An hour northwest of Berkeley lies the city of Sonoma, full of clean air, rolling hills and seductive vineyards. Though the town weathered a burst of notoriety in 1846 — as the rebellious center and 25-day capital of the California Republic — today it is known more for its pleasures than its politics: good food and wine, art galleries, boutiques, small shops and history.
And though there is much to explore, a one- or two-day excursion is a good way to begin.
For the most peaceful drive to Sonoma, take the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, go north on 101, then Highway 37 east. Turn north (left) at Infineon (formerly Sears Point) Raceway on 121, and follow the signs to Sonoma. Free parking is available behind the Barracks off First Street East and Spain Street, and there is lots of free parking on side streets with only a block or two walk.
Just a mile north of the raceway is Roche Winery, a family operation run by Drs. Genevieve and Joe Roche and their daughter, Mara. Huge French posters decorate the tasting room, designed by Sonoma architect Victor Conforti. The Roches offer their own excellent wines along with those of other producers.
A few miles north you come to Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace, created by Vicki and Sam Sebastiani, now run in part by their children. WITH great sauce and edible oil samples; Cucina Viansa picnic foods augment their wines and Ducks Unlimited souvenirs. Viansa’s picnic area looks out on Sam’s wildlife preserve, the tiny Sonoma Valley Airport and the southern outpost of the Sonoma Valley Visitors’ Bureau.
For a quick breakfast or lunch detour, go straight north up Arnold Drive, past the 76 station about three miles to Arnold Drive and Grove Street. There, at Follini & Eichenbaum Mediterranean Deli & Café, you’ll find Peet’s Coffee and Teas and Artisan Bakery pastries. Also try their large green salad with Maytag or Pt. Reyes blue cheese, great sandwiches, Short and Tall Aunties’ beat-all-others cheesecakes, Matzo balls, roast turkey and the best house mustard anywhere. Families might enjoy the children’s playroom.
Back to the original approach, follow signs eastward on 121 into Sonoma, and turn left toward Sonoma following the signs. Down Broadway toward Sonoma City Hall, straight ahead in the plaza, is Train Town, a miniature steam railroad that provides a trip into the past for children of all ages. Suzanne Brangham’s MacArthur Place inn and Saddles Restaurant are on the corner of Broadway and MacArthur, and restaurants Deuce, La Poste and Meritage line Broadway just before the plaza. (No lunch at La Poste.)
Napa Street runs in front of Sonoma City Hall, and an enjoyable stroll can be taken around the plaza. Every corner is wheelchair accessible, and much of the plaza is registered in either the California or National Register of Historic Places. The first block of East Napa Street offers art galleries; Maya Restaurant’s California-Mexican cuisine; Della Santina’s Italian spit-grilled meats, pastas and pastries; Rin’s Thai Restaurant’s excellent and elegantly low-key repasts; and the renowned, unpretentious Café LaHaye. (No lunch at LaHaye.) On East Napa is a favorite stop, Readers’ Books, a bookstore where even kids and teenagers love to hang out.
Check out San Francisco Solano Mission at the northwest corner of the plaza, the historic Barracks, Casa Grande Indian Servants Quarters and the Toscano Hotel. Sonoma Cheese Factory is next door, and cheese lovers might also want to take a short side trip: One block east on Spain Street and one block up First Street East is Vella’s Cheese, whose internationally acclaimed cheeses are made on site. Just ask for a tour of the one-room plant.
Back on the plaza, most Sonomans rotate dining in local restaurants and always end up at the Swiss Hotel, worthy of note though often overlooked by reviewers. “The Swiss” serves Italian-California cuisine and fabulous Caesar salads, and offers a fascinating historic bar and sidewalk, indoor and patio dining. At the next corner, is the recommended girl & the fig for Rhone cuisine, cheeses and wines.
Several places around the plaza offer wine tasting, an easy option for visitors on a tight schedule. Uncorked at East Napa and First Street East offers wines of tiny, personal wineries such as Stoneheath, Noah, Abundance, Casa Carneros, Nance and Favero. Buena Vista has its own tasting bar in The Corner Store kitty-corner from Uncorked.
Up First Street East enjoy Wine Exchange of Sonoma with its incomparable selection of local, California and imported wines (many winemakers end the day here with a quick imported beer). Cucina Viansa sells tastes of Viansa wines across from the Mission, and Sebastiani offers tastes of Sebastiani wines near the Swiss Hotel on Spain Street. If time is short, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery is just three blocks east of the plaza at 389 Fourth Street East. New CEO and President Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo has redone the tasting room with elegance and rededicated the winery to making fine wines, as well as to using more environmentally sound farming practices.
Kathleen Hill writes a series of six Hill Guides to the West Coast with her husband, Gerald Hill, including “Sonoma Valley—The Secret Wine Country” from Globe-Pequot Press.