As luck would have it, several Sonoma area wineries were participating in a food and wine festival during the weekend of our visit. For $72, visitors could taste wine and sample the featured dish at any (and all) of the participating wineries. Visiting each of the 107 participating wineries in two days would have been quite a feat. We visited seven wineries on our first day and eight on the second day; I can’t imagine squeezing any more than that into a quick two days.
Our hired driver was with us from 10a-5p for each of the two days. As a Sonoma native, she was knowledgeable not only on the best routes to take from one winery to the next, but also very informative in answering our questions about local wines, wineries and restaurants. Several Sonoma companies offer “join in wine tours” in which guests hop aboard a bus and tour with a small group. We opted for a personal driver because it allowed us to set our own itinerary and come and go as we pleased. Given the option to visit again, I would definitely do it the same way; private tours are so much better than join-ins.
On the first day of our tour, we visited:
- Cellars of Sonoma
- Balletto Vineyards and Winery
- Harvest Moon Estate and Winery
- Hook & Ladder Winery
- Carol Shelton Wines
- Robert Rue Vineyard
- Paradise Ridge Winery
On Day two, we tasted at:
- Acorn Winery
- Williamson Wines
- Selby Winery
- Mueller Winery
- Truett Hurst
- Dutcher Crossing Winery
- Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves
- Francis Ford Coppola Winery
That’s a lot of tasting, right? Agreed. I will spare you my thoughts on each individual tasting experience, but I will gladly share some notes on the standouts. Do note that I’m not necessarily compiling this list based on wine quality. I truly believe that unless you have the most discerning of palates, you should be able to find a wine you enjoy at any of these wineries. The wineries on my list were chosen based on ambiance, views, and engaging staff. Wine tasting, to me, is about more than just seeking out the perfect wine. It’s about enjoying several tasty sips on a beautiful day with your favorite people.
Balletto Vineyards and Winery – Balletto’s setup made it very easy to approach staff with questions about the winemaking process. We were treated to several pours of both reds and whites. This locations makes my standout list because the staff was so knowledgeable and willing to share details about Balletto’s winemaking philosophy. We learned a lot about Chardonnay during our visit. The winemaker featured two Chardonnays that day–one from a traditional oak barrel and the other from a stainless steel barrel. The stainless steel version made for a very fruit forward, tropical wine. The traditional buttery Chardonnay was nowhere to be found in Balletto’s stainless steel version. I rather enjoyed it. I would gladly revisit Balletto on a future visit. Another fun fact about Balletto is that they offer a self-guided vineyard tour (photographers, take note!).
Hook and Ladder Winery – Hook & Ladder is hard to miss; they have the most adorable vintage red fire truck parked out front of the vineyard. The tasting room was quite crowded during our visit and the guys pouring from behind the counter seemed to rush the experience. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they are far more engaging when they aren’t so busy. That said, I definitely prefer to taste in a spot where they encourage visitors to linger and learn while they sip. Still, the wines were good and the grounds were really quite pretty. Also worth noting? They have several fire department t-shirts hanging around the room. Visitors might enjoy trying to spot a familiar one like I did during our brief visit. Hook & Ladder is worth a visit.
Robert Rue Vineyard – This was my favorite stop of the day. Although the room was quite crowded, we found that there was plenty of staff on hand to offer detailed descriptions of what they were pouring. During our visit, the winemaker’s wife spent a long time with us, offering priceless insight. On the day of our visit, they were pairing a Zin with black bean soup and a homemade taquito. It was delicious–easily my favorite pairing of the day. They also were sampling a late harvest Zin. Typically, I’m not a fan of dessert wines, but Robert Rue’s late harvest zin won me over. It was not syrupy like a port, but velvety smooth with a spicy finish. That is my kind of dessert wine. And speaking of dessert, Jeff and I picked up a jar of chocolate zin fudge sauce at Robert Rue. They were sampling it during our stay and though neither of us are huge chocolate fans, I’m a sucker for anything with wine in it.
Paradise Ridge Winery – By the end of the day I think it’s fair to say that my taste buds were sufficiently dulled and so, unfortunately, I can’t give a fair review of the wines here. I will say, though, that this particular winery is worth visiting when you’re in Sonoma. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous with unmatched views of the beautiful valley. There are also a ton of larger-than-life sculptures scattered around the grounds. Paradise Ridge is where we took this fun photo.
Williamson Wines – Located in cute and quaint little downtown Healdsburg, Williamson Wines is a gem. They were only sampling a single wine on the day we visited, which was unfortunate. I will say, though, that we loved what we tasted. These guys are experts at their pairings. We tried a rose paired with a hard cheese sprinkled with truffle salt. They were also serving a yummy paella. The paella was good but be still my heart–truffle salt has a new fan in me. We gladly forked over the $30 for a very small jar of it. Already we’ve tried truffle salt buttered popcorn at home and we’re dying to experiment further with that little gourmet foodie find.
Truett Hurst – If ever you’re in Sonoma and looking for the perfect picnic spot, look no further than Truett Hurst. They have the most adorable picnic area right beside a creek behind the tasting room. There were plenty of tables and brightly-colored Adirondack chairs to make yourself comfortable in. Jeff and I enjoyed our bits of cheese and sips of wine right beside the creek. And when a kind-hearted stranger offered to snap a quick picture, we were inclined to smile and say wine. :)
Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves – If I could only recommend a single winery, it would be this one. Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves was my top choice of all the wineries we visited. The cave (though man-made) makes this a very popular winery. On the day of our visit, several wines were being poured as visitors meandered through the cave. I took a few pictures, but they fail to convey the charm of the place. Just take my advice and visit here. You won’t be sorry.
Francis Ford Coppola – Full disclosure: I am not a movie buff. In fact, I have never seen The Godfather. With that said, I will tell you that this winery is overflowing with movie paraphernalia. It really didn’t do anything for me, but the collection was so impressive that I have to make note of it. Movie buffs (like our friend and travel companion, Geoff) can’t help but love this place. And for those of us who aren’t into all things Godfather, the upside of visiting here is that they have lots of (non-movie related) cute stuff to browse and buy if you are so inclined.
Final thoughts on the Wine Road food and wine festival: Visiting the wineries and tasting during a wine festival weekend is a great way to experience several wineries that otherwise require appointments. Not only does the festival wristband entitle you to taste both food and wine at the wineries, but so, too, does it save you a ton of money. Tasting room fees in Sonoma range from about $5 to upwards of $20 but festival participants were not charged tasting fees at any of the locations–just pay for your one or two-day festival wristband and you are good to go.