If you've read some of my posts or checked out my bio then you know I'm a bit of a wine lover. And while I've now been to Napa Valley twice, I've never visited it's larger sister, Sonoma. So in a very impromptu decision with a friend from college, Cindy, we planned a long whirlwind weekend to sunny Sonoma. For those who don't know (myself included), Napa and Sonoma are two distinct regions in California. And while many people say they are going to Napa and include both, that isn't correct. When you look at a map they both run North to South but Sonoma is more West than Napa, and about three times the size. Sonoma includes three major appellations or wine regions: The Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley. Each one of these produces certain varietals of wine based on what grows best in that climate.
I'm not going to bore you by listing all the wineries we visited (but if you really want to know, tell me in the comments and I'll be sure to send you a list), but rather I've got a few recommendations for what to do when visiting a wine region.
1) Crowdsource: Asking everyone you know is the top way to get recommendations, both for places to eat and places to drink. I am fortunate enough to know a lot of winos, so they were more than happy to offer up their favorites. But if you don't know anyone, don't fret. I also Googled "best wineries in Sonoma" and looked through lists from Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure and other reputable publications. Then I cross-referenced these with the recommendations from friends and was able to winnow down to the ones I thought we'd want to hit.
2) Plan ahead: While you can walk into most tasting rooms without a reservation, many small wineries, which tend to be my favorite, ask for reservations for tastings. It's important to map out where you want to go, ensure they're driving distance from each other and then email them to make a reservation. Some places even require a credit card to hold your spot. So Google Maps is your friend. Cindy and I spent countless hours mapping different routes to ensure we maximized our time and our tastings.
3) Remember to eat: An amazing Sommelier once told me, "you're not drunk, you just haven't eaten enough." Eating when you are doing tastings, even if you plan to spit, is imperative. Not only does food enhance most wine, it's essential for you to make it through the day without looking like a fool. Wine is meant to be savored not pounded. Many wineries even offer pairing tasting sessions where you can eat and drink, some by master chefs. So if you want to splurge, this is a treat for the taste buds. Plus, Sonoma does have some of the best restaurants in the country, so you want to be sure to partake. Some were so good we ate dinner at one venue and dessert at another! It was vacation, after all.
4) Only do one tour: Once you've toured one vineyard and a cave, you've seen them all. So don't feel the need to do a tour at every vineyard you visit. We picked one cave tour and tasting which was perfect. We drove up the mountaintop to the vineyards to see the grapes and then went into the cave to taste the wine out of the barrel. All along the way, understanding the process and tasting wine as we went. The views were gorgeous and a barrel tasting is a must if you've never done it. But after that one, our other visits were simply about sampling.
5) Don't overdo it: Most of the wine you'll taste is going to be good. Some, of course, better than others. So unless you have an unlimited budget and unlimited storage, make sure to only buy what you LOVE. You can ship wine home (there are loads of shipping centers all over Sonoma) or you can purchase a box from them and check your case of wine as luggage (this was significantly cheaper for me). But another great thing is to join the wine club of the winery you love. This allows you to not have to carry anything home, but instead receive anywhere from 3-12 bottles shipped to you a few times a year. Most clubs have zero commitment, meaning you can cancel at any time or even skip a shipment. And you can even choose red, white or a mixed case if you have a preference. Clubs also have plenty of perks like discounts, free tastings and events.
6) Leave room for last minute changes: Just because everyone tells you to visit a certain winery, doesn't mean it's good, or that you'll like it. So lucky for us, when talking to many of the tasting room managers, they made suggestions on where to go based on what we liked and we switched plans to try them out. And thank god we did, because one place was simply the jackpot and we never would have heard of it, nor visited without the referral. And no, I'm not telling you the name because I want it to remain my secret. :)
Have you been to Sonoma or another wine region? What are some of your tips?