A Newcomer's Guide to the Sonoma Valley
Photo By: Sarah Deragon ©Portraits To The People
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Photo By: Dan Dion ©Dan Dion
Photo By: Justin Sullivan ©2014 Getty Images
Calling All Wine Lovers
It's an easy 45-minute drive north of San Francisco to reach this wine region that feels like it's worlds away. Though perhaps not as well-known as neighboring Napa Valley, this designated American Viticultural Area is home to more than 450 vineyards and has a soil diversity greater than all of France, making it a must-visit for wine lovers and food lovers alike.
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At this tiny ice cream shop on the Historic Sonoma Plaza, punny flavors like Chex Mix-a-Lot and A-lot-a-choco-lata are not just fun to order but also creamy and decadent. There are plenty of incredible flavors to choose from, so opt for the sampler size, which scoops out six different flavors. Vegans, take note: The shop serves at least two dairy-free options at all times.
Photo: Portraits to the People
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The Girl & the Fig
You'll get a warm welcome at this French bistro that's been in business since 1997. The country-style setting serves French classics with a modern twist. If you're up for it, the fromage tower is a table-covering array of local cheeses (like the awesome Laura Goat Cheese), charcuterie, nuts, olives, pate and, of course, fig paste. Entrees like the Sole Meunière and the special Lamb Cassoulet are served in generous and filling portions, but you'll still want to save room for the salted fig-and-chocolate pudding trifle.
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El Dorado Kitchen
If you're visiting with a group or just want a lively atmosphere, the restaurant in the lobby of the El Dorado Hotel certainly fills the bill. Reserve a table on the patio and you might find yourself under an individual canopy. Start with the chorizo and pepper mussels or the meatballs, and move on to the famous paella that’s got a perfectly crispy layer of rice under a bed of shrimp, clams and fish.
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El Molino Central
Right off the main road is this brightly colored Mexican spot that’s churning out fresh tortilla chips from organic stone-ground corn tortillas, plus homemade salsa and super fresh entrees daily. If their tuna tostada is on the specials list, definitely add it to your order. Otherwise, staples like Colima-style pork sopes, chicken enchiladas suizas and beer-battered fish tacos pair perfectly with strawberry agua fresca.
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Here's how it works: Order breakfast at the counter, take your number and then head to the backyard patio, where you'll dine alfresco surrounded by a lush garden. The kitchen features the products of almost entirely local purveyors in the vegetarian burritos and garlicky mushroom toast. Be sure to fill up on iced coffee before you depart: Refills and to-go cups are included.
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If you're a wine newbie or just a curious oenophile, this downtown tasting room is a great place to start your journey. Owner Lloyd Davis came out to Sonoma six years ago and never left. All of the wines served are of his own crafting, which is obvious from the amount of time he spends guiding each guest through an in-depth tasting. Stick to just reds and whites, or add a pairing experience of seven wines ($40) with local cheese from the Vella creamery.
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Stop and smell the lavender at this property with 2 acres of the purple stuff that's turned into over 40 products. It's hung to dry in the must-visit barn, so grab a glass of Chardonnay and take in the wonderful aroma. If you're visiting with friends, take a bottle of wine down to their bocce ball court for a friendly game.
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You can't miss this 16,000-square-foot French Normandy structure when driving along Highway 12. It was designed entirely by winery owner Steve Ledson and features sweeping staircases, marble fireplaces, cathedral-style windows, and over five miles of ornate wood inlays and mosaics. Visitors can taste a variety of red and white wines in several beautifully appointed tasting rooms or schedule a private wine-and-cheese pairing experience in one of six private suites or outside on the veranda.
More About: Ledson Winery & Historic Castle Vineyards
Take your tasting outdoors and you'll be greeted with extensive vineyard and mountain views. You can explore the property on your own, thanks to a well-marked trail, or simply sit on the patio and sample wines that you can find only at the tasting room itself. Or, have a seat for the multicourse Wine & Food Pairing ($68) and Executive Chef Bryan Jones will create an assortment of small dishes to pair with hand-selected artisan wines.
More About: St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
A visit to the iconic Kendall-Jackson Estate means a visit to its gardens, where distinct spaces offer everything from a sensory experience (find out what red wine smells like!) to edible-flower plots. The fruit, vegetables and herbs grown on the property are harvested each morning and used in the wine-and-food pairing experience. Take a stroll through the property before sitting down for a bite.
More About: Kendall-Jackson Winery
Just five minutes from the Sonoma Plaza, this winery is located at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains. Reserve the Heritage Reserve Experience ($85) and you'll get to taste some of their extremely small-production, limited releases that are not available to be tasted anywhere else on the property. The location of the experience is also a surprise — it could take place in the 1920s family homestead or at a secret location on the farm.
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Russian River Brew Pub
Sure, you could time your trip around the release of this brewery's acclaimed Pliny the Younger brew (and bring your camping gear to save a place in line). But you can also visit the Brew Pub year-round to sample some of the more than 25 beers on draught. Samplers change daily and will pair perfectly with beer bites (crispy pizza dough with mozzarella cheese) and baked chicken wings.
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