If there is one U.S. region commonly associated with winemaking greatness, it’s Sonoma Valley.
One of the first locations to plant vinifera in the country, this locale gained worldwide attention in 1976 when a California Chardonnay and a California Cabernet from the area won the favor of judges in a blind tasting against some of the most prestigious—and commonly preferred—French wines.
Modern Sonoma has become a mecca for wine and tourism. While there are definitely wineries that everyone should visit at least once in their life to see the decadence, fame, and success that have been bestowed upon certain wineries in the region, there are also newer wineries off the beaten path that should have your attention. To help navigate between the two, we created this list to showcase five of our favorite wineries (plus, a bonus winery to visit right outside of Sonoma proper) to visit when in the Sonoma Valley. From the oldest winery in the region that hosts one of the biggest area music festivals to nontraditional upstarts, these are some of the coolest spots to check out right now.
Gundlach Bundschu was founded in 1858 by Bavarian expat Jacob Gundlach, and is California’s oldest operating winery. Now, six generations and 150 years later, the winery is still family-run (the winery’s name comes from the marriage of Jacob’s eldest daughter to Charles Bundschu, who wed in 1875). Not only can you taste a slew of amazing vino here—including the cornerstone of its portfolio, the Gewürztraminer—you can also take a tour of the site, which includes visiting the historic winery built in 1870. For those interested in live music, make sure to check out the winery’s lineup of upcoming bands before you book your flight. The winery also hosts a yearly summer concert series, the Huichica Music Festival, on its property in early June.
Summer hours (April through October) are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and winter hours (November through March) are 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
If less traditional winemaking methods are your thing, then this ultra-trendy winery should be at the top of your list. After traveling abroad to Australia, Argentina, and Chile to work harvest, founder Jordan Kivelstadt took over this vineyard and retreat that his parents started in Glen Ellen, California. With a broad spectrum of wines to try, there is something to please every palate. Our favorite is the Wayward Son, an exotic blend of Marsanne and Roussanne grapes (both floral whites) from Mendocino County. Unlike traditional white wines, the grapes have skin contact with the juice during fermentation, resulting in an orange wine with rich tannins, notes of honeysuckle, and a robust softness. Most unique of all is Kivelstadt’s decision to serve all wines on draft, which he believes will help eliminate packaging waste and wine spoilage. If you want to forgo the bottle and cork, you can even get wine in a growler to go.
The tasting room is open Thursday through Monday from noon to 5 p.m. Flights are $15–$20.
Located inside a historic, 120-year-old rustic barn, this tasting room and winery is the go-to destination for Pinot Noir lovers. With cooler temperatures and higher elevation, the Pinot Noir grapes from the Russian River Valley that La Crema Estate uses are unique. While the Pinot Noir from Saralee’s vineyard is light, floral, and abundantly fruity, the winery’s single vineyard Pinot from the Russian River Valley is rich and laden with dark fruit and spice. Depending on how much you want to spend at the tasting room, you can come here solely to try the winery’s list of Pinots, or you can take a guided vineyard tour and enjoy a picnic with local cheeses and jams with your tasting. But we recommend a different alternative: Visit the gorgeous tasting room, buy a bottle of the 2016 Fog Veil Pinot Noir, and find a roadside taco truck on Highway One, where you’ll drink the vino with maximum enjoyment.
The tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tasting packages vary in price and decadence, and the listing for each can be found on La Crema’s website. Last call for wine at the tasting room is at 4:30 p.m., so don’t be late!
This Healdsburg winery is a very special place and unique to this list. Not only is this winery producing an incredible range of wines on its 125-acre property, the locale is an actual working farm with a diverse array of crops, including fruit and olive trees, livestock, and grapevines. By having this thriving ecosystem on the property, the owners—a husband and wife team who have been making wine in the region since the ‘70s—can create a fully biodynamic site for their vineyards. Along with the on-site tasting room, there is also a farm store that sells fresh produce and olive oil, as well as a bakery that makes everything inside a wood-fired oven. The owners encourage guests to buy wines at the tasting room (we recommend the Côte-Rôtie-inspired Syrah & Viognier blend) and have a picnic on the grounds. We couldn’t agree more.
The tasting room is open on weekdays and weekends from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Because there are livestock present on the farm, including a number of cats, dogs are not permitted on site. Also of note, the $20 tasting room fee is refunded with a wine purchase.
If you’re a fan of more traditional sparkling wines, this is the winery for you. Located at the end of a long, winding dirt road in the Green Valley region near the Sonoma Coast, Iron Horse is a smaller, family-run winery that has sweeping hillside vineyards. While the winery makes vinos other than the bubbly variety, the brand’s array of sparkling wines—which range in dryness and yeasty, Champagne-esque qualities—are what it does best. On Sundays from April until October, the winery hosts the Tomales Bay Oyster Company’s roving oyster bar. So not only can you enjoy bubbles and scenic views of the Sonoma hills and majestic Mount Saint Helena, you can also indulge in fresh, local oysters. This is a place that shouldn’t be missed.
Tastings are by appointment only and should be made in advance. We recommend you also reserve a picnic table in advance to enjoy your wine and oysters.
Bonus: Donkey and Goat
We know that this winery is not technically located in the Sonoma Valley, but you can make a pit stop here on your way back to the San Francisco International Airport. Consider it your bonus location. Located in Berkeley, California, this winery makes some of the most coveted natural wines in the state. Started by husband and wife duo Jared and Tracey Brandt, Donkey and Goat specializes in wines with little to no sulfur (the 2018 Gigi, a concrete fermented Syrah, is 100 percent sulphur-free) and use sustainable, natural, and biodynamic farming methods. At the tasting room, you can take a tour of the winery and cellar and taste your way through the current portfolio. There are local cheeses and charcuterie to snack on if you’re hungry, a bocce court, and outdoor seating to enjoy. If it’s not sold out, you have to try Donkey and Goat’s take on a California Chardonnay, which doesn’t have any resemblance to the grape’s buttery, over-oaked forbearers. Instead, this naturally sparkling—or pétillant naturel—variation is light and silky with tight bubbles and green apple acidity.
The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. for groups of six or less. If you have larger parties, we recommend emailing the winery to schedule an appointment.