Sonoma Valley is just one of Sonoma County’s 18 AVAs but its pioneering history and number of famous and important wineries and vineyards make it a big chunk of the foundation of California wine in general. With Zinfandel as a great source of pride and its original varietal, a tour of “The Valley of the Moon” as it’s known, is a must-do for those who want to experience Zinfandel at its luscious best.
The old time winemakers like real estate searchers had it right – location, location, location: the Sonoma Valley is framed by two mountain ranges and filled with ideal volcanic soils. And with bayside Carneros to the south and Russian River to the north, this is something of a geographical perfect pocket for ripening Zinfandel and maxing out its dazzling berry and spice flavors. With the steep Mayacamas Mountains to the west and looming Sonoma Mountains to the east this 22 mile vineyard corridor from the town of Sonoma, through Kenwood, to the city of Santa Rosa is easily traversed via Highway 12.
No question this is one of the great scenic wine country routes of California if not the entire world! Imagine – you’re retracing the same trail that Jack London took – making the trek that he took by horse and wagon from the ports of San Francisco Bay to his idyllic home at Glen Ellen on Sonoma Mountain.
Start a Sonoma Valley touring day early to take in as much as possible of this Zinfandel-rich region. You will not only taste great Zinfandel but experience amazing hospitality and cuisine, drink in incredible views, and hear colorful American old west stories of cattle ranchers, missionaries, Californian revolts, Hungarian counts, and wine-loving Civil War Generals.
If you would like to maximize your touring time and to allow for some quality relaxation, Sonoma Valley offers a range of lodgings from motels, to B and Bs, to boutique hotels but we suggest locating near the town of Sonoma with its historic town hall and plaza that is bordered by the original Mission San Francisco de Solano, shops, bakeries, restaurants, hidden courtyards, winery tasting rooms and thelandmark Sebastiani Theater.
Just up Highway 12 you can check in at one of California wine country’s best – The Fairmont Hotel and Spa at Sonoma Mission Inn – just a few minutes from the town of Sonoma, or, for an air of Sonoma history just a few blocks from the plaza, we suggest checking in to Macarthur Place a historic estate which is renowned for its spa, wine centric cuisine and luxe amenities.
These two hotels offer some of Sonoma’s best cuisine, too, or you may choose to indulge in one of Sonoma Valley’s many other fine restaurants. For wine-serious restaurants right around the Sonoma Plaza we suggest La Salette, ElDorado Kitchen, Café La Haye or Girl and the Fig.
To start up a Sonoma day, we suggest a wake-up stroll around the square with a stop for coffee and a pastry at Basque Boulangerie Cafe. Save room because your first winery stop up Highway 12 is renowned for its amazing food and wine experiences!
St. Francis Winery and Vineyards
St. Francis Winery has its beginnings in Sonoma Valley’s modern era but with its advances in vineyards, sustainable farming, and wine making, and its Mission style architecture, it has become a classic Sonoma icon nestled beside the dramatic Mayacamas Mountains in Kenwood. St. Francis’ wines and experiences do justice to it’s breathtaking setting! For sightseers, this is one of the best views in Sonoma Valley.
Founded in 1971, the winery is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Get a couple of commemorative bottles forcellaring and the special edition sparkling wine for celebrations!) The Kopf family who partnered with the founding Joe Martin and Lloyd Canton families in 1988 have a lot of reasons to celebrate! Way ahead of its time, estate grown Merlot and Chardonnay started it all way-back-when in 1971, and since then St.Francis has also gained acclaim for it’s elegant Bordeaux varietals and line of vineyard -driven Zinfandels.
Chris Louton deftly handles the Bordeaux varietals and and the Zinfandels are under the Burgundian touch of Katie Madigan who also crafts St. Francis’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Today, Katie has risen through the ranks to become a bonafide star in Zinfandel. The expressive and elegant Zinfandels speak for themselves – impossible tochoose a clear favorite. Banti, Giovanetti, and Dry Creek are all excellent – but ask the friendly staff if the SonomaValley, Montecillo Vineyard, is available – one of the most lauded vineyards in the valley and an expression ofSonoma Valley Zinfandel that is pure pleasure.
St. Francis offers flights tastings, food pairing experiences, and even a human-powered trolley tour, but since youhad a lighter breakfast we recommend that you opt for the seasonal food and wine pairing – a memorable multi-course meal by estate chef Peter Janiak who is recognized around food circles as one of the best in Sonoma County at pairing wine with cuisine. Liberty duck breast, charred peach, golden beets, farro and pecans with an Alexander Valley Banti Vineyard Zinfandel? YES, Please.
