Sonoma Valley Wine ToursAugust 27th, 2013
If you’re planning a trip to the Sonoma wine country, you may find this article reprint from USA Today helpful for discovering the many wineries and vineyards dotted through out Sonoma County.
One of the world’s premier wine-growing regions, Sonoma County begins 30 miles north of San Francisco. Covering one million acres (larger than Rhode Island), the county extends north from San Pablo Bay to the towering redwoods of Mendocino County, and from the wave-pounded Pacific headlands inland to the Mayacamas Mountains.
Wine grapes in Sonoma date back to 1812 when Russian colonists at Fort Ross on the coast planted vineyards. After Franciscan friars founded the Sonoma Mission in 1823, they too began growing grapes.
Today Sonoma is home to 15 different AVAs (wine growing districts), each with markedly different growing conditions. Fog and wind from the bay and ocean cool the Carneros region and Russian River Valley, creating ideal conditions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the warmer reaches of Dry Creek and Alexander Valley produce esteemed Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tips: When choosing tours, always confirm what’s included — especially lunch and tasting fees. Also check age requirements –on some tours, guests must be 21+.
Valley Wine Tours
Owned by three self-described “wine guys,” Valley Wine Tours offers both private and semi-private tours of Sonoma and Napa.
“We prefer to concentrate on small, boutique wineries,” says Ed Sillari, one of the partners. “Our guests often get to meet the owners and winemakers, not just tasting room staff. And we try to arrange itineraries based on people’s needs.”
The owners have years of experience working for wineries and making their own wines. “We know the winemaking process, marketing, and winery histories and share that with our guests,” Sillari notes. Vehicles include SUVs, vans, and sedans.
For a unique Sonoma/Napa experience, Valley Wine Tours features an itinerary focused on sparkling wine producers such as Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros, and Mumm Napa. Tours (which run 10am to 4:30pm) feature a picnic lunch with vineyard views, weather permitting. Food-and-wine pairings at wineries can also be arranged.
Group tours $135 per person, private tours $175pp, 707-975-6462, valleywinetours.com. Rates include tastings, lunch, and fuel charges.
Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley
Also known as “Valley of the Moon” from the name used by indigenous tribes, Sonoma Valley stretches 17 miles from the town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa. Visitors looking for something different can explore the region aboard a motorized replica of an 1890s San Francisco cable car.
The six-hour excursion begins at Sonoma Plaza, renowned for its tree-lined park and City Hall built in 1908. The company offers two different itineraries.
On the historic tour, travelers visit landmarks such as Buena Vista, the oldest commercial winery in California. Passengers also learn about Sonoma Valley’s native Pomo and Miwok peoples and famous hot springs. The second route highlights wine education at locales such as Benziger and Imagery, known for its art gallery.
For lunch (included) guests enjoy a catered picnic from Sonoma’s highly regarded The Girl & the Fig restaurant. The meal might be served outdoors with vineyard or garden views, or among the barrels in wine cellars.
$99, 877-946-3876, sonomavalleywinetrolley.com. Includes lunch; tasting fees ($5 to $10 at each winery) cost extra.
Surrounded by olive groves, live oaks, and vine-covered hillsides, the bucolic byways of Sonoma lend themselves to exploration by bike. This “Sip ‘N Cycle” tour starts in Healdsburg, a favorite for its shady 19th-century plaza with a copper-roofed gazebo. From here, cyclists pedal out to Dry Creek Valley, an AVA famous for its old-vine Zinfandel — some plantings are more than a century old.
“Depending on what people want, we can do ‘wine intensive’ or ‘bike intensive,'” explains owner Randy Johnson. “We try to stay with smaller, family-owned wineries — not your typical cookie-cutter experience.”
Tour leaders such as Tom Scott (he’s dubbed “the sultan of guides”) know the beat of the valley and showcase what’s going on in the vineyards and wineries — perhaps cap punch-down is taking place, or a bottling line running. Along the way, groups might stop to watch a pruning crew or sample ripe peaches from a farm stand.
Getaway Adventures also offers bike tours in the Napa Valley.
$149, 800-499-BIKE, getawayadventures.com
World-class grapes dangle just an hour from San Francisco. Terrific Tours offers small group excursions from downtown to the wineries of Sonoma. Tours leave at 9:30am daily from either Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf using large passenger vans or SUVs.
Drivers plan routes to accommodate special events or taste preferences of guests. Because group size is small (2 to 12 people), itineraries can venture to off-the-beaten-path wineries. Tours might stop at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, set in an Italianate villa; and Gundlach Bundschu (“Gun Bun”), founded in 1858 and the oldest family-owned winery in California.
For lunch, guests can bring their own picnic or buy a meal at one of the memorable eateries around historic Sonoma Plaza, the midday stop.
Tours finish with a splash–a scenic ferry ride across San Francisco Bay back to the city with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. Terrific Tours also offers departures from Sonoma ($100).
$125, 707-658-2748 or 800-506-5096, terrifictours.com. Rate includes tasting fees; lunch costs extra.
Sonoma Vineyard Walks
Travelers can get out among cordons and clusters–maybe even nibble the new vintage from the vine–with Sonoma Vineyard Walks run by Zephyr Wine Adventures. The excursion (10am to 3:30pm) includes two walks-cum-wine tastings in the Dry Creek AVA.
Biodynamic wine involves more than buried cow skulls, as visitors learn at Quivira, a certified biodynamic and organic winery. Participants stroll through extensive vegetable gardens and see the restored stream where Coho salmon spawn. Later, on a pergola-shaded terrace, guests sample Quivira’s award-winning Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Rhône varietals.
Montemaggiore specializes in Syrah from its organic mountainside vineyards. Here, the hike rambles through vineyards and oak forests before culminating with fantastic valley views. Guides include super-knowledgeable locals such as Jim McCammon, a semi-retired clergyman who, as he describes it, “has a passion for the beauty of wine.”
Lunch features artisanal sandwiches from Dry Creek General Store–a local favorite since 1881.
$125, 888-758-8687, sonomavineyardwalks.com. Includes tasting fees and lunch.