Beyond Grapes: Discovering the Soul of Sonoma County Wine Scene

Rebecca Germolus on Jun 10, 2024

Sonoma County’s wine roots run deep. So deep that California’s oldest premium winery is located in Sonoma County, and so is the longest continuously operating family winery. Over the past 40-plus years, Sonoma County wines have broadened and deepened their reach so now you can find them almost anywhere in the United States, and in most wine-drinking nations in the world.

In 2019, Sonoma County was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine, winning over wine regions from around the global, and confirming its role as a premier wine destination. Some of the top wines in the world are grown and produced in Sonoma County.

Let’s explore why the Sonoma County wine scene is now a top-wine destinations in the world.


Heritage & Tradition: Roots of the Sonoma’s Wine Culture

Winemaking in Sonoma County dates back to the 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, grapegrowing and winemaking were ingrained in the agricultural life in most of the county. This was due to the influence of the European immigrants, and especially those from Italy, who found the soil, climate and overall growing conditions, what the French call terroir, were similar to the grapegrowing regions of their homeland.


Tracing the Beginnings

Italian Swiss Colony, located in northern Sonoma County just south of Cloverdale, was founded in 1881 as a grape growing enterprise, and begin producing wine in 1887. During the late 19th century and until late into the 20th century, it was one of the leading wine producers in California.


Old stone building with trees on the left end of it and very large barrels in front of it. The image is cepia colored.
Italian Swiss Colony circa 1890

As one of the largest employers in the county, Italian Swiss Colony gave many immigrants their start in the new world — teaching them a trade, allowing them to earn enough money to bring their families to California and buy land for their homes. Some of these workers also had a dream of owning their own vineyards and producing their own wine.


Family Legacies

Several of the long-time winegrowing families with Italian roots, like Rafanelli, Foppiano, Pedroncelli and Seghesio, all have a similar thread to their family history. Their families emigrated to California and worked until they could buy land to build a house and plant a vineyard. Within a few years, they had expanded their vineyards and were making enough wine to sell commercially.

With many of the established vineyards dating back a century or more, we’re grateful for the winegrowing roots of so many of these early Sonoma County settlers. Next time you sip an old vine Zinfandel, give a little toast to the folks who planted and nurtured that vineyard, a tough job without any of today’s modern tools and technology.


Gnarly old vines in winter surrounded by green rows with orange and yellow flowers.
Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel in late winter


To learn more about legacy wine families, here are links to a previous blog series entitled Multigenerational Family Wineries – Parts 1, 2, 3 & 4. Each of these blogs takes a deeper look into many of the Sonoma County’s winery family legacies.


Embracing Tradition

So many of the traditional ways of the early California grapegrowers and winemakers were rejected when new and improved techniques and technologies was introduced. But a thread of the traditional ways always remained, ready and waiting for someone to rediscover and once again embrace Sonoma County’s wine heritage.


Old wine posters layers in a collage fashion with the words sonoma county wineries and california visible.


Field Blends

Field-blend vineyards were common for decades, but fell out of fashion sometime after Prohibition in favor of single variety vineyards. A field-blend vineyard has multiple grape varieties interplanted within a row or vineyard. This mélange of grapes is harvested and fermented together, creating a harmonious wine whose flavors meld together from its inception.


A vineyard just before harvest with both ripe red and green grapes hanging from the vines.
A field-blend vineyard


Over time, many of the field-blend vineyards were torn out and replanted, but a few remained and in the past 20-30 years, more have been planted. Winemakers appreciate the expressive way a field blend showcases a vineyard’s terroir while honoring this grapegrowing tradition.


Rebirth of Zinfandel

Now known as America’s heritage grape and wine, Zinfandel was a favorite of early grapegrowers and winemakers, but also fell out of favor when the popularity of red wine declined. We have White Zinfandel to thank for saving many of the old Zinfandel vineyards. Without the White Zin craze of the 1970s, almost all of the Zinfandel vineyards would have been removed and replanted to a different variety. Today, Zinfandel has regained its rightful place as one of the top red grape varieties grown in Sonoma County and beyond.


Low Intervention

An early winemaking technique, low intervention has come full circle and is once again popular.

Peterson Winery refers to low intervention as Zero Manipulation, which they describe as using the gentlest winemaking techniques possible to maximize flavors, aromatics and the original essence of the wine. “Every time you do something to a wine, you take out a little of what you started with,” says owner Fred Peterson. “The less you do in the course of a wine’s tenure in the cellar, the more of the grape’s and vineyard’s essence you’ll have to bottle.”


