Northern California's Napa Valley may get the lion's share of the headlines, but the wine region of Sonoma just next door is just as lovely. Located an hour or so north of San Francisco, Sonoma offers a more relaxed and rustic alternative to sophisticated Napa – and it's significantly cheaper too.
Like Napa, Sonoma is the name of a county, a valley, a town and an official wine region. Unlike Napa, Sonoma is a rambling, spread-out place. Stretching from the Napa border to the Pacific, Sonoma County is almost twice the size of Napa, and you'll need a good few days to do the area justice.
Below, five Sonoma highlights.
Except for a few patches of pinot noir and chardonnay at the valley's cooler southern end, Napa is cabernet country through and through. Over the hill in more climatically diverse Sonoma, a far wider range of wines are produced: chardonnays, sauvignon blancs, merlots and malbecs, plus California's most famous variety, the ubiquitous zinfandel (also known as primitivo). Chardonnay lovers should check out the wineries of the Russian River Valley, where many winemakers are attempting to replace big, buttery, oaky chardonnays with a more subtle and refined style.
The Napa Valley is dominated by one highway that runs like an arrow down its centre, and on weekends SH29 is often at near-gridlock around Napa's most visited towns. A few miles west in less-visited Sonoma you'll find a lot less traffic congestion. But then again, there's little need to use the highway system at all, thanks to Sonoma's extensive network of scenic back roads. You can spend a day visiting wineries without ever driving on a highway, especially around the north Sonoma appellations: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley.
Of course, the problem with self-drive winery tours is that one of your party will have a very dull – or at least very sober – day out. With a chauffeured tour you get the benefit of both a driver and a tour guide, a local who can help narrow down Sonoma's more than 275 wineries into a day-long itinerary. See sonoma.com for options.
Looking for someone else to drive you, but not ready for the full chauffeur experience? Book a spot on the Sonoma Wine Trolley, a five-hour winery tour, plus picnic lunch, on board a motorised open-air cable car. Feeling energetic? Sonoma Bike Tours offer a day's easy cycling, stopping at wineries on the way. They do both self-guided and guided tours, each with catered lunch (you choose the winery you want it delivered to) and free wine purchase pick-up.
Napa township might have fancier restaurants and bars, but Sonoma's county capital has Sonoma Plaza. At 8 acres (3.2 ha), this is the largest town square in California, both a community focal point and Sonoma's historical centre. Here you'll find evidence of the town's fascinating past, from Native American tribal homeland, to Mexican military outpost, to capital of the Bear Flag Republic, Northern California's brief attempt at independence before it was subsumed into the United States.
All of this history lives on in the Sonoma Plaza, where lawns, play areas and gardens surround the early 20th century City Hall, built with four identical facings to avoid offending merchants on any side of the square. Around the plaza's outskirts are historic buildings and museums, and boutiques, restaurants and cafes. One of the most popular is The Girl and The Fig, a casual all-day restaurant with a focus on locally grown produce.
A charming small town packed with great places to dine, Healdsburg feels more like upscale Napa than most of the rest of Sonoma. Culinary hotspots include Healdsburg Shed, an airily modern restaurant/homeware store/culinary centre, and legendary chef Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen at the swanky Healdsburg Hotel.
As the the gateway to the Dry Creek Valley region of northern Sonoma, Healdsburg is an excellent base for daytrips to wineries like the biodynamic Quivira Vineyards, the bucolic Seghesio Family Vineyards and director Francis Ford Coppola's magnificent eponymous winery, where you'll find a public swimming pool, two restaurants – and lots of movie memorabilia.