One of California’s premier wine-growing regions, Sonoma Valley sits just west of its more famous neighbor, Napa. While Napa seems to have a stronghold on the title of bucket list wine destinations, Sonoma has a lot to offer wine aficionados and novices alike.
The two regions may be separated by just a few miles – sitting on either side of the Mayacamas Mountain range – but the two are completely different worlds. Napa has solidified its reputation as the more bougie, more bustling, and more expensive locale. Conversely, Sonoma’s more restrained, more laid-back, and more affordable. Napa boasts a host of larger, more commercial wineries, while Sonoma offers a greater number of smaller, family-owned cellars. To us, Napa has that heavily commercialized vibe, while Sonoma feels a bit more rustic.
Just as they differ in character, the two valleys also differ in terms of wine. Napa is famous for its buttery chards and bold cabs, while Sonoma is better known for its pinot noirs, zinfandels, and crisp whites. And while both regions are undoubtedly worthy in their own right, it’s kind of amazing how two adjacent swaths of land can produce such vastly different wines and exude such a palpably distinct character.
Sonoma Valley wines
Stretching just over fifty miles, the Mayacamas Mountains separate the wine-growing regions of Sonoma & Napa Valleys. Sonoma sits just west of the mountains, and Napa just east. Because it lies on the windward side of the mountains, Sonoma sees the moderating effects from the Pacific, which includes cooler temperatures, steadier winds, and more moisture. Conversely, Napa Valley lies further inland on the sheltered side of the mountains, resulting in warmer temperatures and less wind. Because of this major difference in geography, Sonoma is home to an array of microclimates and, consequently, a wider variety of grapes and wine styles.
More than 60 grape varietals are grown in Sonoma Valley across 19 different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). This tremendous variability in terrain and weather – from volcanic sediments to coastal soils; foggy highlands to sun-drenched lowlands; and windswept mountainsides to sheltered vales – all translates to a diverse portfolio of wines that’s guaranteed to please just about any palate.
Choosing a winery
With nearly five hundred wineries peppering Sonoma Valley alone (there are several hundred more in neighboring Napa Valley), it’s pretty much impossible to scratch the surface. Unless you want to check out one winery a day for three years – and also make one hell of an income to afford such an ambitious undertaking – you will be forced to select merely a handful to visit.
Admittedly, researching wineries quickly became the bane of my existence. I’m not an impulse shopper. I like to explore all my options before choosing. Case in point, I’ve been searching futilely for the perfect pair of black running shorts since 2017. Unfortunately, five hundred was just too a high a number for me to carefully dissect every vintner in Sonoma… and just thinking about doubling that number with those in Napa made me reach for the Ibuprofen.
In addition to the anxiety from research overload, wine tasting has become expensive in recent years. Gone are the days of the complimentary or $10 to $20 tastings. Our experience from the good old days of Wine Country 2010 were but a faded page from history as we scrolled through tasting menu prices. Whether you’re in Sonoma or Napa, expect the tasting fees to start at around $35 per person. I’d say the average is closer to $50, and many smaller, boutique wineries now charge upwards of $100 to $150 for a standard tasting. If you’re on a budget, though, don’t despair. It’s still possible to taste some really good wine at an affordable price (keep reading).
During our time in Sonoma, we made it to a dozen wineries. Since everyone reading this is going to have a different palate and budget, I’ll give you a quick summary of who we are and what we were looking for: (1) we are budget-conscious but splurge occasionally, and (2) we love bold reds that are on the drier side (some fruit is okay, but we are not into jammy vintages).
Below, you’ll find some more detailed info about our top five wineries. Surprisingly, most were under $50 per tasting (St. Francis was a little pricier, at $70 for a reserve tasting). Even better? Several of our top picks also accepted wine country’s Priority Wine Pass (more on that below), which slashed many of our tasting prices in half.
Priority Wine Pass
If (1) you plan to visit multiple wineries, are in town for a while or plan to make multiple trips to wine country during the year, and (2) aren’t super particular about which wineries you visit, you may want to consider purchasing the Priority Wine Pass.
The pass can be used for up to one year at more than 400 participating wineries across Napa and Sonoma Valleys (as well as other wine regions around the country). The cost is $35 per passholder and, with most tastings running at least $35, the savings can add up really quickly. This is especially true if you’re touring wine country with a friend or partner, as many wineries offer 2-for-1 tastings on the Priority Wine Pass.
