September is a gorgeous time to visit Sonoma County, home to over 250 wineries and the towns of Petaluma, Kenwood and Sonoma. The grape harvest has just begun, so some vines have been picked clean, while others hang heavy with fruit. Mornings are cool and overcast, midday is sunny, and by 4:30 p.m., the sky starts to turn golden.
The even better news? Sonoma County should also be pretty darn stunning in October and November.
For a little travel-planning inspiration, here are some of the adventures that Jen and I enjoyed in Sonoma County, from Chardonnay-sipping to sleeping (on high thread-count sheets) in a former California mission.
For those who choose to fly into SFO, be aware that scheduling setbacks do occur. Jen’s and my (otherwise lovely and uneventful) Virgin America flight out of LAX was briefly delayed, and once at SFO, we still had a 15-minute ride on the intra-airport Airtrain from the fancy Terminal 2 to the Rental Car Center. Once there, the line for Hertz Rent-a-Car was about a mile long, so I grabbed a coffee and held a place in line while Jen, who was pretty sure she had a Hertz Gold Plus Rewards number, headed off to find a shorter wait.
While Jen was gone, I met a fun couple celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary and a young guy who’d traveled from Bogotá, Colombia to attend a dear friend’s wedding in Sonoma. Ah, love was in the air…Northern California is a great choice for a girls’ getaway, but it makes one heck of a romance magnet, too.
Jen’s gold status ploy was successful, and when she texted her victory from the first floor of the building, my new friends in the upstairs line let out a little cheer. (Probably because that meant one less person ahead of them, but whatever. It was nice.) Using the Google Maps feature on my iPhone, Jen and I managed to successfully navigate our way out of the parking lot and the city, finding Petaluma — our first stop — with no trouble.
Petaluma is a medium-sized city that manages to feel like a small town, with mid-19th-century Old West architecture and a real downtown. Here Jen and I had lunch at the adorable farm-to-table Della Fattoria, which is set in the unassuming, wood-hewn U.S. Bakery Building (built circa 1860) and makes just about everything it serves from scratch using produce from its own farm.
The wine list here is Sonoma-heavy and gorgeous, but we chose to quench our thirst with lavender lemonade that manages not to taste soapy, but instead sweet and light. (Bonus: it’s fun to toast someone you care about with a big Mason jar of pink lemonade.) The sandwiches are enormous and served on fresh-baked bread, but single-cheese plates (mine had burrata and prosciutto) served with fancy homemade Cheez-Its and a side salad were the perfect amounts of food for us. For dessert (keeping in mind that you could go utterly hog wild here), the filling in the strawberry macaron tastes just like a fresh-picked strawberry, and the bowl of hot chocolate is as big as a baby’s head.
Straight from lunch, we rolled about 40 minutes northeast to winery-strewn Kenwood and Chateau St. Jean, where we were already late for our tasting. This graceful vineyard estate, modeled after the chateaux of southern France, was originally built in 1920 by a family of Michigan transplants who’d made their fortune in iron-ore mining. It was purchased for use as a winery in the 1970s by two bickering brothers and the sister who was able to pacify them, a woman the local townsfolk dubbed “Saint Jean.”
Try to arrive here before 4 p.m., as the chateau’s outdoor tasting areas close early. One patio is surrounded by rose trellises, while another sits beside one of the biggest magnolia trees I’ve ever seen. The indoor tasting room looks out on a big lawn that’s been overhung with paper lanterns, always ready for a party.
The wines at Chateau St. Jean are more delicately French than boldly Californian, and I’m still considering buying one of every single vintage I tried. (They’re not cheap, but boy, are they good.) Particular standouts were the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, both light on oak and finely balanced for food pairing.
Dinner was 20 minutes south in downtown Sonoma (along a soothing, vine-lined strip of road that could inspire you to up and move here) at the quietly spectacular The Girl & The Fig. Opened in 2000 in the same 1880 building as The Sonoma Hotel, the restaurant’s cozy interior has been painted with warm earth tones and fluffed with garden perennials. Even amidst a full house (including a crowd standing two folks deep at the long, antique bar and a private party on the brick patio out back), Jen and I were able to hear each other discuss weighty topics like her children’s futures…and the upcoming fall TV season.