Terroir: The Heartbeat of Sonoma’s Wine Country

The diversity of Sonoma County’s winegrowing regions is reflected in that there are 19 approved American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the county’s boundaries. To establish an AVA, there needs to be proof that the terroir of that region is distinctly different than the surroundings regions.

A map of Sonoma County showing the 19 American Viticultural Areas in different colors
Sonoma County map of the American Viticultural Areas


Exploring Diverse Terroirs

Geographically diverse Sonoma County has 50 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, mountain ranges inland from the coast and the Mayacamas mountain range straddling Sonoma County and Napa Valley, the Russian River that winds inland from the coast and then heads north, and a valley that lays between the two mountain ranges.

a topographical map of Sonoma County showing where the mountains are located, the towns, and the county boundaries.
Topographical map of Sonoma County


Vineyards are planted throughout the entire county — on hillsides, along the river, on benchland and on the valley floor. Each AVA reflects variances in topography, soil, climate and more, which creates that AVA’s distinctive terroir. A Wine Enthusiast article published in 2023 that explored the terroir of Sonoma County stated, “Diversity practically defines Sonoma . . . winemakers are vocal about their soil.”


Defining Differences

An AVA along the coast will experience cooler weather, plenty of fog and more wind than an inland AVA. Coastal vineyards are planted in remote, steep mountainous terrain and the yields per vine are very low. The vines struggle to produce each grape from the rocky soil with cooler temperatures.


An aerial view of a coastal terraced vineyard, a thick grove of trees around the west side of the vineyard, and then land slopes down to the Pacific Ocean. Image has a long coastal view.


In contrast, an AVA located mostly in the plains area may have gravelly and sandy loam, whereas an AVA in hilly terrain may have very rocky soil like gravelly clay loam with a rust color. The coastal mountain range serves as a barrier to the marine influences, so inland the summer average daytime temperatures will be in the mid-80s.



A trellised vineyard with vines filled with green leaves. The soil looks recently tilled and the dirt is a red color. Pine trees appear in the background.


The Russian River serves as a funnel for the cooling ocean fog, drawing it inland in the evenings with the morning sun pushing it back to the sea. This natural air conditioning keeps daily temperatures in the Russian River Valley cooler than more inland AVAs where the fog has limited reach.


Terroir-Driven Wines

When demonstrating how the terroir influences a varietal wine, Zinfandel is perfect to showcase the differences. A Zinfandel grown in Dry Creek Valley will typically have flavors of rich blackberry and black raspberry laced with spicy black pepper notes. A Zinfandel grown in Alexander Valley will be a bit more refined with black cherry notes and hints of white pepper. Even within the Dry Creek Valley AVA the differences between Zinfandel grapes grown on the edge of the coastal mountain range versus those grown on the valley floor express distinctive difference when made into wine.

With 19 AVAs within Sonoma County, the opportunities to taste the terroir differences seem endless. This is where a focused wine tasting adventure can lead to discoveries, surprises and new favorites.


Woman behind a wine bar holding a bottle of Ridge Vineyards wine. On the other side of the bar are a man and four woman, two of the women are smiling.



Sustainability and Innovation: Pioneering Spirits of Sonoma Winemakers

Being sustainable isn’t a trend. It’s a way of thinking, a way of life, and the Sonoma County wine industry is on the cutting edge of this movement.

In January 2014, the Sonoma County Winegrowers announced their goal of being the nation’s first 100% certified sustainable wine region. Today 99% of the of the vineyards in Sonoma County have been certified sustainable by a third-party program, making Sonoma County the most sustainable winegrowing region in the world.


Pink and red rose bushes in front of a sign for sustainable vineyards


Embracing Innovation

Sonoma County Winegrowers continue to look for ways to improve their overall sustainability while moving forward with technology. In 2020, they launched a pilot program to help winegrowers understand best practices for climate mitigation in vineyards. Early this year, they announced a collaboration with Ford Pro to develop a pilot program to electrify the business of farming in the county.

By embracing cutting-edge technology and techniques, the winegrowers and vineyards of Sonoma County will continue to be on the forefront of sustainable changes in the industry.


