How To Explore California’s Sonoma Coast

When I was a kid, my parents would escape our home in the industrial suburb of Hayward, California by packing up our faux-wood flanked Ford Country Squire Station Wagon. They filled it with salami sandwiches, Royal Crown Cola, me and my two younger sisters. We’d zigzag to destinations throughout California listening to AM radio hits while anxiously wound up in audible anticipation to get “there.”

Travel Guide and Itinerary for Exploring California's Sonoma Coast AVA
Image courtesy Jeff Bareilles.

One of our regular destinations was a visit to Lu and Harvey. They had a mobile home permanently stationed in Anchor Bay, a small cove right on the California coast in the community of Gualala. To get “there” we’d drive through most of what would later be designated as the Sonoma Coast AVA and its sub-regions of Chalk Hill, the Russian River ValleyGreen ValleyLos Carneros, and Sonoma Valley.

My dad’s preferred route was to drive north on Highway 101 and then west at Petaluma, onto Valley Ford Road toward Bodega Bay. In Bodega Bay, although not quite “there” yet, we’d stop for fresh-off-the-boat seafood and gawk at the Potter Schoolhouse that Alfred Hitchcock used in his classic film “The Birds.” The scene we all know so well, where the school children are running down the hill while being dive-bombed by a flock of violently possessed birds, was our hot topic of debate. 

However, to get to Gualala, our course required us to drive north to the brackish waters where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean. There lies the picturesque outpost of Jenner by-the-Sea, our landmark for “almost there.” But, to get “there,” we still had to race north on a skinny, winding road that is carved into the soaring cliffs that rise above the Pacific Ocean. This stretch of Highway 1 is arguably the most treacherous and savagely unyielding. This stretch of the beautiful California Pacific Coast Highway is truly comparable to the roads depicted in the song “Dead Man’s Curve“… FOR REAL!

Thankfully, the road straightens out at Fort Ross and is smooth sailing through Timber Cove, Sea Ranch and finally to Anchor Bay. “We’re Here!”

Sonoma Coast Itinerary and Travel Guide | Winetraveler.com
Image courtesy Jeff Bareilles.

How to Get to The True Sonoma Coast

Depending on where you are coming from, there are two distinct routes. The closest airports are Santa Rosa, CA (STS-Santa Rosa), which is about a one-hour drive, and San Francisco International (SFO) which is about a 2.5-hour drive.

From Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Airport

From San Francisco International Airport

The True: Insider Knowledge

The Sonoma Coast AVA was established in 1987 and includes nearly 500,000 acres and 750 square miles that stretches from the northern Mendocino County edge to Marin County, and finally San Pablo Bay to the south. From the Pacific, it reaches eastward following the Russian River to Healdsburg and Santa Rosa.

The current Sonoma Coast AVA ignores the fact that the areas closest to the Pacific are vastly different from those inland. These catch-all borders have made it difficult for grape growers and winemakers in The True Sonoma Coast to tell their story and for the oenophile to discover their wines. So, insiders came up with the term, “The True Sonoma Coast”… or “The True,” to reference this beyond unique territory and its terroir.

“The True” is all about being on the Edge, the Pacific Ocean, and the San Andreas Fault. For inspiration, the early wine pioneers looked to France’s history of producing highly expressive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from environments notoriously tricky, like Champagne and Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The first being David Hirsch, who in the early 1980s struggled with a perplexing jumble of soils in extremely rugged terrain to establish Hirsch Vineyard. Over time other winemakers took notice.

