How Sonoma’s Hospitality Scene is Leading the Charge for a Renewed Wine Country

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, California wine country has emerged stronger and brighter than ever from the wildfires that tore through the region last year. Particularly, Sonoma County serves as a shining beacon of re-growth, rejuvenation and revival, as towns and wineries blossom and thrive. It’s evident not only in the fruitful vineyards, but the strength of the local economy, which can be felt, tasted and experienced in a multitude of ways. From immersive winery visits to hotels and restaurants in communities like Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Windsor and Sebastopol, there’s never been a better time to visit Sonoma.

Wineries

Leading the march not only in Sonoma County, but in the whole of California wine country, Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio is an icon that more than lives up to its legendary name. La Crema Winery (pictured above) and Kendall-Jackson Winery, both with lush vineyards as lengthy as the horizon, go to show that one of the nation’s foremost wine regions is back in action and better than ever.

A great way to kick off a trip to Sonoma County is with a visit to La Crema, a vast, immersive property in the heart of the Russian River Valley. It’s all too easy to while away the day at La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, the winery’s star showcase complete with vineyards as far as the eye can see, private party spaces and a mighty, historic barn outfitted as a multi-tiered tasting space. Here at the barn, guests can opt for various levels of tastings, embark on a vineyard tour or partake in a picnic repast. Cool-climate wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the estate’s bread and butter, which you can sample via signature tastings, vineyard select tastings or the more elite nine barrel tasting. The tour entails a private tasting via golf cart, with samples of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, rosé and Gewürztraminer. For those looking for a meal, the picnic option is tasting for four in a seated setting with a chef-crafted picnic bursting with seasonal, fresh produce and provisions.

Elsewhere in Sonoma County, La Crema runs an intimate tasting room (pictured above) in the happy little hamlet of Healdsburg. Situated right along the town’s main street, the lounge provides an opportunity to interact with wine pros, sip your way through La Crema’s portfolio, snag some bottles for the road and indulge in some tastings paired with chocolate or cheese.

You can’t talk about Sonoma without bowing down to Kendall-Jackson. This local keystone is to Sonoma County as Disney World is to Orlando — but the food and drinks are much better here. A veritable titan of the New World wine scene, this is a place that merits a spot on any oenophile’s bucket list. Not only do the wines live up to their international fame, but this is a place where food, wine and a true farm-to-table ethos are in holistic harmony. For the full-package food and beverage experience in Sonoma County, Kendall-Jackson dazzles with a multitude of tasting experiences, seated dinners in the culinary garden, leisurely vineyard tours and seasonal harvest events, just to scratch the surface. The gardens surrounding the luxe estate are particularly striking; seven distinct sections are planted for varying purposes, whether for aesthetics, education or produce and herbs to be used in different food and wine tastings.

At the heart of the operation, this is a winery about the people. Winemaster Randy Ullom, executive chef Justin Wangler and gardener Tucker Taylor. These are some of the folks behind the winery’s harmonious vision, and who somehow manage to keep a global brand rooted in a sense of community. The best way to savor it all and drink it all in — literally and figuratively — is with a seated multi-course meal in the garden. You’ll taste Ullom’s Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvigonons hand-in-hand with Wangler’s of-the-moment cuisine, which takes the notion of farm-to-table to unparalleled levels by maximizing Taylor’s expansive gardens abutting the vineyards. Everything from heirloom tomatoes and eggs to more esoteric items like the curiously oceanic oyster leaf are all harvested here, breathing life into anything the kitchen touches.

It’s wineries like these — titans at the top of their game, leading the fray and shining a spotlight on a region emerging from recovery — that are setting the tone for Sonoma’s closeup. In similar community-oriented fashion, those sentiments extend to the region’s restaurants and hotels as well, extending that holistic vision throughout the county’s world-class hospitality scene.