Community & Collaboration: The Spirit of Sonoma Wine Culture

Sonoma County’s visitors are as diverse as the county’s terroirs, and so are the people who live and work here. Though wine tasting adventures draw in many of the county’s visitors, the vast array of outdoor activities, arts and cultural events, fine dining, sightseeing, spas and music broaden the appeal to visitors.


Inclusive Spirit

Sonoma County’s inclusive spirit welcomes people from all walks of life. On the Sonoma County Tourism website under Experiences, the short list includes Family Travel, Romantic Getaways, Luxury Travel, Girls Getaway, Dog-Friendly Travel, LGBTQ+ and Sustainable Travel. Each item on the list has many options to fit everyone’s desires.

Out in the Vineyard hosts an annual Gay Wine Weekend promoted as three days of wine, fun and friendship in Sonoma Wine Country. Out of the Vineyard hosts several events each year along with the offering curated tours and trips.

The wine community also offers information or events for various groups, giving them guidance so they too will feel welcome. If you’re traveling with your dog, an additional resource is the Wine Road’s winery database. Under “Search by Amenity”, select dog friendly and hit “Go” to get a lengthy list of wineries that welcome dogs.


Celebrating in Sonoma County’s Wine Country

If you’re looking for an event or festival, Sonoma County Wine Country offers a long list of them from January through December. The Wine Road hosts three major wine tasting events annually, Winter Wineland (the second weekend in January), Barrel Tasting (the first weekend in March) and Wine & Food Affair (the first weekend in November). Plus, the Wine Road hosts smaller events throughout the year.

If you’re looking for a larger Sonoma County wine festival, consider attending the annual Taste of Sonoma. Wines from more than 100 wineries are offered up, along with plenty of delicious food. There are also arts and crafts, agricultural and various music festivals. But if you want more wine tasting, enjoy the annual North Coast Wine & Food Festival. Here the top wine winners from the North Bay Wine Challenge are poured, and the food is by top local chefs. All these wine events bring people together to savor the essence of Sonoma County’s wine culture.


Culinary Pairings: Elevating the Sonoma Wine Experience

Sonoma County offers so many ways to experience the bounties of this county. With so many food producers in the county, Sonoma County farmers started Farm Trails over 50 years ago. Farm Trails provides the perfect online or printed guide to help connect you with farmers, ranchers, producers and purveyors.


Farm-to-Table Ethos

With a county filled with local bounty, it’s only natural that Sonoma County restaurants source their foods locally and have for many decades. Chefs like Shane McAnelly at Dry Creek Kitchen or Craig Wilmer at The Farmhouse Inn develop their weekly menu based on the local foods they are able to source. As in many local fine dining establishments, you can also select a wine and food pairing menu.

The food scene has taken a new turn with more and more wineries offering food pairings, further entwining Sonoma’s culinary scene with wineries. Wineries like Lynmar Estate, Bricoleur, Jordan, Kendall-Jackson or Capo Creek offer superb food and wine pairing, with an emphasis on locally sourced foods. Often the herbs and vegetables are grown on the winery’s property.

Three wine glasses, partially filled in behind a bento style box with three different food items in front of the three wine glasses. The table is set with a cream colored table runner, a bouquet of flovrs and a bottle of red wine.
A example of the Soaring Wine & Food Pairing Experience at Bricoleur Vineyards


Exploring Local Flavors

Living in Sonoma County, we have the good fortune to source our food locally as well, and then design our own wine and food pairings. Some of our past highlights include Dungeness crab cakes paired with an Alexander Valley Chardonnay, cedar-planked wild king salmon with a Russian River Pinot Noir, a comforting puttanesca made with garden-fresh vegetables and served over creamy polenta paired with a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, and finally a juicy pan seared filet mignon (local grass-fed beef) paired with a Rockpile Petite Sirah.

There are so many delicious food flavors and pairings to try. I encourage you to experiment and find the perfect combination to savor and sip. Sonoma County produces over 60 varietals and many stellar blends as well. Go forth and discover your perfect pairings!


A small table with multiple types of gourmet cheeses, a basket of brown bread, to half full glasses of red wine and two almost empty wine carafes. Napkins and silverware lay around the cheese board.



Art & Culture: Creative Expression in Sonoma Wine

The intersection of art and wine isn’t something that comes to mind when you think about art or wine, but in Sonoma County art and wine are intertwined in so many ways.