The True’s best vineyards balance on a series of ridge-tops close enough to the coast to be cooled by the deep, very cold Pacific Ocean, yet high enough to savor in the glittering sunshine above the pervasive summer fog. These conditions make for a very long growing season; bud break can begin as early as February, and the harvest can linger into October; nurturing slowly matured fruit of evocative fragrance, nuanced complexity, and bright acidity, unlike wines, found elsewhere in California. Like the San Andreas Fault, The True is broken into three segments: the northern region around the town of Annapolis, off Sea Ranch; the central region with the oldest vineyards referred to as Fort Ross/Seaview; and the southern region near the town of Occidental. Today, California’s top winemakers have stakes in The True’s highly coveted vineyards, including Helen Turley who makes her extremely limited and desperately sought-after Marcassin Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Due to the sometimes-challenging roads, the remote vineyard locations, and the variable weather conditions with rain as the biggest obstacle, most wineries have tasting rooms located in nearby Healdsburg. However, for the adventurous wine traveler, a visit to The True is a windfall. Whale watching, hiking, kayaking, beaches, tide-pool ogling, and sunsets are just a few of the captivating activities to explore. And if you’re super lucky and get cozy with a local, you might be treated to some of the best wild abalone in the world! My favorite abalone preparation is breaded and pan-fried in butter with lemon and served with Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay.

Best Sonoma Coast Wineries and Tasting Rooms To Visit - Sonoma Coast Itinerary for Wineries| Winetraveler.com
Image courtesy Jeff Bareilles.

Sonoma Coast Wine Tasting Rooms:

Sonoma Coast Vineyards | Fort Ross Vineyards | Annapolis Winery

Other Sonoma Coast Wineries to Look For:

32 Winds Wine | Alma Fria Balletto | Annapolis Winery | Banshee | Ceritas | Cobb Wines | DuMOL | Coryelle Fields Vineyard | Ernest Vineyards | Failla Wines | Flowers Vineyards & Winery | Freeman Vineyard & Winery | Gros Ventre Cellars | Hellenthal Vineyard | Hirsch Vineyards | Holdredge Wines | Joseph Phelps Vineyards | Littorai Wines | Martinelli Winery.| Morhardt Ridge Vineyard | Occidental | Paul Hobbs | Peay Vineyards | Pisioni Vineyards | Precious Mountain Vineyard |Radio-Coteau | R A E N winery | Whistler Vineyard | Red Car Wine | Senses Wines | Siduri Wines | Small Vines Wines | Waterhouse Ridge Vineyard | Wayfarer

The Best Hotels in California's Sonoma Coast
Sunset over Arched Rock Beach near Bodega Bay.

Where to Stay to Enjoy The True Sonoma Coast

Of course, you’ll need a place to stay in The True, so here are a few recommended hotel options for which you won’t regret a single night:

Bodega Bay

Jenner-by-the-Sea

Fort Ross

Timber Cove

Salt Point

Sea Ranch

Gualala


More Ways To Explore California’s Wine Regions

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Sonoma County Wine Region Weekend Getaway Travel Guide

Take a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip from San Diego to Sonoma/Napa

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Two-Day Itinerary: The Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County California


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Jeff Bareilles
Wine Writer at Winetraveler
Jeff or “JB” is a native to the San Francisco Bay area and wants to live in a world where wine is served with every meal. As a beverage and food professional with more than 20 years of experience, he’s contributed to The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine; The Pho Cookbook (James Beard Award Best Signal Subject 2018); Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life (James Beard Award Lifetime Achievement Award 2018); Manresa: An Edible Reflection; Happiness is on the Plate: Episode #1; Wine Spectator; Wine Enthusiast; The Wall Street Journal; San Francisco Chronicle; and GQ Magazine. When he’s not “tasting” and eating he’s writing about food and beverage or developing recipes in his laboratory (AKA: kitchen).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff or “JB” is a native to the San Francisco Bay area and wants to live in a world where wine is served with every meal. As a beverage and food professional with more than 20 years of experience, he’s contributed to The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine; The Pho Cookbook (James Beard Award Best Signal Subject 2018); Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life (James Beard Award Lifetime Achievement Award 2018); Manresa: An Edible Reflection; Happiness is on the Plate: Episode #1; Wine Spectator; Wine Enthusiast; The Wall Street Journal; San Francisco Chronicle; and GQ Magazine. When he’s not “tasting” and eating he’s writing about food and beverage or developing recipes in his laboratory (AKA: kitchen).

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