Robust zinfandels. Floral chardonnays. Crowd-pleasing pinot noirs. Sonoma County is known for its many varietals and the oenophiles who flock there to sip and swill. More than double the size of its more popular neighbor, Napa, Sonoma is a sprawling, diverse locale that offers much more than what’s under the cork. From 300-foot tall trees to manicured tea gardens to farm-to-table dining, it’s easy to fall under its spell.
1) 3 P.M. GO FISH
Start what will inevitably be a decadent weekend with Sonoma’s purer draws: the spectacular landscape and outdoor activities. Lake Sonoma, formed in 1983 by the construction of a 319-foot-high, 3,000-foot-long dam, offers a surface area of more than 2,700 acres for swimming, boating and fishing. Rent a modest aluminum rowboat or double-decker patio boat ($45 to $110 for one hour) at the Lake Sonoma Marina and angle for rainbow trout, black bass and redear sunfish, all of which are plentiful in the lake. For land-loving mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders, there are 40 miles of trails through grassy slopes, rugged hills and mixed forests. And if archery is your game, bring your bow and arrows — there’s also a 14-target archery range.
2) 5 P.M. PLAZA SHOPPING
Just southeast of the lake, the landscape is considerably different but no less inspiring. Healdsburg, a well-heeled town anchored by a central square that is surrounded by restaurants, shops, art galleries and, of course, wine stores and tasting bars, is the perfect place to transition into evening. Start at Shed, a cavernous culinary market and cafe devoted to local farming culture that features everything from butter churns and herb shears to umami salt and kombucha on tap. At Lime Stone, Lisa Palmer, the wife of the well-known chef Charlie Palmer, stocks the housewares store with cheeky-chic items: Sonoma wine label decoupage platters, shatterproof wine glasses and serving trays plastered with words to live by: “There’s always time for a glass of wine.”
3) 6:30 P.M. COCKTAIL KICKOFF
Wine country is not immune to the cocktail craze that has swept the country, as evidenced at Healdsburg’s Bravas Bar de Tapas, a lively Spanish restaurant that opened five years ago and remains a local favorite. The fenced-in patio, strewn with fairy lights, has a small bar tucked under an overhang and a cocktail menu where gin plays the starring role. Try the Primavera, a gin and tonic made with locally distilled D. George Benham’s gin, fennel fronds, lemon and cucumber bitters, or the Levante, a gin cocktail accented with orange, saffron and cardamom ($11 each).
4) 8 P.M. DINE WITH THE LOCALS
On the other side of the town square is another residents’ favorite: Barndiva. The large barnlike structure, designed and built from the ground up by the owners, Jil and Geoffrey Hales, offers an urbane country-meets-industrial chic interior filled with art and antiques, as well as a picturesque patio beneath arching mulberry trees. Ryan Fancher helms the kitchen, marrying French technique with California ingredients, many coming from the Barndiva Farm in Philo, to deliver crowd-pleasing dishes like goat cheese croquettes drizzled with wild lavender honey, duck leg confit with gnocchi and caramelized endive, and local petrale sole with lobster risotto and pickled fennel. Dinner for two with wine is about $120.
5) 9:30 A.M. GO WEST
Wend your way west on Route 116, through light-barring redwoods, past glowing green dairy farms and alongside the placid Russian River. Don’t blink as you near the Pacific or you might miss Duncans Mills (population: 175) and Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery. Inside the single-story strip mall storefront, you’ll have to wait your turn at the self-serve cabinet filled with turkey pesto croissants, blueberry lemon scones and generously frosted cinnamon rolls. Of all the tempting pastries, don’t miss the gigantic butterhorn ($4), which is made with swirls of cinnamon-saturated dough and topped with crumbled sugar bits. Pair it with the Rocket Dog ($3), a bracing mix of espresso and coffee.
6) 11 A.M. OCEAN VIEWS
Goat Rock Beach, located in Jenner just past Duncans Mills, is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park’s rugged expanse. Park at the top and hike the narrow path through the grassy bluffs and listen to the ocean roar, or drive down to the expansive sandy stretch of beach that sits at the mouth of the Russian River. While the currents make it too treacherous for swimming, it’s the perfect place for beachcombing, contemplating the grandeur of the jagged headlands and flat-topped rock formations, and potentially spotting wildlife — migrating whales are often seen from December to April, while a local colony of Pacific Harbor seals and their pups can be spotted from late spring through summer.
