5 tips for wine tasting in Sonoma (California’s wine country)

5 tips for wine tasting in Sonoma (California’s wine country)

I love wine tasting so when it was suggested we added Sonoma to our USA Bay Area itinerary, I jumped at the chance. Northern California’s famous wine country is located a 1 hour drive (2 hours with traffic) north of San Francisco.

Your first instinct might be to head to the famous Napa Valley but a 30 minute drive away is the less touristy, historic town of Sonoma. The wineries here are older and arguably more beautiful than Napa’s. Two of the wineries I visited in Sonoma were over 100 years old (Buena Vista and Gundlach Bundschu). They offered great wine tasting and perfect Instagram photo opportunities.

Below are my five tips to help you make the most of your trip to Sonoma and California’s wine country.

 

1) Save up well in advance for your trip – it’s expensive! 

 

San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area is the most overpriced area I have ever been to. And yes, I’ve been to Scandinavia! These prices also carry on up to California’s wine country. We went during the 4th July Independence Day celebrations which also inflated the prices of accommodation.

 

Sonoma Central Plaza
Sonoma Central Plaza

 

Sonoma is slightly cheaper than Napa, but you probably won’t notice this because it’ll all feel expensive, especially to people from outside California. However, the town is well kept and the locals are friendly, giving it a well-to-do vibe.

 

Sonoma
Strolling around Sonoma

 

Unfortunately you can’t do California’s wine country on a backpacker budget. If you want to do cheaper wine tasting then go to the Marlborough region in New Zealand or the inexpensive Balkan region in Southern Europe. Where more emphasis is on you buying a bottle and not paying money for tastings.

 

2) Take someone with you

 

Accommodation will be the most expensive part of visiting Sonoma – there aren’t many options. Ideally you want to be within walking distance of the historic town plaza so you can visit the local tasting rooms around there. The further out of town you stay, the more you’ll be spending on taxis or Ubers. When selecting a hotel I was torn between El Pueblo Inn and the Best Western. Both were around $200 a night, which is good for Sonoma. I went for El Pueblo Inn and didn’t regret it. While it was a little noisy because it was an older building, the rooms were large, the WiFi fast and the breakfast was good.

 

El Pueblo Inn
El Pueblo Inn

 

I travelled with Tatsuya and we went to the wineries as a couple. When we arrived they asked if we wanted to split a tasting or have one each. The tastings are usually $20 to try 4 or 5 wines. We had a tasting each as we both love wine and wanted to discuss the wine between us. But I saw people splitting the tastings and trying 2 glasses each. The grapes grown around Sonoma are predominantly for red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir), however, many also grow Chardonnay, which is used for white wine. Also on offer were Merlots and Zinfandel. Zinfandel is mainly grown in California and tough to find elsewhere, so it’s a must try when you’re there.

The wineries we were recommend by the locals were:

Pangloss Cellars – a tasting room in Sonoma’s Central Plaza

Buena Vista Winery – the oldest commercial winery in California. Located an 8 min drive from Sonoma Central Plaza.

Gundlach Bundschu Winery – the second oldest winery and has Instagram worthy views.

Landmark Winery – for Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Slightly further out from Sonoma but beautiful landscape.

B. Wise (Tasting Lounge) – next to Landmark Winery.

 

Gundlach Bundschu Historic Winery Tasting
Gundlach Bundschu Historic Winery Tasting
Buena Vista Winery Tasting
Buena Vista Winery Tasting

 

3) Consider using Uber in the wine country

 

Getting to the wineries was a major concern because you can’t drink and drive.

In the centre of Sonoma there are a few wineries and tasting rooms, all within walking distance, but if you want to visit the larger wineries and see the vineyards, these are not walkable and require transport.

We decided to go between the wineries using Uber. This allowed us to get around in our own time and visit the wineries we wanted to see. If your mobile phone contract doesn’t include data in the US and your phone is unlocked, you can get a tourist SIM card from T-mobile for $30 (plus tax) which lasts for two weeks and gives you 2 GB of data.

There were plenty of Uber drivers in Sonoma. And again, the more of you there are, the cheaper the Ubers would be to split. An 8 minute drive cost us $15. In America you’re expected to tip your driver and not doing so could affect your Uber rating. In contrast to Europe where I never tip my Uber driver and feel they don’t expect you too, especially in the UK.

 

Buena Vista Winery
Buena Vista Winery

 

Bikes and Tours of Sonoma

 

Using a bike to travel between wineries was suggested to me by my Californian friend.

There were bikes available at the hotel and special bike tours. However, the roads between the wineries in Sonoma are narrow and bendy, plus you can actually get a CUI (cycling under the influence) from riding a bike while drunk. While you’re not looking at jail time, you can get up to a $250 fine, plus the embarrassment of it.

