My husband and I had immense enthusiasm and sublime visions of us drinking fine wines before we arrived for a weekend in Santa Rosa. In fact, the nearby wineries had a well-deserved reputation for being top-tier locations, but one of the first things we discovered was that there were new stars of the show. Craft beers and locally brewed ciders arguably stole the limelight.
I’ll let you in on a little secret that people from the San Francisco Bay Area have known for decades: Santa Rosa is an ideal destination for a weekend getaway. Foodies and wine connoisseurs have probably all heard of nearby Napa, but there’s a worthy rival in Sonoma County.
Our first stop at Sonoma Cider was a showstopper. We were immediately taken with the cool vibe of the soaring ceilings and the large space dedicated to games and live entertainment. We thoroughly enjoyed the steaming servings of delicious French onion soup and mac ‘n’ cheese, along with an 18-glass flight of cider tastings.
It was no ordinary cider lineup; with brews such as The Crowbar Habeñero Lime and Winter Banana, we’d venture to say there was something there for every taste. Our server explained that they are always brewing something new, although many varieties would never make it beyond their tasting room as they’re made in small batches.
Paradise Ridge Winery was our next stop. The tasting room offered a relaxed atmosphere to sip on a selection of their recent vintages, set against the romantic backdrop of the winery. With stunning views across the Russian River Valley, we left (with take-home bottles in-hand) to stroll through the vineyards and take in the many sculptures. Beginning at a two-story-tall LOVE sculpture, we walked through a four-acre area of various sculptures. We arrived early in the day to do it justice—the gates generally are shut at 4:30 p. m.
Our first night’s dinner destination was the applause-worthy cuisine at Bird & the Bottle. It was clearly a popular restaurant with locals and it served a range of Jewish, Southern and Asian flavors. In two words, it was “foodie heaven.” Our dishes of smoked king salmon with rye, and grilled whole fish with dipping sauce were perfection. They served a range of local beverages and craft cocktails, which we indulged in, too.
We checked in at Hotel La Rose, a stunning century-old stone building near the heart of Santa Rosa’s Historic Railroad Square. The hotel, registered with Historic Hotels of America, was true to the decor of the period in which it was built. The following morning, as classical music played in the dining room, we felt rather like visiting gentry of old. It was truly a romantic, boutique setting for a couple’s getaway.
Is it ever too early to stop at a winery? We decided not and ventured out to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in the morning. We’d purchased their wines in stores before, but the tasting room had many more varietals that can only be tasted at the estate because of the limited quantities made. We followed up our wine tasting with a walk through their extensive gardens and saw how they supplied their own farm-to-table dinners. It was clear that they have a true love of the land and sustainability is important to them, which is a theme we saw throughout wine country.
Our lunch stop was back in Downtown Santa Rosa at Belly Left Coast Kitchen + Taproom. The menu had a variety of tasty, locally sourced options—we went for the pulled pork Hawaiian pizza, full of delicious smoky flavors, along with a couple of on-tap local brews. Executive Chef and owner, Gray Rollin, serves as a celebrity tour chef for many well-known performers and is legendary for mixing worldly flavors in his unique cuisine.
With appetites whetted for local craft beers, we set out to a couple of stops that were somewhat tucked away, but popular with locals. Cooperage Brewing Company served their excellent rotating range of in-store brews. We especially enjoyed their Trimcoe IPA, made with refreshing citra hops, along with the relaxed atmosphere. They encourage people to bring pets and even host “yoga and beer” classes on Sundays.
At Plow Brewing Company, Kevin, the owner, showed us his brewing operation and explained the care that went into ensuring the filtering process didn’t include the “nasties” that often are a byproduct when filtering in mass-production. We particularly enjoyed his barrel-aged porter and left with some to take home.
Dinner that evening was a classy affair that we rarely indulge in as parents of a three-year-old. John Ash & Co. delivered authentic wine-country gourmet dining, which featured seasonal, local foods paired with regional wines. We felt like we were actors in a romantic movie as we enjoyed an after-dinner stroll through the gardens and walkways of the winery setting.
We had a couple more stops the following day before leaving with a cooler packed with local wines, beers and ciders, and stomachs full of delicious Santa Rosa fare. Luther Burbank Home and Gardens offered a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of the famous horticulturalist. I learned that Burbank, while well known as a pioneer in horticulture, was completely uninterested in fame and avoided attention. To this day, we don’t have a lot in the way of recorded work from Burbank. As he famously said:
“Those who are making history seldom have time to record it.”
Russian River Brewery Co. was our final curtain call of the weekend. This is one of the most famous brew pubs in the country, so I couldn’t wait to check it out. Their Pliny the Younger IPA is legendary for drawing crowds from all over the world when it is released each February and only lasts for two weeks, but their other offerings are worthy of imbibing, too. We took in the bustling atmosphere while indulging in a meatball sandwich and sipping on Jake Brake IPA. The fruity flavors were beautifully complemented with the rye malt, which gave it some spice for a tasty balance.
We thought we were coming for a wine-country weekend, but found so much more. Santa Rosa’s Playbill offered a variety of treats for our palates and scenery more gorgeous than any movie set. We knew we only skimmed the surface on our visit, so we’ll surely plan a return trip.