While the recent Kincade wildfire in northern California made national headlines, the majority of Sonoma County’s beautiful wine country was not damaged by the blaze. The flames threatened the populated areas of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Windsor and Geyserville, but firefighters were able to contain the inferno to the largely unoccupied mountains and wildland in northeastern Sonoma.
As colder weather kicks in, it is a great time to explore the region. Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism says, “Visiting now helps support local businesses and families.”
Locals are up to the task by doing what they do best: providing out-of-towners with unforgettable experiences. Here are some of our favorite spots to explore in Sonoma.
Run by father-and-son duo John and John Michael Sweazey, this local favorite recently debuted a gorgeous new hospitality center in the windswept Carneros region.
Walking into Anaba Vintners House is like stepping into the Sweazeys’ home. The upscale yet unpretentious farmstead boasts high ceilings and a dark-blue accent wall with natural elements like wood, copper and steel featured throughout. The unique chandeliers are meant to reflect the anabatic winds that run through the valley — a cheeky reference to the winery’s name — and the Sweazeys’ personal coffee table book collection and family photos are on display.
Vintners House-goers are invited to sip the winery’s stellar pinot noirs and chardonnays. Winemakers Ross Cobb and Katy Wilson excel at expressive reds and interesting whites that clearly demonstrate the region’s varied climates and terroir. Be sure to allow two hours to take in the breathtaking property, play a little bocce ball (or paddle tennis) and sample Anaba’s entire selection.
Over in Kenwood, winemaker Steve Law has set up shop in a divine little white house on the Bennett Valley property that he shares with his wife, Heather. The new MacLaren Cottage is a departure from the vintner’s old tasting room in Sonoma Square — at the Kenwood facility, there’s no foot traffic, and the appointment-only salon provides Law the chance to slow down and share his Rhone-style wines with small groups.
Aside from Law’s Scottish sense of humor (the Scotland native’s brand is named for his family’s clan), there is nothing Celtic about MacLaren. With an A-frame, white walls and a large communal table, the tasting room is pure California.
As for the wine, it’s all French-inspired. Law has had a love affair with syrahs for years, and he sources Sonoma’s best fruit for making the classic reds. He believes that “wines should not fight back,” and this is apparent after one sip of his incredibly smooth vintages.
He makes a few different types of syrah, all of which are highly drinkable (low alcohol) and pair well with food. MacLaren also has an exceptional viognier that tastes like it was produced in France and a cool-climate sauvignon blanc.
One of the things that makes Sonoma so charming is that most (roughly 85 percent) of its wineries are family-owned and -operated. On Sonoma Mountain, Nate and Lauren Belden have created something magical at their family-oriented operation Belden Barns.
He’s a Colorado farm boy and she’s a New York brand expert whose mutual love of agriculture, wine and hospitality have turned them into one of the hottest new vintner couples around. There is something for everyone in the duo’s varietal lineup, from a light and refreshing sparkling blanc de noirs to an unfiltered, Italian-style sauvignon blanc to a classic, estate-grown pinot noir.
A tasting (by appointment only) at Belden Barns takes place in a 100-year-old barn complete with hay barrels, owl nests and spiderwebs. While it may be rustic, it’s a delightful departure from the region’s cookie-cutter tasting rooms, and the Beldens’ natural charisma and passion for wine makes barn-goers feel as if they are part of an exclusive club.
With two children under the age of 10, the couple was determined to make the tasting experience as family-friendly as possible. Kids are given backpacks with binoculars and baseball caps and are invited to roam the property, participating in a scavenger hunt while their parents taste all that Belden Barns has to offer.
While Nate grows the grapes and oversees all of the winemaking duties himself, the Beldens employ others to run the farm side of their operation. The husband-and-wife farmer team of Jenny and Vince Trotter harvests tomatoes, beans and everything in between to sell to the same restaurants that pour the brand’s wines.
Where to Stay
After enjoying a few glasses of Belden Barns’ lovely Austrian-style grüner veltliner, you may need to take a rest. Book a suite at MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, a recently remodeled boutique resort sitting a couple of blocks away from Sonoma Plaza.
The 19th-century property recently underwent a $20 million refresh that injected the hotel’s 64 rooms with a contemporary farmhouse feel. While the Victorian architecture was left intact, the suites were given a modern makeover with upscale amenities like a massive flat-screen TV, iPads, heated bathroom floors and movement-detecting lights.
Elsewhere in Sonoma, in the revered Russian River Valley, is another historic address you’ll love: Hotel Les Mars. Even though the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star property lies in the heart of Healdsburg, it almost seems as if the 16-room hotel has been plucked from Paris. Spaces are filled with 17th- and 18th-century antiques. Complimentary breakfast has a decidedly French feel. Staffers approach service with European-style charm.
MacArthur Place is home to popular new Mediterranean restaurant Layla. With an equally contemporary farmhouse vibe, the dining room serves flavorful eats all day. Devour spicy shakshuka eggs for breakfast, hearty kale salad for lunch and nicely poached salmon with eggplant caponata (stew) at dinner.
You’ll also appreciate a meal at Taub Family Outpost, a new two-story, multi-concept restaurant, café and tasting room set to open soon on Sonoma Square. Downstairs, shop for picnic provisions, international delicacies like Spanish anchovies and Italian olive oil, and wine, or order coffee, kombucha on tap or a pastry then relax with the local paper.
Upstairs, you can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared by native Sonoman chef Trevor Anderson. The new American cuisine pairs well with the laid-back décor by Bay Area-based Studio Becky Carter. When you’re in the mood for something more potent than wine, the outpost also has a sleek and sexy speakeasy where hand-crafted cocktails are the name of the game. Enter through the upstairs dining room or secret back entrance.