People talk of some kind of imagined competition between Sonoma and Napa, both highly touted regions of California Wine Country; the reality is that both regions are as the strong as each other. Sure, Napa may just have a prestigious edge to its international reputation, but the much larger Sonoma County, with its 13 AVA’s and over 425 wineries, is simply too rich and vast to be overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbour.
Divided by the tree-studded Mayacama Mountains, these two regions are both within earshot of San Francisco, making them the most accessible of California Wine Country. Of course, this also means that they are close to one another, and a reasonable Uber ride (I recall paying around USD$50 from downtown Santa Rosa to downtown Napa) between the two makes it entirely worth experiencing both on a short getaway from San Fran.
I’ve already detailed what you should do on a short stay in Downtown Napa, now let me do the same for Sonoma’s incredibly relaxed Santa Rosa, the heart of this wine-making region and one of the most strategic bases for a deep-dive into everything California Wine Country offers.
Have a Drink or Seven at Russian River Brewing
I’m going to start with what was my front-runner experience at Santa Rosa, that being a visit to Russian River Brewing Company. Sonoma may be known for its wine, but with the city claiming one of the best and most well-known craft brewers in the country, beer should most definitely be on the agenda.
During my visit to Santa Rosa, a slow-moving June weekend, I was often wondering why the streets were so empty on a Sunday. That was, until I walked into the sprawling Russian River pub on 4th Street. It seemed like the whole city was here – unsurprising when I found out that the brewer generously extends the concept of “happy hour” to all day on Sundays. If you want to hang with locals, this is where you’ll find them.
Although it isn’t just those from Santa Rosa who come here. Russian River Brewing is a standalone destination, with many travelling from all over the country to sip from the source most famous for their flagship Double IPA, “Pliny the Elder” and it’s seasonal spin-off “Pliny the Younger”. Although you’ll find many types of beer here, so sitting down with a tasting paddle and some pizza is highly recommended.
If the Russian River team impress you – and as long as you like beer, they will – then take note of their more recently opened 195 seat brewpub just a short drive away in Windsor. It has an expanded menu and an even bigger, more open space.
Start Your Day at Dierk’s Parkside Diner
Although Napa may be better known for higher-priced destination dining, Santa Rosa’s laid back vibe is perfectly complemented by some of wine country’s best old-school American diners. Case in point: Dierk’s Parkside Diner.
On the fringes of Downtown, this local favourite is where you should probably start each and every morning if you really want to immerse yourself in Santa Rosa. It’s all standard diner staples here, but done to a high standard with top-quality produce, like the Louisiana Hash with Yukon potato, jalapeno, onion, mushrooms, eggs, bacon, and cheddar, or – my favourite – the Country Benedict with scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, spinach, oven-dried tomatoes, hash browns and hollandaise on a deliciously soft, warm baguette.
It’s almost worth the 2 hours on the bus from San Francisco just to start the day here.
Check Out the Charles M. Schulz Museum
You can’t think of Santa Rosa without two things. Firstly, wine. Obviously. But also iconic American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. The creator of the beloved “Peanuts” comic strip, which has endeared well beyond its run from 1950 to the year 2000, spent the last decades of his life in Santa Rosa, and has left indelible marks around town. That not only explains the statues of Peanuts characters like Snoopy and Charlie Brown scattered around the city, but also a specialised ice rink called Snoopy’s Home Ice for hockey games and other events. Schulz built the rink for his love of Santa Rosa, and it remains an emblem of just how important he is to the city’s identity.
It’s then no surprise that Santa Rosa is also the location of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. It’s an elegant, home-style collection of mostly Peanuts memorabilia, including original comic panels, rotating exhibitions focusing on Peanuts intersection with American culture, and a large 22-foot tall mural charmingly made up of 3,588 tiny strips, conceived by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani.
Grab Dinner at Spinster Sisters
Local Santa Rosa (Rosan?) favourite Spinster Sisters is where you should be going if you want to stick around the city for dinnertime. Although breakfast and brunch seem to be the most popular times to head along here, the dinner service is a shoe-in for something memorable, with the kitchen taking great pride in inventive dishes and local ingredients.
The menu changes regularly, but expect dishes like Tuscan style roasted pork ribs with fennel and citrus salad; red wine braised beef cheek with cauliflower puree, cauliflower mushrooms, and a citrus and herb gremolata; fennel custard Dungeness crab with marinated beets and meyer lemon; and roasted bone marrow with parsley, capers, pickled mustard seed and grilled bread. You can’t really go wrong here.
Get Your Fill of Wine at These Nearby Estates
Seeing as Sonoma grows more Pinot Noir than any other county in the state, and its bank of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is also remarkably rich, the county is heaven for those who like their fruit-forward varieties.
You’re well-placed in Santa Rosa to explore some of the best wineries in Sonoma County, which are so close to city-centre that catching an Uber to and from some of these estates is very affordable. Although if you have a car, it’s worth driving through the bucolic backroads of Sonoma, a peaceful and rustic countryside experience compared to what Napa would be like in peak season.
Must-visits include Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, with its understated elegance and garden-fresh, farm-to-table pairing menu. If you’ve got the time, book into their one-hour garden tour and stroll through a picturesque collection of seven distinct garden spaces across four acres. Either way, the key experience here is a dip into one the estate’s tasting experiences, which range from a cheese or chocolate and wine pairing, through to the “Signature Tasting” which brings out the big guns from their Grand Reserve collection – five wines including chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
There’s no such thing as a one-and-done when it comes to exploring Sonoma’s wineries. If you’ve only got a weekend, then two or three is comfortable (and safe) number for a day. Make sure La Crema is one of those. Again, it’s a short ride from Santa Rosa, and an absolutely stunning property and home to plenty of cool coastal wines. Fans of Chardonnay and Pinot will be most at home here, in this quaint converted barn where the best seats at up in the cosy attic overlooking the splendour of La Crema’s vast gardens which make up Saralee’s Vineyard. Book in to have staff walk you through a tasting of refreshing, complex wines that go down best when you’re escaping the outside heat.
Get Some Rest at the Astro Motel
The same team behind Spinster Sisters have taken a dusty old 1963 motor lodge and turned it into one of the most spectacular and colourful motels I have ever had the pleasure of staying at.
The Astro Motel maintains that classic Cali roadside lodge atmosphere, but brings something decidedly modern with playful guest rooms and a common room you’d actually want to spend time in. Plus, the property’s South A Street Arts District location is directly opposite Dierk’s Parkside Café, and only a short 5-10 minute walk from city-centre.
The connection to Spinster Sisters also means high-quality pastries and great coffee every morning, free to guests. You can read out full review of The Astro HERE.
The writer travelled to Santa Rosa as a guest of Visit California. All opinions are that of the writer’s.