If you have specific wineries you’d like to visit, be sure to browse the Priority Wine Pass website before committing to your purchase. A lot of smaller, boutique wineries are not included on the pass, while those with a medium to larger presence often are. That said, there are certainly exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Ultimately, the wineries you want to visit will dictate whether or not the pass is worth it.
We hemmed and hawed for a while over whether to get the pass, largely due to lingering indecisiveness that stemmed from my inability to research every damn place in excruciating detail. Ultimately, we pulled the trigger and just bought it. We had friends and family coming to visit as well, and thought they might benefit from the extra savings.
In the end, we were more than satisfied with our purchase. In three months, we visited twelve wineries in total, eight of which accepted the Priority Wine Pass. We paid $35 for one pass and saved a total of $275, for a net savings of $240. That means we essentially paid 15% of the cost of those eight tastings. In addition to a happy wallet, we also had some top-notch experiences. Was the wine pass worth it? We thought so.
Our top five
Out of our dozen tastings, we’ve listed our top five below. Those that made the cut ranked highest for quality of wine, value, experience, and customer service. If you’re in Sonoma and, like me, don’t know where to begin, consider checking out one of these winemakers:
Kunde Family Winery
One of our favorite wineries ended up being the first we visited, Kunde. Conveniently, it was just a few miles up the road from us in Glen Ellen. We picked Kunde for a couple of reasons: (1) they offered a casual, outdoor bar tasting, and (2) they had a solid lineup of chardonnays for my mom to sample, including three with 90+ point ratings.
We hadn’t read much about them, but our experience there was excellent. The vineyard grounds are scenic, our tasting guide, Mikayla, was exceptional. The best part? My mom loved all the chards. Since wine country has been on her bucket list for years, it was awesome to see her loving her tasting. If reds are more your jam, they make an absolutely beautiful zinfandel that Stephan and I loved. And if you like a little more fruit in your reds, my dad really enjoyed the Meritage (a Bordeaux-style red) as well as the pinot noir.
Bonus: Kunde is dog friendly and even offers special dog hikes throughout the year. While you explore the vineyards with your pup, you get to learn about the winery’s sustainable practices and grape-to-glass processes – then cap it all off with a tasting. If this winery hasn’t been on your radar, we think it’s definitely worth considering.
Priority Wine Pass?
Cost per person?
$20 for a stand-up (outdoor) bar tasting
$45 for a seated tasting with artisanal cheese board
$100 for the Mountain Top Tour (cave & vineyard tour, seated tasting w/ charcuterie board)
Buena Vista Winery
Started in 1857, Buena Vista is one of California’s oldest wineries. Its vineyards span Sonoma and Napa Valleys, and the original winery building is a registered California Historic Landmark. The winery’s history is convoluted and quirky, and helped make for one of the most unexpected and fun cellar experiences we had in wine country.
Our tasting began in the Press House, a gorgeous stone building that was constructed in 1862, before heading over to the wine caves – the first in Sonoma. The time-worn tunnels were hollowed from solid rock by laborers in the 1860s using nothing but pickaxes. While a significant portion of the caves collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, a few sections are still accessible today. Alongside one of the original caves, a row of enormous redwood barrels invited a story – one of Buena Vista’s origins. One hundred fifty years ago, the unique vessels were the cornerstone of one of ‘The Count’s’ many experiments for fermenting and aging wine. But just who was this ‘Count?’
The winery’s founder, the self-proclaimed ‘Count of Buena Vista,’ was a Hungarian immigrant who came from a wealthy family of vineyard owners. The Count had a colorful background. After moving to California and serving as a sheriff and then state legislator, he next became a metallurgist, both evaluating and smelting gold during the gold rush. With winemaking still a long-sought dream of his, he once again made a career change. The Count purchased 800 acres of land on Buena Vista Ranch in the 1850s and planted his first grapes.
Buena Vista Winery saw tremendous success in its early years. However, in 1868, the restless and inquisitive Count absconded to Nicaragua to learn about sugar farming and rum production. The following year, the maverick jack-of-all-trades purportedly met his fate when he was eaten by a crocodile while attempting to cross a stream.
