Practical Travel Tips: Sonoma County, California.

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We try to make an annual trip to San Francisco; and every time, we try to visit the wineries in Sonoma and Napa. Always a good time. Jim, “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Myrtle Beach, recently went to Sonoma right after the fires in Napa and Sonoma. Despite the devastation, Sonoma and Napa is open for business. Go and support them if you are nearby. Here are Jim’s practical tips should you visit.

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We visited Sonoma County, in late October (2017), just two weeks after the costliest fires in U.S. history. The media’s reporting of this cataclysm left us expecting to see the place we had called home (my wife and I owned a vacation home in Windsor from 2009 through 2016 and lived there full-time for 2½ years) turned into a wasteland. While the last thing I would want is for any reader of this destination report to minimize the fires’ devastation, either to property or the psyche of people we call friends and neighbors, the damage (thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters and first responders) is relatively limited. In response to questions about how one could help, a consistent theme emerged – “Tell everyone you can Sonoma County is open for business; we need people not to stay away because of the way the fires have been reported.” This destination report will focus on some gems in this little corner of paradise readers might not otherwise discover.

Walking on the Pacific Coast – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Lodging

Lodging can be expensive in Sonoma County. We tend to look for high value accommodations in order to save as much money as possible for enjoying the stars of Sonoma County – the wine and food. Because we were traveling with friends on this trip, we rented a spacious home with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a full kitchen and laundry, as well as a huge TV in the living room in Sebastopol, and ended up spending less than $93.90/night/couple – excellent!

Should you prefer an ideally located, moderately priced hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites, Windsor – Sonoma Wine Country may be a good choice. In addition to the standard Hampton amenities, this property offers bike rental onsite and 3 electric car charging stations. Adjacent to this property is an Applebee’s restaurant, Starbucks is across the street, 2 grocery stores are within easy walking distance and it’s less than ¼ mile off US101, the main artery in Sonoma County, from which you can reach Healdsburg and Santa Rosa in just 15 minutes and the Pacific Ocean in a half-hour.

Wine tasting

Home to more than 425 wineries, Sonoma County is a playground for wine lovers! Two you probably haven’t heard of produce consistently high quality wine and offer truly memorable wine tasting experiences:

Williamson Wines

Unless you’ve been to one of their tasting rooms, you’re likely not familiar with Williamson Wines. You won’t find them on any restaurant wine list or in any grocery store. 100% of the wines they produce are either shipped to their club members or sold in their tasting rooms, which are 2 blocks apart on the same street in the postcard-perfect town of Healdsburg. The owner and winemaker, Bill Williamson, and his lovely wife Dawn rely on a “pull” versus a “push” approach — Bill makes wines the members of his wine club love rather than trying to convince consumers to buy the wines he likes or likes to make. The club, essentially, acts like a mega-focus group. “We exist for the club,” Bill says and, as another saying goes, “the proof (of his assertion) lies in the pudding (tasting his wine).” Each wine we tasted was absolutely delicious!

Frig foods

If they’re not already full, you can drop into their tasting room, located at 134 Matheson Street in Healdsburg, for a complimentary sampling of what’s on the menu that day (Bill makes over 40 wines!) paired with gourmet cheese samples, spices and condiments which accentuate the characteristics of each wine.

Icon tasting

Williamson Wines is completely committed to the idea that, as Bill puts it, “Wine…is part of a complete experience.” So wine is paired with food at every tasting because Bill believes doing so is a reflection of “…humanity expressing its desire to raise its quality of life at table with friends.” At an “Icon tasting” (by appointment only), which normally takes place at 18 Matheson Street, 5-6 wines are paired perfectly with small bites. Guests can customize their experience by turning an Icon tasting into a luncheon (portion sizes are doubled), by arranging for Bill himself to host your tasting (as we did) or even requesting the tasting take place at the Williamson’s home/ranch up the road in beautiful Dry Creek Valley. Bill’s favorite toast is worth remembering: “Here’s to all the nights I can’t remember with all the friends I can’t forget!”

Shrimp tacos – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Medlock Ames Winery

Every wine Medlock Ames produces is grown on their Bell Mountain estate, which you can visit (see below). Ames Morison, the winemaker, farms the 100% solar-powered estate organically, using no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Many of the vineyard blocks have fascinating stories; one goes all the way back to our founding fathers. The story goes that when Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Ambassador to France, he took cuttings from the vines at Chateau Petrus, the legendary wine house in the Bordeaux region of France, to plant at Monticello. Some of these vines eventually made their way to Bell Mountain in California and were discovered on the estate shortly after its purchase. Today, you can taste a bit of U.S. history in Medlock Ames’ Heritage Merlot.

