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Sonoma Valley

Sample the good life. Wine taste, stroll a small town square, cycle country roads, go horseback riding, and picnic in a shady park.

map of wine country in Sonoma Valley
Photo caption
map of wine country in Sonoma Valley

Miwok Indians say the moon rose seven times a night as they traveled the billowy valley between the Sonoma and Mayacamas mountains. Hence, their name, Sonoma, which translates to many moons, or loosely to Valley of the Moon, the name popularized by author Jack London.

Sonoma Valley, which might just as aptly be called Valley of the Sun, lives up to all the mood and romance its nickname conjures. For a valley its size-only seven miles wide and 17 miles long-it packs the essentials of good living. Not the least of which is its Mediterranean landscape. Farms, vineyards, and parkland go from shamrock-green winters to luminous-gold summers. The sky burns like a blue flame. The countryside in spring is a wild palette of lupine, poppies, iris, paintbrush. Come fall, sunlight is washing clear over droopy oaks on camel hills, violet mountains, and the purpled foliage of grapevines.

What better time to come to wine country than when it is alive with the ritual of harvest? Whether you fancy the wine-tasting or not, you can sample the good life a passel of other ways-from strolling an unforgettable town square, and cycling uncrowded roads to horseback riding or picnicking in a shady park. Fly in a vintage airplane over the Valley. Steep in the culture that belies the Valley's sleepy aspect, watching artists at work. Fatten up on world-renowned gastronomy, soak your bones in artesian minerals, or laze away the day in scenic lodging.

Back to the Future
Start at the Plaza in Sonoma. The trees, pond, ducks, swings, and Sebastiani Theatre marquee evoke a Back to the Future feel. Should one soda fountain linger near its perimeter, it's a fitting tile in the mosaic of trendy and old-fashioned. There are fancy and homey restaurants, art galleries, and clothes boutiques; gourmet picnic ingredients to be had at delis, bakeries, and from time-honored cheesemakers; and important 150-year-old history to repeat itself.

Marv Parker of Sonoma Plaza Walking Tours tends to the last. Raconteur and guide Parker meets groups weekends in front of the Visitor Center at the east end of the town square. History never sounded so lively-General Vallejo's graceful surrender and the birth of the Bear Flag Republic; a crude drawing that passed for a bear on a flag; why does the 1908 basalt City Hall look the same on all sides? More old adobe and rough-hewn timber than I'd care to tally surrounds the Plaza and Parker breathes life into it with stories and anecdotes.

For $3.50 you can also buy a self-guiding booklet from the Visitor Center or the Vasquez House in the nearby Paseo Mall. But you won't qualify for Parker's prize-a coupon to the first person to answer the tour's trivia question. It's redeemable for a steaming loaf from the Sonoma French Bakery.

We ended our tour at the Sonoma Mission, Solano San Francisco, California's most northerly mission. How convenient. Across the street is Lo Spuntino, deli/restaurant/wine bar newly opened by VIAnsa Winery (a Sebastiani spin-off). Lo Spuntino's homemade items-mascarpone torta, garlic and olive brie, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant, balsamic mustard, pasta, roasted fowl and meat-convinced me that the best of Italy must be in Sonoma.

Serious picnickers might not leave the Plaza area without stops at the Basque Boulangerie and Sonoma Bakery; Sonoma Cheese Factory, where you can watch cheese being molded in stainless steel tanks; Vella Cheese in an old stone building.

Picnic items stowed, I pedaled east to as many wineries as I could find by following the white arrows: Ravenswood (of legendary Zinfandel); Gundlach Bundschu-up a winding road, with a short hiking trail and a quiet picnic area over a pond; Buena Vista, which offers food and wine pairing on scheduled dates; and Bartholomew Park Winery, which has an impressive Museum of Wine featuring vintage clothing, equipment and local history that includes Pomo Indians, female convicts, 200 angora cats, and the eccentric Hungarian vintner, Agoston Haraszthy.

If you have the slightest trepidation about cycling streets with cars and hills, you can travel-on foot or bicycle-a two-mile paved, traffic-free path. Find it just a couple blocks north of the Plaza. It goes from Sebastiani Winery (which I bypassed because of the many tour buses) west to Highway 12 across from Maxwell Farms Park, a family-friendly park.

You can stretch those two miles with several stops along the path: the Patch, a farm that should be bursting with fresh corn, other vegetables, flowers for sale this fall; see the exhibit inside the Depot Park Museum (open Wed.-Sun., 1-4:30) arranged by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society; visit General Vallejo's steep-pitched-roof home, Lachryma Montis. It means "tears of the mountain" for the spring that still feeds the grounds.

Back near the Plaza find La Haye Art Center on East Napa. Six artists work in the historic foundry, also the headquarters for the Arts Guild of Sonoma. Visitors are welcome to drop by and see what a painter, potter, jeweler, cast bronze sculptor, and computer graphic artist are up to.

Soaking, Stroking, Lodging
Traveling northwesterly from Sonoma Plaza on Highway 12 you come to Sonoma's odd shabby pocket around Boyes Hot Springs. But a short block off the highway an oasis of four-diamond luxury stretches. The Sonoma Mission Inn's pink stucco is a paragon of elegance with its Spanish and Mediterranean architecture. The culinary excellence of its Cafe and Grille is well known. Even if you're not its guest, you can purchase day-use of the Inn's spa facilities. Artesian springs infused with natural therapeutic minerals seep up from over a thousand feet beneath the inn. You can soak, steam, swim laps in an outdoor pool, get massaged, take a class in meditation, or choose from a roster of mind and body fitness activities.

