David wrote in last week with a question regarding his upcoming trip to Sonoma:
Heading out to Sonoma in a few weeks and wanted to see if you had any can’t-miss restaurant and winery recommendations?
I’m originally from Cupertino, but my dad recently moved to Sonoma County. Megan and I have visited him there several times, including a trip earlier this year when we were still scouting wedding venues (we eventually settled on a place in Seattle). We all like good food, and I get to do a little wine tasting during our visits. But I must admit the rest of my family are the true oenophiles. I’ll do my best to answer this question, and maybe my dad, who likes to stalk my blog, will chime in with some revisions.
I should also note that my experience is mostly limited to the northern part of Sonoma County near Healdsburg, not the city of Sonoma itself, which is closer to Napa County. If David wants suggestions in Sonoma, the only real suggest I have is Cline Cellars. As you get closer to Napa County, the whole area gets much more froo froo with tourists thinking this must be Las Vegas or Orange County. Well, it ain’t. You’re on a farm. Cline keeps things modest, and while their wine isn’t amazing, their tasting grounds are, and it’s still awfully good for the price.
Ridge Vineyards is an easy favorite. Most of their production is zinfandel (I’m a fan of the East Bench), and there’s a bit of hometown pride since their original vineyards are in Cupertino, where they produce the much more expensive Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon. Despite this, I have not been to the Cupertino tasting room. The one in Healdsburg, however, has a wonderful view from their outdoor patio with big comfy chairs for tastings. For those who like white wines, also try the Mikulaco chardonnay. It is well balanced and lacks the heavy oaky flavor that usually turns me off of chardonnay.
Stryker Sonoma Winery is way to hell and gone in Geyserville, north of Healdsburg. But the grounds are beautiful, and the tasting room itself is architecturally interesting. Megan and I seriously considered this as a wedding venue, but the cost was just too much. Similarly, the wine is more narrowly priced, and toward the upper end. I’ve been able to get bottles at Ridge anywhere from $15 to $150. At Stryker, most bottles are within $25-75. I hesitate to buy wine above $20, so this may negatively influence my perception of its quality, but I thought the wine was still good.
J Vineyards and Winery is further to the south, making it convenient when you’re trying to make lots of stops in one day. In addition to still wine, they produce a variety of sparkling varieties, and they have their own kitchen to provide extensive food pairings, including multi-course tasting menus. I visited during an open house, when they insisted on the tasting fee (because of the food, I imagine) but this was waived with my Visa Signature card. The rest of the year, I believe winery tours require an appointment, but there isn’t much to see.
Carol Shelton Wines is one of those hole-in-the wall wineries that operates out of leased space in an office park in Santa Rosa. I never saw one of these until I moved to Seattle, since many of the wineries in Woodinville actually get their grapes from eastern Washington. However, they can produce wine just as good. Think of it like a startup, concerned more with the quality of the wine than the image presented by a bunch of fake Victorian buildings and gardens. Again, mostly zinfandel, but also try the Rockpile Reserve Peitite Sirah.
Finally, Gustafson Family Vineyards is a place I have been only once, and for good reason. It’s really far away. On the opposite side of Lake Sonoma, expect to drive for at least 20-30 minutes from Healdsburg. But the trip is worth it. There are great views from its mountaintop location, and the small tasting room is uncrowded. They also provide a good mix of red and white wines considering their neighbors’ focus on so much red.
Most people going to Healdsburg have heard of Dry Creek Kitchen, by Charlie Palmer. Yes, it’s good. I also think it’s gotten a bit boring. The menu is remarkably consistent, so I usually stick to the specials when I visit. The bar, however, makes a very good cocktail. I have yet to stump them with a drink order, and let’s face it, I’ve always been a fan of cocktails more than beer or wine.
Across the square is Oakville Grocery, a good option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner if you want more casual fare or just need to pick up some snacks for the road. Think of it as a very high-end Whole Foods with an excellent deli. And since this is wine country, you can obviously buy a bottle of wine to drink with your meal.
Up and down Healdsburg Ave. you’ll find several other restaurants and several bars. Unfortunately I can’t be more specific than that because I rarely stay long enough to eat out more than once (and that tends to be at Dry Creek Kitchen). If you don’t have a reservation anywhere, just walk up and down the street until you find someplace you like.
If you’re still out tasting, Dry Creek General Store is a good place to stop for refreshment. Much more casual than Oakville Grocery, and not as well stocked, it still has a range of sandwiches, burritos, and baked goods to satisfy you for breakfast and lunch. It’s located on Dry Creek Road, not far from the turnoff toward Ridge and near many other wineries I didn’t bother to mention above.