After losing its founder, the winery struggled. Like many other vineyards across the region, Buena Vista’s vines were stricken with an outbreak of grape phylloxera, a tiny aphid-like pest that decimated crops across California. Production eventually stalled due to financial hardship. With Prohibition soon following at the start of the 20th century, Buena Vista sat dormant for more than half a century before it was finally revived in the 1940s.
Today, the revived winery is an eclectic mix of old and new. A lot has changed, but the winery’s innovation, passion, and reputation for good wine have all remained steadfast. The charisma of the place is palpable when you visit, and the wine isn’t too shabby either. We walked away with not only a wealth of knowledge, but also a bottle of our favorite vintage – the Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points from Wine Advocate). If you’re looking for a unique tasting experience in Sonoma, we think Buena Vista is definitely worth a visit.
Priority Wine Pass?
Cost per person?
Bar tasting (standing): $25 for current releases, $40 for private reserve wines
Seated tasting: $35 for current releases, $50 for private reserve wines
Grand reserve tasting: $100 (Buena Vista library tasting in the historic wine caves)
B.R. Cohn Winery & Olive Oil Company
Another Sonoma winery whose pleasant vintages are paired with an interesting history is B.R. Cohn. Its founder, Bruce Cohn, managed the Doobie Brothers for 45 years, beginning with their rise to fame in the early 1970s. Looking for a quiet retreat from the hectic music life, Bruce purchased a pastoral property in Glen Ellen in the mid-70s.
Interested in getting involved in the viticultural life that surrounded him, Bruce began growing grapes in the late 70s. His cabernet grapes were used by historic and esteemed local winery Gundlach-Bundschu in 1980, and the vintage was considered a consummate example of the region’s fine red wines. In 1984, he joined forces with three local winemakers and his eponymous winery was born.
In addition to its vineyards, Bruce’s Olive Hill Estate also became the site of Sonoma’s first outdoor music stage, and has been hosting concert series for decades. Today, the venue is home to various charity music events, including the annual autumn Sonoma Harvest Music Festival.
If you enjoy well-balanced reds – and a little classic rock – this place is awesome. Make sure you sample the cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel during your tasting. Those two were our clear favorites. Our hostess told us they also make a single-varietal cab franc that piqued our interest, but it’s super limited was unavailable when we visited. For those who like whites and/or bubbles, give their Brut a try. Neither Stephan nor I are big fans of white wines in general, but this one was shockingly good… so much so that I totally could have seen myself sitting outside sipping a glass. Bonus? For those following stricter Jewish practices, B.R. Cohn produces a variety of kosher wines using kosher-certified methods and products.
Pro tip: If you’re not in wine country and looking to sample one of their wines, their Silver Label North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is widely distributed, pretty tasty, and reasonably priced. I grabbed it at the NH Liquor Store for $18 when I was in town visiting family.
Priority Wine Pass?
2-for-1 estate tastings Tuesdays through Fridays
Cost per person?
$35 for an estate flight
$50 for a reserve flight
Alexander Valley Vineyards
Located at the northern tip of Sonoma County, another winery that topped our list was Alexander Valley Vineyards. The family-owned and operated winery first began planting vineyards in the 1960s and is committed to practicing sustainable agriculture.
AVV offers two tasting options: a complimentary estate flight of four wines of your choosing, or a $20 reserve tasting of four reds. Additionally, the winery offers complimentary tours of their wine caves twice daily. It’s a super cool addition to the tasting, and makes for a really classic wine country experience. This one is also really nice if you’re touring wine country on a tighter budget.
Our favorite of the lot here was the Cyrus, a well-balanced Bordeaux-style blend named in honor of the valley’s namesake, Cyrus Alexander. After inquiring about my growing interest in Cab Franc, our host even offered up a special pour of their single-grape vintage. The parent grape of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s typically a blended grape, and I’ve only ever tried it as such. It was fun to finally sample a single-varietal Cab Franc and, for me, it turned out to be about on par with the Cyrus. I’m now hoping to explore some more Cab Francs in my future.
Priority Wine Pass?
2-for-1 reserve tasting (indoor bar, standing)
Cost per person?
Complimentary estate tasting for groups of 6 or less ($15 for 7+ persons)
$20 for reserve tasting
$35 for outdoor seated wine and cheese pairing
$60 for vineyard hike (includes tasting, cave tour, and boxed picnic lunch)
St. Francis Winery
Known for their old-vine zinfandels and award-winning reds, St. Francis has been producing wine in Sonoma for over 50 years. The winery was founded in 1971 and is 100% Certified Sustainable. St. Francis’ founder is even known for planting the first Merlot grapes in Sonoma Valley – a total of sixty acres back in 1971.