Wine and the Arts

Twice a year, local Sonoma County artists open their doors and invite the public into their studios. For two weekends in June, Art at the Source takes place and Sonoma County Art Trails happens two weekends in October. As you travel from studio to studio, you see and experience the effects the wine world has on these artists as you see paintings and photography of vineyards, or jewelry with a grape and vine motifs, or pottery with a grape design.


a painting of a fall vineyard scene with a tree dotted hillside in the background
A vineyard painting by Sonoma County artist Andrea Cleall


The fusion of art and wine goes deeper, as many wineries display art in their tasting rooms or as part of their outside décor. In a recent blog, Engaging Your Senses: Wine and Art Along the Wine Road, I explored some of the art available for viewing along the Wine Road.

Considering wine is the winemaker’s creation, their expression of the grapes, the fusion of art and wine seems a natural one.


Future Direction: Navigating Sonoma’s Evolving Wine Landscape

Predicting what lies ahead for the Sonoma wine scene isn’t easy, but here have some possibilities.


Trends & Projections

As winemakers look for new and interesting projects, expect to see an increase in what we term unusual varietals. Several Sonoma County wineries have already branched out, adding in varietals we rarely have heard of before. Orange wines, although slow to catch on, will still be out there, but you might have to look a bit harder to find them.

Sustainability will continue to be important to wineries and wine drinkers as our planet continues to evolve.

Post-Covid, the trend toward reservation-only tastings will continue to swing back to walk-ins welcome. Some wineries, due to staffing constraints or their use permit, will continue to be open by appointment only, but the number of wineries who encourage walk-in visitors will continue to increase.


Man pouring wine for two women seated outside in a green lawn area with flowering bushes in the background. Two other seated people are in the background. Walk-ins Welcome is written across the image.


Challenges & Opportunities

Sonoma County has over 400 wineries with more coming online every year. The urban growth and spread continues, along with the population growth. The challenge for the county is balancing this growth while preserving the essence of what makes this place so special.

Fortunately, this issue is top of mind with the local residents and political leaders as well. With growth, more greenways and parks are being developed. Regulations are guiding the growth to ensure what makes Sonoma County special will still be here for generations to come.


Aerial view of a high elevation vineyard surrounded by trees and in the background our mountains and fog.


Continuing the Journey

We’ve touched a few more reasons why Sonoma County is a special place, but there are too many to list in one blog.

To encourage you further to journey here, consider this. Sonoma County has a recently remodeled airport just north of Santa Rosa. If you fly with Alaska Airlines, wine flies free, and now Avelo Air just announced they have the same program.

From the Avelo Air website: “One (1) case of wine per Customer travels for free on flights departing from Sonoma County Airport (STS) as checked baggage. Note – Customers must be 21 years of age or older to participate.”

For each visitor who flies in on either Alaska or Avelo, being able to take a case of wine home with you is worth considering as you book your trip.


The Enduring Spirit of Sonoma Wine

There are so many opportunities to savor Sonoma County and many of them lead back to wine.

Taste — wine and food; smell — wine, food and the ocean; sight — endless beauty with ocean vistas, vineyards, redwood forests, kayaking along the Russian River, hiking through the dozens of parks, biking along the tree-lined backroads, art galleries and so much more; sound — live music, waves crashing on the coastal shoreline, and birds singing as you sip wine on the patio of your favorite winery; and touch — a deep tissue massage, walking barefoot along the sandy beach at Doran Regional Park, petting the goats at Redwood Hill Farms, or holding a bottle of your favorite wine as you just purchased the winery’s last case of it.


Two chilled glasses of champagne toasting with the sun setting over the ocean.


The spirit of Sonoma wine shines brightly when you visit our local wineries and hear the passion in the voice and on the face of the people pouring the wines. People who may have left well-paid careers to follow their dreams. When researching a blog about “My Life Before the Wine Industry,” I spoke with two winery owners whose enthusiasm and passion made writing their stories easy and exciting.

The best way to experience the spirit of Sonoma County is to come visit and experience it for yourself.

Happy Sipping!

p.s. The Wine Road website is a great Wine Country trip planning tool.

Posted by Rebecca Germolus

Rebecca Germolus, co-owner of Maximum Value Marketing, loves Sonoma County and playing along the Wine Road. Rebecca daily immerses herself in wine country by providing cost-effective marketing and writing solutions to wineries and restaurants.

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