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Ten reasons to visit Sonoma County
World’s Best Vineyards is working in partnership with Sonoma County in California, USA, to reveal the Top 50 list for 2020. Here’s why it’s such a great place for wine lovers to visit…
1. Highest Ranking Vineyard in Sonoma – Francis Ford Coppola Winery
The Highest Ranking Vineyard in Sonoma award recognises the vineyard that came highest in the 2020 list once all the World’s Best Vineyard nominations were counted and, in turn, the list created.
Film director Francis Ford Coppola’s winery resort in Geyserville, in the Alexander Valley, offers a touch of movie magic. Memorabilia on show includes the Godfather’s desk, a Tucker car, scripts, and Oscars.
In Geyserville did Coppola a stately pleasure dome decree… One of the most-visited attractions in Sonoma Wine Country, Francis Ford Coppola Winery is so much more than a mere winery. This sprawling estate complex offers an inexhaustible array of visitor attractions, from a landscaped park to a tasting room, a bar, two restaurants, two swimming pools with poolside cabanas, a cinema, a film gallery, bocce courts, a performing arts pavilion – oh, and there’s a winery somewhere in there too…
A wine wonderland
Taking inspiration from the magical Tivoli Gardens theme park and pleasure garden in Copenhagen, Francis Ford Coppola wanted to offer visitors much more than a glass of wine when he opened his eponymous winery in 2010. He wanted to create a wonderland every bit as immersive as his unforgettable films – a place for the whole family, with oodles of things for kids to do with no danger of getting bored while their parents indulge in fine Californian wines and food. He enlisted Academy Award-winning production designer Dean Tavoularis, whom he met on the set of The Godfather, to make this dream a reality – and make it a reality Tavoularis very much did.
Building for the future
Having worked at the famed Napa estate Inglenook (purchased by Coppola in 1975, reportedly with profits from The Godfather), chief winemaker Corey Beck has assumed a pivotal role at the Geyserville estate, not only growing the wine portfolio into the 11 distinct wine brands available today, but also managing hospitality and implementing the estate’s vital sustainability programme. Climate change has hit Californian wine in a big way in recent years, and Beck and his team are leading by example with such things as irrigation water management and vineyard biodiversity. Such responsible steps are good for both the environment and the precious wine grapes – and serve to confirm Francis Ford Coppola Winery as a true jewel in the Sonoma Wine Country crown.
2. Great wines…
From producers who care. Sonoma County’s wine industry is made up of many multi-generational family businesses. There are 59,218 acres (nearly 24,000ha) planted to vineyards, more than 40% of which are in the hands of growers with parcels of less than 20 acres (8ha). Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most prevalent grape varieties, but Sonoma County is home to more than 60 varieties – from Alicante to Zinfandel. With valleys, mountains, a diversity of soil types and more than 50 miles of coastline, it is also home to 18 unique growing regions with their own special terroir.
This small-plot, artisan approach to winegrowing, coupled with a diverse growing region, has attracted many world-renowned winemakers, resulting in endless styles of quality wine. Sonoma County was one of the first regions in California to have “vineyard designate” wines, illustrating the close relationship between winegrowers and winemakers.
3. Great food, too
Sonoma County is an agricultural wonderland, which means there is an abundance of local farms which deliver fresh produce, fish and meats, eggs and cheeses to local restaurants. It has also attracted many famous chefs who regard Sonoma County as an authentic leader in “farm to table” dining. The food is so good that many wineries have culinary programmes. St Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa boasts one of America’s top restaurants. The food and wine pairing features five courses using produce and herbs grown on the estate, paired with wines from St Francis’ artisan collection. The stunning Sonoma Valley view just adds to the experience. Meanwhile, the Lynmar Estate in the Russian River Valley offers ‘Pinot & Pizza’, featuring seasonally inspired artisan pizzas made with estate-grown vegetables prepared in a brick pizza oven, and paired with an array of Lynmar wines. Silver Oak’s renowned winery in Alexander Valley has a full kitchen and winery chef on-site to offer unique food and wine pairings, sourced from the winery’s culinary garden.
4. Sustainability is a top priority
Sonoma County has long been regarded as a global leader in growing and making great wines while minimising the impact on the environment. 99% of its vineyards are certified sustainable by a third-party program, making it the most sustainable winegrowing region in the world. To continue this sustainability leadership, Sonoma County launched a ground-breaking climate program earlier this year. It is the exclusive partner in the California Land Stewardship’s Climate Adaptation Certification Program, the first program of its kind for agriculture. Soon, you will know how drinking Sonoma County wine can offset your carbon footprint!