7) 2 P.M. PICK UP A PICNIC
Established in 1881, the Dry Creek General Store is a historic landmark but has all the modern fixings for a picnic lunch. Go up the creaky front porch, through the swinging doors, and head to the deli counter, where an array of snackable goodies — deviled eggs! peppered beef jerky! — are the accompaniments you didn’t know you needed to go with your pressed turkey sandwich topped with homemade cranberry sauce and slaw ($12.95) or prosciutto tucked into a crunchy baguette ($7.95). As you wait for your sandwiches, do some time-traveling: The bar tucked in the rear has antiquated suitcases, cowboy boots, water jugs and other relics from yesteryears suspended from the ceiling.
8) 3 P.M. TIME TO TASTE
Of course you can’t visit Sonoma without sampling some wines. With over 400 wineries across 17 appellations, it’s best to focus on one or two regions and maximize your tasting journey. If you fancy zinfandels, sip in Dry Creek Valley. Quivira offers biodynamic gardens and electric car-charging stations outside — this is California, after all — and flights of elegant Rhone varietals inside its cool-as-clay tasting room, while Truett Hurst bustles with lolling couples, groups of friends and multigenerational families picnicking and sipping the bright, fruity zinfandels on the terrace’s comfortable couches and cherry-red Adirondack chairs. Just southwest, the Russian River and Green Valleys are forested, lower in elevation and cool — ideal conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay. The tasting room at Iron Horse Vineyards happens to be an outdoor bar made of reclaimed redwood planks and oak barrels. Take in the views of the undulating hills stitched with rows of grapevines and Mount St. Helena’s double peaks in the distance as you sample the silky Estate Pinot.
9) 7 P.M. FARMHOUSE DINING
Despite being one of the most refined dining spots in Sonoma, the Michelin-starred restaurant at Farmhouse Inn in Forestville manages to keep a comfortable, cool vibe. Located in a restored 1873 farmhouse, the soothing neutral shades in the dining room are given added character by the raw wood chandeliers and quirky mural that depicts scenes from the family albums of the siblings and owners, Joe and Catherine Bartolomei. The tasting menu ($99 for three courses, $115 for four) teems with local ingredients such as the ricotta from Bellwether Farms, an artisan creamery in Petaluma, that fills the delicate rainbow chard raviolis; fresh asparagus from Salinas; and hon shimeji mushrooms from Sebastopol that artfully encircle a filet of Alaskan halibut. Whether you opt for a modest half glass or splurge on the wine pairing ($74 and $84 for the three and four courses, respectively), wine service, led by Jennifer Jespersen, is as wonderfully unsnobbish as you can get.
10) 10 A.M. HEAVEN
Not many original redwood groves survived the West Coast’s 19th-century logging boom, but one of them, happily, is in Sonoma. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, in the backyard of the thriving foodie scene along Guerneville’s Main Street, is a magical 805-acre oasis of old growth trees. Pick up the 1.7-mile Pioneer Nature Trail just inside the park entrance and meander past the tallest specimen in the grove (the Parson Jones Tree, at more than 310 feet) as well as the oldest (the Colonel Armstrong Tree, estimated to be over 1,400 years old). Educational placards along the flat, well-marked path relay biological and historic facts on the remarkable natural spectacle.
11) 12 P.M. BRUNCH ALFRESCO
After the cool, enveloping silence of the redwoods, the sunny energy at Canneti Roadhouse Italiana will be welcome. Created in the spirit of a Tuscan trattoria, the restaurant’s interior is painted a neutral Mediterranean palette, and a garden patio sits draped in wisteria. Have another glass of wine — perhaps a crisp pinot gris from the local Moshin Vineyards — with the creamy scrambled eggs with endive, served in a bowl of toasted brioche and saffron hollandaise sauce, or go for the gusto with pennette carbonara. Brunch for two with wine, about $70.
12) 2:30 P.M. DETOX
Because it’s been so exhausting, finish your weekend at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in the historic village of Freestone. The grounds have been magnificently landscaped to include a Japanese meditation and tea garden, pagodas and hammocks, but the real reason to visit is for the Cedar Enzyme Bath ($109). A ritual in Japan, these baths are warm from the natural fermentation of finely ground evergreens and rice bran. The 20 minutes you spend immersed — with visits from an attendant who offers sips of water and cold compresses — are said to draw out impurities, relax joints and muscles and activate your metabolism. Finish with a shower and meditative lie-down in the spa.
With its 60-foot outdoor pool and Jacuzzi and in-house Charlie Palmer restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen, the 56-room (including six suites) Hotel Healdsburg has been a hot spot since opening in 2001. Located on the main square in Healdsburg, it’s perfectly situated for eating, drinking and exploring. Rooms in peak season start at $549.
For a more eclectic experience, check in at Boon in Guerneville. Tucked between Main Street and the redwoods, the 12 rooms and two suites (rates start at $225 on weekdays) are minimally appointed, but cozy, featuring organic linens, platform beds and custom reclaimed redwood furniture.