Our meal was full of highlights:
Chef Sondra Bernstein stopped by our table to say hello. We indulged in two full flights of rosés and reds, each wine served in a different-shaped glass. We delighted in a sampler from the restaurant’s Salon du Fromage (which is fancy for “cheese station”), and I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Sonoma County-made St. Jorge, a Portuguese-style semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that’s a little bit cheddar and little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
I was thrilled by a sexy stack of a watermelon, feta and heirloom-tomato salad, and Jen closed her eyes in quiet joy upon tasting the grilled fig and arugula salad, which features spicy toasted pecans and her favorite goat cheese. Thanks to the melt-in-your-mouth duck confit, we learned the surprisingly sweet pleasures of torpedo onions and savoy cabbage. Then, for dessert, we managed not to fight over the rich brownie sundae or the buttery oatmeal apple crisp. I was very proud of us.
After dinner, plush from overeating, we took a couple of turns around Sonoma Square. A leafy park bordered by a square sidewalk and late 19th-century storefronts, this is where you’ll find any action in Sonoma. It’s lovely at night, dappled with soft lights, music wafting from the open doors of local hangouts, but if you manage to get here during the day, it’s an especially good place to find rustic-chic home wares, wine country antiques and bohemian jewelry.
Suitably deflated after our constitutional, we at last took off for our home for the night: the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. It’s only 10 minutes up the road, but invites you into a whole other world, with a multi-tiered fountain, sprawling gardens, adobe-style architecture, and cute valet guys. The lobby is a strange mix of styles that manages to work, blending a shiny-modern bar area (including a cool pneumatic wine system), a big red ribbon of modern sculpture over the fireplace, and the whitewashed walls and high, wood-slat ceiling of a California mission. The lobby has the comfortable vibe of a much smaller room, and guests like to hang out here, lingering over books, newspapers, coffee and cocktails.
Learn from Jen and me: When the concierge offers you directions to the elevator closest to your room, take them. Falsely assured of our navigational skills, we set off from the lobby with our rolling suitcases, quickly encountered two sets of stairs, took a wrong turn and then found our way, only to encounter yet another set of stairs. When we finally got to our deluxe room, we were, shall we say, a little tapped.
Fortunately, the beds were delightful, with soft sheets and plump pillows, the water pressure was strong, and the room was the ideal size for two friends who enjoy each other’s company but also want a little personal space. I wish we’d had the energy to light the wood-burning fireplace or watch TV, but after a long day of travel, food and wine, we were all about sleep.
Seeing the resort in the cool, gray light of morning, all the flowers glowing with dew, I felt a strong desire to dive into the glamorous swimming pool and run giggling across the front lawn. Instead, Jen and I soberly opted for a civilized (and complimentary) cup of coffee in the lobby. (Adulthood can be such a bummer.) We would have loved to have more time at this resort, which feels friendly, romantic, casual and elegant all at once. However, one of said cute valet guys was waiting to put our suitcases in the car, and we had places to be.
Before leaving town, we headed back towards downtown Sonoma and stopped into Crisp Bake Shop, land of the Morning Bun. The scones are gorgeous, the coffee is delicious, and you can peek into the kitchen to see bakers at work, but really? It’s all about the buttery, rich, cinnamon-sprinkled Morning Bun. It will trump the taste of everything else you have, so take my advice and just stick to this one treat.
Bonus: The Morning Bun creates a solid base for your first wine tasting of the day.
And on that note…we were off to Healdsburg.
To be continued in
Adventures in California Wine Country: Sonoma County – Part Two
Chateau St. Jean
Heart of Sonoma Valley Winery Association
The Girl & The Fig
Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
Crisp Bake Shop
This trip was sponsored by The Wine Institute,
including all travel, meals, winery visits and lodgings.
However, all observations and opinions are my own.