This sustainability focus is also found in our local wineries and hotels. Vintner’s Resort, a beautiful hotel in the heart of wine country, offers sustainable practices that guests can see and enjoy, including walking paths through the vineyards and vegetable gardens and olive trees that supply the on-site restaurants. Vintners Resort was awarded the Environmentalist Level in the California Green Lodging Program by the State of California’s Department of General Services.
5. It’s open all year
In the off-season (December-March), there are bigger discounts and fewer crowds. Some think it’s the most beautiful time to visit, too, as it’s mustard season. Many vineyards plant mustard flower between the vines as a cover crop.
Spring and early summer sees the launch of the new rosé wines, sometimes during rosé-themed parties. Two great wineries for rosé are Taft Street and Flowers Winery. Spring is also the beginning of the grapegrowing season, with budbreak in the vineyards. Don’t miss events such as the Annual Barrel Tasting (March 6-8 and 13-15) and the California Artisan Cheese Festival (March 27-29).
Summer sees a slew of outdoor events. Check out these two winery concerts: Gundlach Bundschu’s folksy Huichica Music Festival in June and the Sonoma Harvest Music Festival at BR Cohn Winery in September. Kendall-Jackson Estate, BR Cohn Winery, Imagery Estate, Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Patz & Hall Winery, and Seghesio Family Vineyards put on farm-to-table dinners in their vineyards May-October.
Harvest season (September-November) – the busiest period – offers visitors the chance to stomp grapes among the golden autumn leaves and witness the grapes being brought in for winemaking.
One of the traditional highlights around the holiday season is the annual “Lighting of the Plaza” in the idyllic centre of downtown Sonoma. Enjoy local food and drink vendors, while listening to live music and watching the trees and buildings in the 8-acre (3.2ha) plaza alight with festive bulbs signalling the start of the holiday season.
6. Free tastings
Many wineries in Sonoma County offer either free wine tasting or waive the tasting fee with a wine purchase. These include Adastra Wines in Sonoma, Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg, Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma, and Williamson Wines in Healdsburg.
7. Vineyard picnics
One of our favourite experiences is picnicking among the vines. There are plenty of opportunities in Sonoma County, especially in Healdsburg (for example at Dry Creek Vineyard, Landmark Vineyards at Hop Kiln Estate, and Preston Farm and Winery) or in Kenwood (at VJB Vineyards, Cellars & Marketplace, Ledson Winery, and Chateau St Jean).
8. California’s oldest winery
Buena Vista Winery – founded in 1857 by Hungarian farmer, author and businessman Agoston Haraszthy – is California’s oldest premium winery. Since 2011, the winery has been owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, a Frenchman who first visited Buena Vista at the age of 11 with his family, who own estates in Burgundy, the South of France, and California’s Napa Valley. Jean-Charles has renovated the winery, cellar and grounds, and installed the Wine Tool Museum – a fascinating tribute to Haraszthy.
Sonoma County also boasts the oldest, continuously operating family winery – Gundlach-Bundschu, built in the 1870s and now in the hands of the sixth generation.
9. Gorgeous gardens
There’s more to the wineries than wines and vines. Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery’s four acres of gardens include a secluded tea garden and a stream. Matanzas Creek Winery has three acres of lavender – a popular spot for marriage proposals in the summer. Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens has a viticultural demonstration vineyard, and red and white wine sensory gardens with plants that have aromas found in some wines. Arista Winery has a Japanese-style water garden. Korbel Champagne Cellars has more than 250 varieties of antique roses and more than 1,000 other types of flowers. Paradise Ridge Winery’s 156-acre estate provides sweeping views of estate vineyards and the Russian River Valley and a large sculpture garden, including an iconic two-storey LOVE sculpture.
10. Dog-friendly wineries
The labels on the wines at Mutt Lynch Winery in Windsor feature dog art and a portion of sales is donated to local animal rescue organisations. Mutt Lynch also hosts monthly ‘Yappy Hours’ and the annual Dog Days of Summer gala. Kunde Family Estate Winery in Kenwood has a dedicated dog hike that winds through oak woodlands, native grasslands, and chaparral, with magnificent views of Sonoma Valley.
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Sonoma County in numbers
1812 – when the first vineyards were planted
59,218 acres planted to vineyards (about 6% of Sonoma County’s total acreage)
18 American Viticultural Areas (AVA), with plans to designate more
60+ grape varieties but the main ones are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon