Gay Sonoma Wine Country in a Nutshell:
Sonoma County encompasses a large swath of famous winegrowing country directly north of Marin County and west of Napa County. Although most people think of the Wine Country when they think of Sonoma, the county also takes in the coastal communities of Bodega Bay and Jenner, the gay-popular Russian River communities of Monte Rio and Guerneville, and the small cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The Sonoma Wine Country is in the easternmost fringe of Sonoma County, bordering the Napa County's wine region, and much of the activity centers around the charming towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma, plus greater Santa Rosa.
Sonoma County draws weekenders from San Francisco and the Bay Area year-round, but it's especially popular - and has more of a national following - on weekends from late spring through early fall. A setback for winter visits is the often intensely rainy weather - Santa Rosa averages 6 inches of rain in Jan. and Feb., and 4+ inches Nov., Dec., and Mar., but is quite dry in summer.
Average highs and lows in Jan. are 58 and 40 deg F; in July, the highs average 82 deg F, with lows a cool and crisp 53 deg F. If it's sunny hiking and biking weather you seek, come in the summer - it's mild year-round, however.
The Sonoma Valley extends south from Cloverdale to just north of the Bay Area in Petaluma and across the "Valley of the Moon" into the town of Sonoma. The western part of Sonoma takes in the densely wooded Russian River Valley and breathtakingly beautiful Sonoma Coast. It's an easy drive here from San Francisco, Sacramento, Napa, and so on.
From U.S. 101 or Hwy. 1, both of which lead north from San Francisco (U.S. 101 is a major highway that's by far the fastest of the two roads), you can reach the Russian River via Hwy. 116, which connects the two roads along the area's main towns, Guerneville and Monte Rio.
Driving distances to Santa Rosa from major cities and points of interest are:
Bodega Bay: 25 miles (40 min)
Guerneville: 20 miles (25 min)
Lake Tahoe: 205 miles (3.5 hours)
Las Vegas, NV: 620 miles (9 to 11 hours)
Los Angeles: 430 miles (6.5 to 7 hours)
Mendocino: 100 miles (2.5 hours)
Monterey: 170 miles (3 hours)
Point Reyes National Seashore: 35 miles (1 hour)
Napa: 40 miles (1 hour)
Portland, OR: 650 miles (10 to 12 hours)
Sacramento: 105 miles (2 hours)
San Diego: 550 miles (8 to 9 hours)
San Francisco: 55 miles (1 hour)
Sebastopol: 8 miles (10 min)
Yosemite National Park: 240 miles (4.5 hours)
Getting to the Sonoma Wine Country:
There aren't many transportation options to Sonoma County - your best bet is simply to drive, as most do from San Francisco (see the Gay Guide to San Francisco for info on airports in the Bay Area. It's also easiest to get around the various towns and wineries by car, although you could get by on foot around downtown Sonoma and Healdsburg, which have several tasting rooms.
There's also commercial air service into Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport on Horizon Airlines, part of Alaska Air. Direct, nonstop flights into Santa Rosa come from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.
Finding Great Wineries:
With numerous alliances and winegrowers in Sonoma County, it's easy to find tour maps and brochures highlighting area vineyards and tasting rooms, both online and on paper. If you're based around Healdsburg, consult the Russian River Wine Road, Russian River Valley Winegrowers, Alexander Valley Winegrowers, Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, or Healdsburg Wineries.
More broadly throughout the county, it's worth checking out websites of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Sonoma County Vintners, and the wineries page of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. Armed with these resources, it's not hard to score fine wine.
Major Sonoma County Events and Festivals:
Jan.: Winter Wineland (a weekend of tastings, tours, and wine-related activities).
Early Mar.: Annual Barrel Tasting.
Early Mar.: Russian River Valley Winegrowers Crab & Fennel Fest.
Mid-May: Russian River Women's Weekend.
Mid-June: Russian River Rodeo.
Mid-June: Sonoma County Gay Pride Festival.
Mid-June: Russian River Blues Festival.
Early Aug.: Lazy Bear Weekend.
Late Aug.: LGBT Families on the River.
Early Sept.: Russian River Jazz on the River Festival.
Late Sept.: Russian River Food and WineFest.
Mid-Oct.: Fabulosa Fest (Women's Festival of music and art).
Mid-Oct.: Russian River Leather Weekend.
Things to Do:
In Healdsburg, you can get a nice overview of the area from the Healdsburg Museum. Santa Rosa's Jesse Peter Museum traces the area's Pomo indigenous culture and displays ceramics, basketry, and ethnographic art.
Definitely plan to visit Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where one of America's foremost botanists once lived. At the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, you can view arts and see high-caliber theater, symphony performances, and pop and folk concerts. There's also the Sonoma County Museum, which is set in a stately 1910 post office building and has an engaging mix of art and history exhibits on the area.
Resources on Sonoma Wine Country:
There's no shortage of well-researched travel information on the Sonoma Wine Country, including Gay Sonoma County online and Sonoma County Pride, as well as the sites of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau's very handy GLBT site.
Getting to Know Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg:
Sonoma's Wine Country has become increasingly popular in recent years as a place to live and visit among gays and lesbians, who for many years tended more toward Guerneville in the Russian River. Now you'll find quite a few gay-owned businesses throughout the entire county, and virtually every winery, hotel, restaurant, and shop in the region enthusiastically welcomes GLBT visitors.
Plans are underway for a gay and lesbian retirement community in Santa Rosa. The Fountaingrove Lodge will comprise 150 Craftsman-style units when it opens in 2010.
Santa Rosa is a small city of about 150,000, and although it has some charming neighborhoods, there's little reason to spend more than an afternoon here. It is a good place to find basic shops and services, and it's also home to a few acclaimed restaurants and dozens of inexpensive chain hotels. For exploring, check out historic Railroad Square, a pleasant complex of stone-and-brick, late-19th-century buildings now housing shops and cafes.
Sonoma itself is especially picturesque, anchored by a historic plaza fringed by Spanish Mission-style buildings. You can eat at any of two dozen restaurants near the plaza, or drop by the Sonoma Cheese Factory to pick up a little of wine's favorite companion. Notable dining options in Sonoma include The Girl & The Fig brasserie, which serves nonpareil country French food and is particularly delightful for weekend brunch; and the restaurant at the luxe Lodge at Sonoma, which is also a fine place to stay.
North of Santa Rosa, you'll find the greatest number of esteemed wineries in and around Healdsburg, a town of about 11,000 that feels as charming and idyllic as many of the now-overdeveloped towns in Napa Valley once did. Make no mistake, however, Healdsburg has become quite trendy in recent years, with its bounty of high-end eateries, romantic country inns, and A-one vineyards. As in Sonoma, action centers around a vibrant Spanish-influenced green, which is shaded with a happily odd mix of palm and redwood trees.
Favorite places to stay include the Honor Mansion and Madrona Manor. Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar is terrific for lighting dining, and it's part of a group of great eateries around the area. Cyrus serves incredibly good mod-Cal food, and Bovolo is stellar for breakfast, lunch, and thin-crust pizzas.