They do VW van and limo tours if you’re in a big group. I looked into doing a tour and they were around £90 a person to visit 4 or 6 wineries, depending on the tour, and have lunch. However, this fee is usually just for the driver, you still have to pay for the tastings, so double check with the tour company beforehand on what’s included.

 

Volkswagen vans around Sonoma
Volkswagen vans around Sonoma

 

A lot of the tours had pick-up times of 9am which is a bit early for me to start drinking. However, most of the wineries close quite early, for example Buena Vista closes at 5pm, and nearly all are closed by 5:30pm. This means you have to start early if you want to fit a few in.

 

Gundlach Bundschu vineyard
Gundlach Bundschu vineyard

 

4) You don’t need to pre-book tastings (unless you’re in a large group)

 

Before going I was concerned about how busy it would be. I went tasting on July 3rd (July 4th is a national holiday and the wineries are all closed). I didn’t have to wait long to join a tasting – you stand at the bar and they pour the tasters and briefly explain what each wine is. There’s no real in-depth description of the wine or how they make it, which I felt was a shame but I only did the standard tastings. There are winery tours, food paired with wine, and cellar tours available which do sometimes need booking.

 

Buena Vista Winery tasting

 

The main aim is to get you to buy a bottle. The bottles ranged from the cheapest at $40 to $150 for a nicer bottle, perfect for an anniversary or graduation celebration. I looked into shipping a bottle back to my mum but they only send a minimum of 6 bottles internationally.

I felt that some Sonoma locals were overwhelmed by the amount of tourists visiting. Given the high wages in the Bay Area, wine tasting would be an affordable day out.

 

5) Don’t overestimate how many wineries you’ll be visiting

 

I went expecting to hit five or six wineries in a day – this was way too ambitious. A typical tasting will include four to five wines. One or two will be white wine and the rest are red. All the mixing of wine plus the fresh air and lack of food will make you get drunk quickly. And when you’re paying $20-25 a tasting, you want to be sober enough to taste them!

If you really like a winery, you might choose to buy a bottle and drink it while enjoying the views of the vineyards. Time flies when you’re having fun, and unfortunately most wineries are closed by 5:30pm. I wanted to buy a bottle of wine at Gundlach Bundschu Winery and sit outside, watching the sun go down (this winery has beautiful views) but it was too near closing time.

 

View from Gundlach Bundschu Winery
View from Gundlach Bundschu Winery

 

We did two wineries, Steiner’s Tavern sports bar (England were playing in the World Cup), and a beer brewery in one day. We could have swapped the sports bar for a winery but three wineries in one day is a realistic goal.

 

There’s also beer and chocolate tasting…

 

If wine isn’t your thing, then there’s beer and chocolate tasting in Sonoma.

 

Chocolate Tasting
Wine Country Chocolate Tasting

 

And yes some of these chocolates include wine – Wine Country Chocolate Tasting has signature wine truffles with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Port and Champagne, if you want to combine wine and chocolate (possibly the two best things on earth?)

Once the wineries closed we went to the tap room at the Sonoma Springs Brewery to try some beers. The beers were reasonably priced and there was a large selection. It also felt more of a locals place than just for tourists.

 

Sonoma Springs Brewery

Sonoma Springs Taproom
Sonoma Springs tap room

 

Overall

 

I hope my five tips help you enjoy Sonoma and California’s wine country as much as I did. If you go there expecting it to be expensive then the prices won’t shock you.

The main reason to go to Sonoma is for the wineries. While it’s a beautiful historic town, there are only a few attractions like Sonoma Plaza and Sonoma State Historic Park, which you can do in one hour.

Sonoma isn’t a place for solo budget travellers, it’s more enjoyable as a couple or in a group of friends. So grab your nearest and dearest wine loving friends and head to Sonoma for lots of wine.

2 Replies to “5 tips for wine tasting in Sonoma (California’s wine country)”

  1. This looks terrific but is too far away for us. We went on a wine tasting trip to Alsace last year and have booked to go on another one in Burgundy in 2019. We will be based in Dijon which is exciting enough for us. Last year I got hooked on Pinot Gris; so look forward to selecting my favourite in Burgundy. Like your idea of getting round by Uber. This is another pleasure which you introduced me to. You sorted out your finances well in such an expensive location, and your description is very enticing. I will pass the tips on to my kids.

    1. Thank you Sandra 🙂 It’s so shameful but I’ve never been wine tasting in France! Yet I’m so close. I hope you have a great time in Burgundy and you must let me know if it’s worth putting on my list and how the prices compare to Sonoma.

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