One mistake people make when coming to Northern California’s wine country is to think that they can see it all in a day or two. Napa and Sonoma are large counties with hundreds of wineries and restaurants between them. It’s best to choose one town and spend a couple of days exploring the surrounding area.
While it can be quite an undertaking to navigate the many corners of Sonoma, we’ve broken up the trip into a manageable 48-hour excursion.
Kick-start your trip at Ram’s Gate Winery (an appointment is required, but it’s worth the extra effort). The Howard Backen-designed property sits atop a hill overlooking the vineyards.
With a courtyard surrounded by an elegant wooden building, olive trees and impeccably landscaped grounds, Ram’s Gate feels like it could be in the Tuscan countryside. The barn-like public tasting room is sophisticated and inviting, and you’ll want to linger for a while.
On cold days, the fireplaces roar and the pinot noir flows. Indulge in cheese plates and other food pairings from the open kitchen helmed by executive chef Taylr Behnam.
From the winery, head to your home for the next two nights — Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. With terra cotta walls, outdoor corridors, fireplaces and a cozy lobby, the sprawling Spanish-style resort is modern yet rooted in history.
Five pools and a 40,000-square-foot spa with 30 treatment rooms are just a couple of standout amenities on the 13-acre property.
Settle into a comfortable deluxe suite with a plush king-sized bed, earth-toned curtains and a wood-burning fireplace. Note that every day from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., the hotel hosts a local winemaker happy hour. Enjoy complimentary wine and a decadent selection of cheese in the lobby.
Before dinner, there is time for one more winery visit. Imagery Estate Winery (the sister brand to famed Benziger Winery) rests in Glen Ellen, a short drive from the Fairmont.
With a tiny creek, olive trees and spacious lawn, the beautiful grounds at the winery complement the phenomenal wine you’ll taste here. Imagery’s grapes are grown onsite and at the Upper Ridge Vineyard, a mountain-top growing region at a 2,600-foot elevation.
The Imagery team sustainably cultivates 11 lesser-known varietals like riesling, lagrein, tempranillo, tannat and teroldego. You won’t want to miss the 2013 merlot and 2014 malbec, either.
Imagery’s collectible wine labels, commissioned from local and international artists, make unique keepsakes. An onsite gallery features a rotating selection of the original labels.
For dinner, you can’t bypass Glen Ellen Star, a local gem. The intimate two-room space is run by chef Ari Weiswasser, who trained at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star French Laundry. At Glen Ellen Star, Weiswasser focuses on rustic, wood-fired preparations (think crispy pizzas topped with creamy white sauce and peppery arugula; charred Brussels sprouts piled high with brown sugar bacon marmalade; and brick chicken marsala with rich cremini mushrooms and succulent skin).
The menu is short but thoughtful and innovative — a nice match for the wine list’s mostly local selection (with a few Italian, German and Australia wines thrown in for good measure).
Wake up at 8 a.m. and take advantage of the Fairmont’s daily hike offerings. Lead by local history, flora and fauna buff Heidi Cullen, the two-hour walk is fascinating and changes frequently — on one recent morning, she drove six people to Jack London State Historic Park to trek through the redwood groves.
After you’ve changed out of your workout gear, head to Sonoma Plaza to explore the shops and tasting rooms. First stop: Pangloss Cellars, a stylish, warm tasting room with bar and lounge seating areas. The gorgeous building dates back to 1902 — it was once a general store — and it shows its personality through exposed beams, original rock walls and chevron-printed wood floors.
While sitting in a cozy leather couch and sipping a glass of the Moon Mountain 2014 Zinfandel, it’s hard not to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Using only the best handpicked grapes, winemaker Erich Bradley has an Old World approach to crafting top-quality juice. Open-top fermenters, French oak barrels and small batching produce limited quantity releases of more than 30 different wines.
If you’re hungry, select a flight of Pangloss wines. There are several small bites to choose from — cheese, pâté, charcuterie, crostini or, our personal favorite, the caviar flight.
For a more substantial lunch, pop into Basque Boulangerie Café, a mom-and-pop eatery that’s been open since 1956. Order the quiche, green salad with champagne vinaigrette or prosciutto and Brie baguette. Breakfast is served all day; lucky samplers can savor a selection of pastries like blueberry cheese croissants, raisin scones, apple strudel and a wide variety of cookies from Russian teacakes to ginger.
Next, return to the Fairmont and spend the afternoon relaxing in the soothing Willow Stream Spa. There are two outdoor pools — one heated to 92 degrees Fahrenheit and another to 98 — and an indoor bathing house ritual that involves hot rainforest showers, a bucket of icy cold yet invigorating water and a warm water pool.
There’s also a Jacuzzi, a steam shower, a sauna and multiple relaxation areas that you can happily wander through in white robes.
The spa has a wide range of treatments that fall into three categories: relieve, restore and results. Options include a floating watsu massage, magnesium and jade wrap, lavender facial and reiki with reflexology.
The spa also has a full-service salon that offers hair styling, cuts, manicures and pedicures.
For dinner, return to the square and enjoy a meal at El Dorado Kitchen. The food is quintessential farm-driven cuisine that highlights the bounty of Sonoma’s farmlands. The dining room is bustling, homey and sophisticated.
Chef Armando Navarro trained under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, and his classical background is evident in the sumptuous food. Menu items are both high-brow (oysters on the half shell, caviar, seared foie gras) and low-maintenance (macaroni and cheese, romaine salad, steamed mussels).
The wine list features more than 200 California pours, with a heavy tilt toward Napa and Sonoma. If you’re tired of vino, there are also excellent seasonal cocktails, like the Amuse Rouge (gin, apple, Campari, vermouth and cranberry shrub).
If you’re up for it, there’s one last winery you should try before returning home. You won’t want to miss the unparalleled experience offered at Kamen Estate Wines. Proprietor Robert Kamen made his fortune writing screenplays for such popular films as The Karate Kid, the Taken trilogy and The Fifth Element.
Kamen has been an accidental winery owner since 1979, but he didn’t start making his own label until 1999. Oddly enough, today Kamen is one of the region’s brightest gems.
After booking a tour in advance, you’ll venture through the vineyard, sip a lovely sauvignon blanc and look out over the vines and San Pablo Bay, As much as you’ll want to give Kamen credit for scripting such a beautiful scene, it’ll be Sonoma that’s most deserving of any accolades.