Reader Question: Where to Drink (and Eat) in Sonoma

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.

Wineries

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.

Restaurants

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.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Carla

    Just got back from Healdsburg. Go to Williamson winery which is right behind Oakville Grocery. They have free wine tasting with cheese pairings. Some of the best wine that we had there. And Lynmar Winery had some of the best wine. The tasting was a bit more expensive then others but the Wine was fabulous. Sonoma was so much better then Napa more laid back and not touristy like Napa was.

  • colleen

    Don’t forget about the benefits provided at certain Sonoma vineyards via Visa Signature. Free tastings alone make it worthwhile.
    http://www.sonomawine.com/visa-signature-perks/vs-winery-guide

    • Scottrick

      Absolutely. This saved us one time at J when there was no other way they would waive the fee. It must have been left out of the intro during my revisions.

  • Fanfoot

    Can agree with the J and Ridge recommendations. Not so much with the Cline. It was always decent wine at reasonable prices but lately the prices have crept up enough that I’m not sure its worth that label any more.

    Highly recommend Arrowood for their fantastic Cabs. Armida has some great wines, and a nice tasting room and view. The view from Gloria Ferrar of course is amazing, and its easy to get to (right next to Cline).

    Dry Creek Kitchen is certainly amazing, and I love Healdsburg Square in general for the shopping, people watching, restaurants in general. However, there are lots of other great places in Sonoma to eat. I can’t recommend Cucina Paradiso in Petaluma enough–best italian place in the SF Bay Area as far as I’m concerned and that’s high praise. Jackson’s in the railroad square area of Santa Rosa is a fantastic bar and a very nice restaurant. Starks nearby is the best steak house in the county. Truly fantastic.

    • Scottrick

      I’ve heard of Jackson’s; thanks for recommending it. And I do agree that Cline is a tossup. If you’re not getting it for cheap, it isn’t worthwhile, but many of the surrounding tasting rooms are also overpriced and at much higher price points. Cline has a super industry discount, so most bottles I buy there with my dad are only $5-6.

  • benjim

    Just went to Sonoma in August. The tours at Gundlach Bundschu and Benziger were the best I went on all week. I can’t remember tour name at Gundlach, but it was the biodiversity tour at Benziger. Probably the nicest people at those two also. Went to Imagery after Benziger, good wine, amazing art and grounds, but the wine snobs were kinda snobby.

    Eat at The Hot-Box in Sonoma, AMAZING!!!!

    Then go to Napa for better wine and food.

    • Tklchris

      Obviously your not from around the sonoma/napa wine region if you think that just because its napa that it equals better wine. Both have their pros and cons, but neither is better. Just depends on what your looking for. Sonoma is more diverse and well worth the trip off the tourist path in Napa. As mentioned, look at the Visa Signature benefit if on a tight budget. Happy tasting!

  • Jeff W

    I highly recommend The Girl and the Fig. Certainly not the cheapest meal you’ll enjoy there, but well worth it in my opinion. Loved the food and the service.

  • Dad

    While it’s in Napa Valley, not Sonoma Valley, we have to mention Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustards Grill. She is a wonderful person with wonderful food, wonderful wines, and fun ambience. If you’re at the north end of Sonoma County, you can take Mark West Springs Road to get to St. Helena in Napa Valley.
    I would point out that the city of Sonoma has a great downtown square, but it’s impossible and expensive to find hotel rooms there. I’ve always enjoyed the northern end of Sonoma Valley, especially Healdsburg, which is easier to get to, easier to stay in, and has more wine diversity. (I bought a house just a bicycle ride south in Windsor.) Dry Creek Valley, Andersen Valley, and up and down 101 are great wine tasting areas.
    And I only stalk the blog to increase page views to Scottrick gets paid.