St. Francis prides itself on a host of environmentally-friendly practices, including the use of cover crops and solar power, composting, wastewater recycling, and conservation of local waterways. As you might expect from a winery named for the patron saint of animals, St. Francis is also dedicated to supporting local rescues. The winery even hosts an annual Blessing of the Animals, a community-centered fundraiser to support local animal non-profits.
St. Francis offers a variety of unique tasting experiences. In addition to standard tastings in their beautifully manicured gardens or mission-style tasting room, the winery hosts group tastings in the bell tower as well as pedal trolley tours (seasonal, May through October). With a nice lineup of wines on the menu, you can choose your favorite spot in the vineyard to sit and sip their celebrated reds. Our two favorites? The 2018 Moon Mountain Cab (93 points) and 2018 Old Vines Zin (92 points).
Explore more: St. Francis also offers guests free self-guided vineyard tours. The walk is about a mile in length and is interspersed with informational signs that offer a glimpse of the painstakingly meticulous process of grape growing. Upon arrival, your host/hostess will pour you a glass of a refreshing white and point you toward the vineyard row where your tour begins. Visiting with your pup? No worries, even leashed dogs are allowed on the vineyard walk. Make sure you book ahead, though, as space is limited.
Priority Wine Pass?
2-for-1 Artisan tastings plus 15% off bottle purchases
Cost per person?
$35 for the Artisan Flight
$70 for the Estate Pairings (4 wines + small bites)
Honorable Mention: Deerfield Ranch Winery
Producing wine for over forty years, Deerfield Ranch sits just across from Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. A smaller-production winery, Deerfield Ranch produces around 15,000 cases annually. Not only are Deerfield’s wines organic, but they are also low in histamines and sulfites – two compounds that have been implicated in wine headaches and other allergy-like symptoms.
For those interested in a wine cave experience in the southern part of Sonoma Valley, Deerfield Ranch’s tastings take place in their 23,000-square foot wine cave. Not only is the barrel-lined cave a lovely spot to enjoy a tasting, but it can also be a nice reprieve from the relentless heat of the summer months.
While Stephan and I both tend toward more tannic reds (Deerfield Ranch’s are known for being low in tannins), we had to give props to the winery’s slightly more fruit-forward reds. We gave high marks to their old-vine zinfandel as well as their 2014 Zukowski Vineyard Cab. My friend’s mom, who enjoys a sweeter white, loved their Checkerbloom Rosé – made with 100% estate Syrah grapes with very prominent notes of strawberry.
Priority Wine Pass?
2-for-1 cave tasting
Cost per person?
$35 for cave tasting
$75 for reserve tasting (all tastings in wine cave)
It’s crazy to think that in three months and with a dozen vineyard visits, we sampled just 1% of Sonoma’s wineries. Consequently, we in no way consider ourselves experts on the ever-expanding wine region. That said, we hope this small list proves useful for those of you who are similarly overwhelmed with scouring Sonoma for some solid wines and memorable experiences.
As we mentally recapped our tastings, we were surprised that most of our favorites ended up being just a few miles up Highway 12 from our little bungalow in Sonoma. As such, we decided that the Sonoma Highway (Highway 12) from Glen Ellen to Santa Rosa might just be one of the best little corners of wine country.
Kunde, B.R. Cohn, Deerfield Ranch and St. Francis are all within eight miles of each other along this stretch of scenic highway at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains. B.R. Cohn is the southernmost, in Glen Ellen, while St. Francis is the northernmost, in Santa Rosa. Kunde and Deerfield Ranch sit about equidistant between the two, in Kenwood, and are conveniently located just across the street from one another. We’d totally recommend checking out any or all of these little gems.
If you find yourself looking to break up all those tastings, Glen Ellen is also a surprising little foodie haven. There are also four beautiful recreation areas interspersed between the four wineries: Trione-Annadel State Park, Hood Mountain Regional Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and Sonoma Valley Regional Park. For us, this really was the perfect little nook for exploring, and one we think would be a great place to start your Sonoma Valley wine adventure. Cheers!