You really need a GPS to explore Sonoma Valley. It seems every wine tourist to California rents a car at San Francisco airport and heads directly north to the wine country of Napa Valley. Heading direct to Napa means you by-pass Sonoma, with its 400 wineries spread widely over 60,000 acres. Give your GPS a good study and you won’t go wrong in Sonoma, Napa’s little sister, with two star attractions and many culinary delights to savour.
Start your explorations at the Carneros Inn on the Sonoma Highway, nicely located half way between the two valleys. Behind its high walls, you’d never know there is an entire village hidden away here. Families and groups should opt for one of the 4,000 square foot luxurious villas that sleep up to 8 people. Honeymooners will love one of the country cottages. With two fine restaurants, pools, spa and biking paths and store you could spend your entire vacation there and never want to leave.
Then you would miss out on the other villas, mansions, castles and splendid homes rented out by Beautiful Places.com, with an inventory all across the world but with offices centred in the quaint town of Sonoma. Again, families and groups can share one of dozens of luxury homes scattered amid either Sonoma of Napa Valley’s vineyards. For lunch, try the Girl and the Fig for a French-flavoured meal, just off the historic town square surrounded by shops and tasting rooms.
Heading north on Highway 12, a winding country road, you come across the valley’s two top stars, both in the tiny village of Glen Ellen. Famed novelist Jack London thought Glen Ellen the most beautiful place in the world and built his ranch just west of the whistle stop. The richest writer in the world at that time, he started to build a dream castle with a view to die for, but the home burned down and then he died. The great global adventurer’s cottage, museum, ranch, gravesite and ruins are still preserved and should not be missed by his fans.
Right in the heart of the village, hidden behind a bland façade that masks its inner beauty, you’ll find the Glen Ellen Star, where rising culinary star Ari Weiswasser (formerly with the world famous French Laundry in Napa and recently named “Best new chef in California”) creates masterpieces using only a custom-made brick oven, grill and two assistants. Ask for a seat at the bar and watch Ari direct the meals and make magic. It’s quite a show. Try the brick chicken with tandoori style lentils, persimmon mustard, gravenstein apple vinegar, or the spring lamb ragu, house cavatelli, artichokes, Moroccan olives, and calabrian chili. To die for. Reservations a must.
If a mansion or castle of your own is not on your list, drive a few minutes north of Glen Ellen to the Kenwood Inn and Spa, a rustic Tuscan-style villa with heated outdoor hot tub and pool and fireplaces for cool nights. Breakfasts are included in the lush interior courtyard. A multitude of spa services are available.
You are right in the heart of the Sonoma winery district here. Vineyards abound both north and south. Lists and descriptions are available at Sonoma Tourism, or check out Hamel Family Vineyard on Sonoma Highway on your way back south. The extraordinary 124-acre property encompasses a 6,875-square-foot Estate House from which guests can savour panoramic views, a 7,500-square-foot winery, and 12,000 square feet of immaculate caves for barrel storage, tours, private dining, and events.
Lttle sister Sonoma is a rising star next to bigger but not better Napa Valley. Follow your GPS and don’t get lost – unless you want to.
If you go
Sonoma Valley Tourism
The Carneros Inn and Resort
Jack London State Park
Glen Ellen Star