Make sure to make advance reservations for all the St. Francis experiences.
Kunde Family Winery
After your goodbyes to your new friends at St. Francis (and probably after loading a supply of prized bottles into your car), it’s time to make the six minute hop to your next appointment at the Kunde Family Winery, one of the most revered estates in Sonoma Valley. Consumers and winemakers alike long for wines and grapes from these volcanic mountainside vineyards that overlook the entire Sonoma Valley.
At Kunde, you’re entering into special place that is like a sub-region of Sonoma Valley – an 1800 acre estate ranch that grows 16 different varieties and still preserves a majority of the land to native, undeveloped habitat – such is the respect for the land and a commitment to sustainable farming by the five generation Kunde family who have ranchedand farmed here since 1904. The winery and visitors area is an old barn that was converted to production and hospitality. A small lake and surrounding patio with tables make for a very relaxed, people-friendly environment.
Kunde offers it all: tasting at the main bar in the visitor center, seated tastings with cheeses on the patio, winter season seated tastings in the winery’s barrel caves and hiking tours of the property. But at Kunde the showstopper is the Mountain Top tasting, a two hour tour that includes a ride up to the top of the ranch at 1400 feet elevation andtasting of estate wines – with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. From here on a clear day you can enjoy an incredible view of the entire Sonoma Valley from Carneros to Russian River! If you time it just right you might catch the receding marine layer of fog just below your feet that flows in and out of the valley on a daily basis during the summer – the coastal phenomenon that combined with warming afternoon sunshine creates the ideal conditions that take wines from being just good – to great.
Weddings and special events are occasionally hosted here and if you’ve ever seen the movie Bottle Shock and the boxing scene… this site may look familiar!
This elevated experience underscores the Kunde’s incredible commitment to farming wine grapes and from here you can get a close up look at one of the oldest vineyards in Sonoma Valley from which Kunde crafts their highly-rated Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel.
Kunde bottles a range of varietals from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir to Syrah to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage. Other than the Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel, be on the lookout for Kunde’s Sonoma Valley and Heritage Block bottlings which are also delicious expressions of Sonoma Valley Zinfandel.
Bedrock Wine Company
From Kunde you will make the left turn back onto Highway 12 for the leisurely 18 minute drive back to Sonoma Plaza for your third tasting experience of the day – the Bedrock Wine Co.
Park at or near the plaza and walk over to the west side where you will see the portal to El Paseo – a quaint courtyard with shops, eateries and an old salt box house that one was the home of General Joseph Hooker of CivilWar fame. For preservation purposes the home was actually relocated to the other side of the plaza. It looks like it’s been there forever.
The venerable Bedrock estate vineyard in Sonoma Valley was once owned by Generals William Sherman and Joseph Hooker of Civil War fame – and how fitting that Hooker’s home is now the visitor venue to taste Bedrock’s wines! Founded by Morgan Twain Peterson and partner Chris Cottrell Bedrock has quickly become one of the most talked about and in demand practitioners of old vine Zinfandel in the business. Morgan who has earned his Master of Wine credential (MW) happens to be the son of wine hall of famer Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood who is one of Zinfandel’s most recognized winemakers.
A visit to Hooker House is to take a dive into Bedrock’s passion for old vine wines, special single vineyard sources from around California and the history of California viticulture in general. The venue is small and tastings are hosted either in the Hooker House or on the back patio. To add to the sense of history, the patio backs up the actual Mission San Francisco de Solano that dates back nearly two hundred years. Tastings offer a selection of Bedrock’s wines plus a taste of one of Chris’s side label Under the Wire wines, and typically include one of their special Zinfandels. Bedrock produces nearly twenty Zinfandels from historic sites and many are only available via the winery’s mailing list. However, be on the lookout for a few of Sonoma Valley’s great vineyards – Pagani, Montecillo, or perhaps the grand daddy of ‘em all – Monte Rosso. Reservations are strongly recommended for a tasting at Bedrock’s Hooker House.
If during your Sonoma Valley day you find that you have some extra time to fit in a visit to another Zinfandel producer, or two, we suggest that you head up to Ledson Winery in Kenwood. This striking gothic style winery produces a range of wines including four excellent old vine Zinfandels from estate and sourced vineyards and there are four options for tasting experiences. Another excellent option for Zinfandel lovers is St. Anne’s Crossing Winery in Kenwood which produces as many as 18 different Zinfandels. Indoor and outdoor patio tastings are by reservation – but walk-ins are possible.