The Sonoma and Carneros wine regions are in the southeast part of Sonoma Valley. The scenery features oak forests, vineyard-covered open spaces, and pristine wetlands bordering San Pablo Bay. The terminus of El Camino Real is in the small city of Sonoma, which includes the famed Sonoma Mission Inn, historical sights, and a charming town square with plenty of shopping and great places to grab a bite.
Gundlach Bundschu Winery
The California Missions Museum is located in a barn behind the tasting room and displays intricately detailed scale models of every California mission.Not many wineries in California can boast that they won awards for their wines 100 years ago, but Gundlach Bundschu Winery (2000 Denmark St., 707/938-5277, 11am-4:30pm daily, $10), or GunBun, as it’s known, is one of them. The 19 Gundlach Bundschu wines entered into the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition all won medals. Today the winery focuses on red bordeaux- and burgundy-style wines, and the cabernets and merlots tend to have plenty of tannic backbone. The tasting room is housed in one of the original stone winery buildings, which can feel cramped when full of visitors—but the fun atmosphere makes it bearable. Browse the historical memorabilia. Nearby is the hillside cave, which is often part of the winery tour. GunBun is most loved for its picnicking area at the top of Towles’ Hill. It boasts one of the nicest outdoor winery spaces in the valley.
The Carneros region might be described as the “lost” area of Wine Country. This former grazing land bordering San Pablo Bay looks much as it did 100 years ago. Cline Cellars (24737 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, 707/940-4030, 10am-6pm daily, free) specializes in rhone-style wines. Tasting is free and takes place in a modest farmhouse with wraparound porch that dates from 1850. Natural springs feed the three ponds and help sustain the giant willow trees, magnolias, and colorful flower beds. The tasting room contains a small deli, and the wines include several picnic-friendly options.
The area was also the site of a Miwok village and later used by Father Altimira while investigating a site for what would become the Sonoma mission. Celebrating the site’s history as a temporary Spanish mission, the California Missions Museum (10am-4pm daily) is located in a barn behind the tasting room and displays intricately detailed scale models of every California mission.
Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma and Sonoma State Historic Park
Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (114 E. Spain St., 707/938-9560, 10am-5pm daily), also called simply the Sonoma Mission, is the northernmost of Spanish missions in California. It is at the corner of the historical plaza in downtown Sonoma. The last mission established (in 1823), and one of the first restored as a historical landmark (in 1926), the Sonoma Mission isn’t the prettiest or most elaborate of the missions. Visitors can see exhibits depicting the life of the missionaries and indigenous people who lived here. Outdoors is the Native American mortuary monument and a cactus “wall” that has been growing on the property since the mission era.
The mission is a central piece of Sonoma State Historic Park, which consists of five other historical attractions. The majority of the sights were built in the heyday of General Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican army commander who became a key figure in California’s transition from Mexican province to statehood. The sites include the two-story adobe Sonoma Barracks, the old Toscano Hotel, and Vallejo’s opulent home, Lachryma Montis. Tours for both Lachryma Montis and the Toscano Hotel are free with the park’s $3 admission fee and are available Saturday and Sunday.
The most famous spa in the area is the Willow Stream Spa (100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma, 877/289-7354, 7:30am-8pm daily, $89-200). A natural mineral hot spring provides warm water for the indoor and outdoor pools and whirlpools. The spa offers massages, scrubs, wraps, facials, and more rarified treatments to pamper even the most discerning spa-goer. The famous pools are open to non-guests for $89, but it’s best to call in advance.
At the Garden Spa at MacArthur Place (29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma, 707/933-3193, 9am-8pm daily, $125-250), take in the serene beauty of the inn’s lush garden as you are rejuvenated and beautified. All of the spa’s signature treatments are made from the flowers, herbs, and fruit found in the garden, distilled into such creations as pomegranate body polish, golden passionflower body wrap, peppermint foot soak, and the red-wine grape-seed bath. The spa also offers a mud-bath soak, massages, and facial and waxing treatments. Book treatments at least two weeks in advance as space fills up fast.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.