Restaurants

Fresh, market-centric cuisine is the bill of fare at Zazu Kitchen + Farm (pictured above) in Sebastopol. Located in the charming Barlow complex, which consists of various independent eateries, boutiques and markets, Zazu is an essential stopover for folks looking to taste the fruits of northern California’s pristine bounty. Under the tutelage of proprietors Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the restaurant grows much of its own ingredients at nearby MacBryde Farm, and they even make their own wines, Black Pig Pinot and Pink Pig sparkling, with Thomas George Estates. A meal at this lofty, inviting restaurant features an ever-changing assortment of seasonal, bountiful dishes, like rosemary-scented pork sugo and rigatoni, bacon-wrapped dates, burrata with grilled raddichio and beet gnocchi with blue chse fonduta, chestnuts and Asian pears. Whatever you do, don’t miss Zazu’s impressive bacon and salumi selection, made in-house. They even make their own lip balm, cleverly dubbed “lip lardo,” to fully maximize the whole-animal philosophy.

Back in Healdsburg, Mateo’s Cocina Latina is doing an incredible job fusing Mexican inspiration with California’s harvest. A native of the Yucatan, chef Mateo Granados bridges the geographic gap between his homeland and his adopted hometown, sourcing the freshest local products for dishes like ceviche, olive oil guacamole, crispy oyster salad with serrano mayo, fish tacos in handmade corn tortillas and succulent cochinita pibil, slow-roasted and bundled in banana leaves with handmade tortillas, red onions, rice, beans and vegetables alongside. Linger on the sizable, sun-soaked patio with an agua fresca or margarita and call it a day.

Across the street from Mateo’s, Spoonbar (pictured above) is a chic oasis of Californian cuisine at its finest. Located in the h2hotel, the menus come courtesy of chef Matt D’Ambrosi, accessible both for leisurely snacking or full a full-blown meal chock full of grilled octopus, compressed strawberry salads, honey-walnut agnolotti and porcini mushroom risotto. The restaurant boasts a mean burger, too, featuring smoked Gouda, caramelized onions, butter lettuce, heirloom tomato, secret sauce and a fluffy house-baked bun. While this is certainly wine country, the cocktails really shine at Spoonbar, exhibiting a penchant for mixology and craftsmanship. Try the fizzy, refreshing “Stormy,” which combines pisco and passion fruit liqueur wit pineapple gomme syrup, Prosecco and prickly pear; or the complex “Long Island Chaiced Tea,” with fragrant chai-infused bourbon, rum, tequila, vanilla, lemon, barrel-aged bitters and burnt orange.

It’s a testament to Spoonbar’s talent and influence that a few vets from the bar ventured off to open their own business down the street. Duke’s Spirited Cocktails was an instant hit in a historic location right on Healdsburg’s main square, and for good reason. The drinks here are next-level good, on par with the craftiest libations in much larger cities like San Francisco. As beautiful as they are delicious, the menu is divvied into drinks on tap, rotating seasonal offerings and perennial staples. Effervescent draft cocktails include “Ms. Bojangles,” a soda shop-style throwback made with bourbon, housemade root beer, Fernet Branca, bitters and phosphate; and the crisp and tangy “Fool’s Paradise,” a blend of tequila, bay laurel, vermouth and clarified passion fruit. Of the year round fixtures, fan favorites include the “Rangpur More” with gin, rangpur lime shrub, pink peppercorn, saffron bitters and house tonic. Food-wise, the menu far exceeds the call of bar snack duty with delicious chicken sandwiches, pork tacos, crab rolls and “disco fries” slathered in mushroom gravy and cheese curds, a la poutine.

Where to Stay

Sonoma County abounds with charming inns and opulent accommodations, but when bopping around between wineries and restaurants, there’s no better place to drop your suitcase than the h2hotel in Healdsburg. The colorful boutique property feels hip and comfortable at the same time, with an abbreviated assortment of spacious rooms across a few floors. All rooms sport some outdoor space, some even with expansive porch-style balconies. In addition to Spoonbar on the ground floor, there’s a sleek salt-water pool in back.


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