single Pinot we tried was better than the last. Thankfully we didn’t have but so much room in our suitcases to buy bottles, because we easily could have stocked up at every winery.
Into fuller bodied wines with bold tannins? You’ll also find a home in Sonoma. I didn’t think I liked Zinfandels, but after tasting the berry forward zins of Sonoma, I was hooked. Now I’m craving a zin whenever I cook a nice meal at home.
More of a white wan connoisseur? You’ll also find Chardonnays in Sonoma. And, no, these aren’t the buttery, oaky, thick Chardonnays that may come to mind. These are rich and full-bodied without feeling like you’re eating your wine.
THE WINERIES WE VISITED
We visited 7 or 8 wineries throughout our trip to Sonoma County – which means we missed rough 418 of the others. So, don’t expect this to be an exhaustive list and feel confident that any winery you stop into along your route will have excellent wine – I didn’t taste a bad wine while I was in Sonoma, but these were a few of my favorites.
- Lambert Bridge: This is the one winery where we joined their wine club and it’s not just because the space was absolutely gorgeous, our cheese plate was perfectly paired with the wine, or because the sommelier was chatty and knowledgable. Their Cabernet Sauvignons and their Merlot were on point. I can’t wait until our first shipment, which I think is this month!
- Macrostie Winery & Vineyards: Macrostie was where my friends and I did out seated, outdoor tasting and the scenery can’t be beat. Looking out on miles of vineyards while sipping wine is perhaps the best way to spend an afternoon.
- Talisman Wine: Located in Glen Ellen, en route from San Francisco to Healdsburg, we stopped in Talisman Wine on our drive out to wine country. Adam actually joined Talisman’s wine club at least a decade ago on a trip with his parents – long before they had a tasting room. And apparently that makes him one of their first ten members. We did a tasting with Amanda and had the most lovely time – their selection of Pinots is top notch.
- Wilson Winery: We ended up at Wilson because of their partnership with our bed and breakfast, but it’s worth visiting for its sweeping views of the vineyards from their deck. They do tout that they have the best views in Dry Creek – and they might be right.
- Rockpile Vineyards: Rockpile was our last tasting in Sonoma and we ended up there because it is right in downtown Healdsburg and we were running short on time. But, it ended up being one of the best. We had a great time chatting with the tasting room employees and left with a bottle of wine – and you can’t ask for more than that!
A FEW FINAL NOTES (NO PUN INTENDED)
One thing we found during our visit was that most of the bed and breakfasts offer partnerships with the local vineyards. Whether the bed and breakfast is actually owned by a wine group or has simply partnered with a few local wineries, you can often get a card that will gain you a free tasting at designated wineries. We took full advantage of this because why pay $15 for a tasting if you don’t have to?
Also, while the summer is the high season, it’s also HOT. While it may be rainier from November to April, the temperatures could be far more pleasant and you’re more likely to find a deal on accommodations. The heat is a dry heat so it’s not miserable, but just something to consider.
Lastly, next up on my tour de California via travel guides, I have a post in the queue about What to Pack for California in the Summer, Where to Eat in Healdsburg, a recap of my stay with the Calderwood Inn, and a general travel guide to Healdsburg. Then, it’s on to San Francisco and my time there. Thanks for coming along on this many, many post ride with me!