Why Sonoma County makes a great introduction to the California wine scene

Published in Evening Standard on June 25, 2018

Arriving in Sonoma County in northern California after an 11-hour flight, I needed a drink — but I wanted a local drop. The first part of my itinerary involved wine surfing but crashing waves were nowhere to be seen — it’s just a cute rebranding of a wine flight, dreamt up by the folks at Gourmet au Bay, a beachside bar in the town of Bodega Bay. A tasting selection of three local, small-production wines are served on a dinky wooden surfboard.

The sun burned low over the Pacific, placid but glittering, and the salty breeze was matched by the mineral tang of the white wine.

Sonoma County, an hour north of San Francisco, is largely overshadowed by Napa Valley but Sonoma County locals are proud of their pedigree: I’m told more than once how in the infamous 1976 “Judgment of Paris”, when Californian wines beat those from France in a blind tasting, the victorious bottle was made with Sonoma-grown grapes.

California took a battering after last autumn’s wildfires but Sonoma County largely escaped, with just one winery destroyed. The area makes for a relaxed introduction to the California wine scene: it’s three times the size of Napa and there’s no risk of getting stuck in traffic jams around its rugged coastline and rolling hills. The famous San Francisco fog rolls in up here — bad news if you planned a day at the beach but good news for wine-makers. It can act as a natural air-conditioning system for vineyards, meaning Sonoma County has various microclimates. Different grape varieties thrive in different terroir, with cabernet, zinfandel, chardonnay and pinot noir the main crops.

Twisty drives along the coast, or through the interior — it’s slower but prettier, if you detour off the 101 highway — make adventurous exploration rewarding. Admittedly, it’s less merry if you’re the designated driver; chauffeured wine tours may be the way forward. I was whisked around by Beau Wine Tours (beauwinetours.com), whose luxurious SUVs made me feel like I was in a rap video curated by a sommelier.

I spent the night at Bodega Bay Lodge, where chalets nestle along the seafront, allowing for ocean views through gauzy mauve haze the next morning. The in-house Drakes restaurant offered a strong introduction to Sonoma County food — alongside the expected fresh seafood there was a whole list of local artisanal cheese, all washed down with Sonoma County wines, naturally.

But the county boasts more than vines — California has long been at the forefront of foodie trends, from micro-breweries to artisan sourdough bakeries, and Sonoma County has its fair share. The Cheese Trail map (cheesetrail.org) — that explains which of the region’s 28 artisan cheesemakers are open to the public, and which require calling ahead — is brilliant.

The Barlow, a hub for small producers in the town of Sebastopol, was next on my hit list. Formerly an industrial estate used for canning apples, in the past few years it has flowered into a buzzing destination and foodie magnet, with hipster-filled coffee joint Taylor Made Farms and the Two Dog Night Creamery, which uses local ingredients in its gelato. There are more wine-tasting rooms too: small-batch pinot noirs at Friedeman Wines, wild skin-fermented wines from Wind Gap, and a tasting flight at MacPhail Wines.

Bored with grapes? No problem. I dropped into the Spirit Works distillery to hear how they make their grain-to-glass vodka and gin. Unusually for the drinks industry, seven of the eight-strong team are women.

The West Coast is also home to the craft beer revolution and Sonoma County helped set the trend, with brewers such as Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Russian River Brewing forming in the mid-Nineties.

I stopped at Bear Republic’s base in Healdsburg — another new hub for the trendy set, with new bars and restaurants and a Michelin star for Madrona Manor.

Bear Republic is known for its bold IPAs, beloved by craft beer fans but a little bitter for me. Then I tried a “tartare” beer — it’s more like a very dry cider but I became an instant convert.

I was also converted to the idea that Sonoma County is about more than just wine; but I’ll happily raise a glass to the region getting back on its feet.

Details: Sonoma County

British Airways (ba.com) flies to San Francisco from Heathrow from £400 return. Doubles at Bodega Bay Lodge (bodegabaylodge.com) from $176 room only. sonomacounty.com

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