It's hard to go wrong with most wine country lodgings. A wooded hillside ringing with birdsong, roaming deer, a sweep of vineyard are bound to be near, compounded by lavish country breakfasts. Beltane Ranch, an inn in a house built in 1892 on 1,600 acres, epitomizes this. Its sheep raising and vineyards have gone to olives and hiking trails.

Unique in Sonoma Valley is the Kenwood Inn & Spa, ten miles north of Sonoma Plaza. You'd be hard-pressed to pick a better spot to savor the full flavor of Sonoma Valley. The inn's weathered ocher stone wall announces the best of old and new world. The Tuscan villa feel of the complex through the gate is emphasized with olive, persimmon, fig, and apple trees. Ivy and wisteria creep over stone and trellises and aromatic rosemary grows in the handsome courtyard. Swimming pool and Jacuzzi are never crowded with only 12 guestrooms.

It was here I watched the moonlight flood the vine-stitched hillside of Kunde Estate across the way. The moon seemed to rise from the slash of mountain abutting the inn. My suite, in a detached building with fireplace, feather bed and complimentary wine, was happily free of TV and phone. I started the morning on the terrace with Chef Charles Holmes' warm scones, jam, and fresh fruit. Lemon cream over poached eggs on thick peasant bread followed in the bright slate-tiled dining room.

Kenwood Inn also offers day-use of its spa facilities to non-guests. Entrusting your knots and spasms to the penetrating strokes of head masseur David Keagy is highly recommended.

I liked that I could bicycle right out the front gate of the Kenwood Inn-avoiding rush hour on Highway 12. I followed a 12-mile loop that took me through the quiet hamlet of Glen Ellen where Jack London's mark is palpable. If you're really ambitious you can take a side-trip on Bennett Valley Road to Matanzas Creek Winery where the tiered fragrant lavender gardens recall Provence.

Being the designated driver of my bicycle, I avoided wine-tasting en route. But I discovered that most Sonoma wineries offer other attractions, too: Tasting of French picholine olive oil pressed from 120-year-old trees at B.R. Cohn Winery, where gourmet vinegar is also made.

  • Tasting of French picholine olive oil pressed from 120-year-old trees at B.R. Cohn Winery, where gourmet vinegar is also made.
  • A free 1/2-hour open-tram tour through the grounds of Benziger Family Winery on the slope of a dormant volcano. Also here are nice picnic tables in a redwood grove, a surprisingly captivating Imagery Art Gallery, and a self-guided tour to Bruno's Nymph Garden and the rare fuzzy grape.
  • Nice kitchen gifts at Kenwood, Valley of the Moon, and other wineries, including a clever all-in-one glass cruet for oil and vinegar from Kunde.
  • Tasting of French picholine olive oil pressed from 120-year-old trees at B.R. Cohn Winery, where gourmet vinegar is also made.

Fruit, nut, and vegetable basket to the Bay Area, Sonoma Valley stocks its own restaurants generously with the best of seasonal local ingredients. It would take weeks to eat your way up and down the Valley. Then a couple more to work your way around the Plaza-inc.aspluding Babette's, Piatti, Della Santina's, Swiss Hotel, Depot Hotel, the Feed Store, and much more.

Swayed partly by ambience, I decided on the General's Daughter in a mustard-colored 120-year-old Victorian on Spain Street a few blocks from Sonoma Plaza.

Duck confit and andouille sausage pizza with charred tomatoes and smoked mozzarella, grilled herbed, pressed game hen with Spanish sherry, thyme and black peppercorn sauce were a few of the creative menu items-many with local ori-gins. Tastefully renovated, the restaurant has all the charm of a house built in 1864 by a General (Mariano Vallejo) for his daughter (Natalia).

Sonoma Parkland
One of the best kept secrets of Sonoma Valley is its parkland, with redwood forests, waterfalls, slopes of wildflowers, and groves of oaks, madrone, buckeye, and laurel. You can hike or horseback ride to views of Mt. Diablo and beyond. You can also mountain bike or fish. Picnicking is usually a given.

Drive west up narrow winding Adobe Canyon to reach secluded Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Miles of trails run through chaparral ridges, oak and fir forests, meadows, and redwoods in Sonoma Creek Canyon. Nearby Mount Hood at 2,730 feet remains your beacon in the Valley, but Hood Mountain Regional Park may well be closed through fall due to fire danger.

Annadel State Park (turn west on Lawndale from Hwy 12) is laced with trails, including part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

The Sonoma Cattle Company guides horseback rides through Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks, including tours with western barbecue and sunset and full moon rides.

With my Sonoma Cattle guide I rode through a part of Jack London's land that felt like remote wilderness. We enjoyed a big view atop Sonoma Mountain. I'd seen Pig Palace, Beauty Ranch, and Wolf House ruins on previous visits, but never the Grandfather Tree, a redwood so large, surely it thinks it's a giant sequoia.

Want to end your visit to the Valley with a flourish? Back in the southern end, Aeroschellville looks like an airport off Arnold Drive. The hangars are full of pilot Chris Prevost's passion-flying machines. You can view the Valley from on high on various flights-scenic, aerobatic, or kamikaze-in vintage biplanes and gliders. Even if you don't care to fly, Aeroschellville is worth a stop. It's like a museum with its 1940 Boeing Stearman biplanes and World War II Navy SNJ-4 war plane.

Illustration by Joe Vanderbos

This article was first published in September 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.