Alexander Valley Tasting Room

Medlock Ames’ tasting room is at the intersection of California Highway 128 and Alexander Valley Road, just north of Healdsburg. Tastings here take place under a portico covered with grape vines. Drop in to sample 4 wines for $15/person or, for just $5 more, you can enjoy your wines paired with artisan cheeses and items from the estate’s organic garden (appointment required).

Ranch Tour

If you have the time, I recommend scheduling Medlock Ames’ “Ranch Experience” (pictured here with Ames Morison, the winemaker at left and Jim Connell, Medlock Ames’ President, at right) because on this tour, you come to understand that the ranch “…is not just an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place; you get to go into the organic garden, you go to the cellar and taste from the barrels and, finally, you come to the porch and taste the finished product.” The tasting itself reflects Medlock Ames’ unequivocal commitment to quality. Winemaking is an art with an almost infinite number of variables. Should weather have a negative impact on the grapes, Ames will discard the fruit rather than compromise the quality of the wine. As Jim says, “It’s quality, quality, quality. It takes a lot of guts to throw away yield.” The ‘Ranch Experience’ takes about 90 minutes and costs $40/person.

Tasting at the Ranch – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

ALERT! Medlock Ames is offering readers of “The Flight Deal” 50% off any of their tasting options if you mention “WINEtineraries” when you drop in or make your appointment – quite a deal!

Dining

Like wine, food is an intensely personal matter. Because of their small town, off the highway locations, you might easily overlook the restaurants below – and that would be a mistake!

Fig Café & Wine Bar in Glen Ellen

This has been our “go-to” restaurant for years. My wife and I breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that the fires stopped less than a football field’s length from the rear door of The Fig Café & Wine Bar, which has resumed its daily schedule. Corkage is always free; this can easily save a couple $20 – and that’s just for 1 glass/person. They have a daily 3-course prix fixe menu for just $29. Recommendations from the menu: truffle fries with parmesan and fried parsley, mussels in white sauce (either as an appetizer or entrée), and steak (ask for an extra dollop of bleu cheese butter) and frites. Hint: “The Fig” opens at 5:00pm; be there when it opens or you may have to wait for a table as it fills up quickly.

Diavolo Pizzeria and Salumeria

At the opposite end of the county is Diavolo Pizzeria and Salumeria, often recommended by its neighbor, Locals Tasting Room. If you’re in the mood for hand-made pasta or authentic Neapolitan pizza, this place fills the bill. Hint: the dining room is small and Diavolo doesn’t take reservations unless you have a party of 8 or more – and then only during the week.

Money-saving tips

Wine tasting can get expensive without a plan. But with a little preparation and chutzpah, you can cut your costs significantly.

  • Avoid paying for wine at dinner whenever possible. You probably bought a bottle (or case!) you fell in love with during a wine tasting so why take a chance by ordering blindly from a restaurant’s wine menu? Patronize a restaurant that offers complimentary corkage instead.
  • Consider purchasing one of the cards which offer complimentary or 2-for-1 tasting deals at more wineries than you’ll be able to visit; the Sonoma and the Priority Wine Pass  can often be purchased at a discount through Groupon/Living Social.
  • Pay attention to tables at wineries (often near the entrance/exit) laden with brochures, etc. Occasionally, there will be postcard or business card-size passes to other wineries.

Wine country can be overwhelming; as beautiful as the scenery is, it’s important to minimize the time one spends crisscrossing the terrain from lodging to winery to lunch to more wineries to dinner, etc. Whether you have a favorite varietal, a special interest or just are looking for insider recommendations, WINEtineraries can help you get the most out of your vacation.

In summary

Sonoma County is a place of superlatives. The weather is wonderful – low humidity year-round, moderate temperatures and rain is a rarity from April through October. The scenery is gorgeous; undulating hills which appear draped in sable punctuated by vineyards in their parallel rows following the contours of the land. The food is to die for; it’s hard to find a bad meal because the competition for your dining dollar is so keen. The wine is amazing; no matter what your taste, you can find scores of bottles you’ll want to take home. And the people are unpretentious; the person pouring your taste of wine is quite likely to be the winemaker. Don’t let the repeatedly rebroadcast images of the fires deter you from visiting Sonoma County.

Autumn Views – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

About the Author:

I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.

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2 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: Sonoma County, California."

  1. colleen says:

    Don’t forget the Visa Signature benefits at Sonoma wineries.

    Reply
    • Jim F. says:

      Yes, the Visa Signature program was once great but ALWAYS call ahead to confirm that the benefits listed on the Visa Signature page are still honored by the wineries. “Once burned, twice cautious,” as the saying goes. Also be aware that, even in Sonoma County, “free” tastings are increasingly difficult to come by. The new normal seems to be BOGO offers, whether with Visa Signature, Sonoma Passport or Priority Wine Pass. There’s no substitute for doing your research ahead of time or having someone (like WINEtineraries) do it for you.

      Reply

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