Russian River Rendezvous: Food, wine, adventure always flowing through this gem
By Alison Bailin Batz
While often confused as one city or region, Sonoma is actually a large county spanning nearly 1,800 square miles across northern California. Within its borders are valleys, rivers, coastline, and 18 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) with more than 425 wineries and vineyards.
Each of these AVAs, and sometimes a group of them together, has its own unique climate, attractions and adventures, with Northern Sonoma County especially bewitching during the spring and summer.
Northern Sonoma County is made up of the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley AVAs and boasts more than a dozen interconnected cities and towns. Together, they feature more than 150 wineries, 30 luxe lodging accommodations, hundreds of award-winning eateries, and endless outdoor adventures.
Given all of this, coupled with daily direct flights from Phoenix to the area’s Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, the region is quickly becoming a favorite weekend getaway for those in the know across the Valley.
There is a resort, hotel or even vineyard residence for every type of traveler in the region. Of note are Vintner’s Resort, Montage Healdsburg, The Ruse and Jordan Vineyards.
The AAA Four-Diamond Vintner’s Resort recently completed a lavish $17 million renovation across its 92 acres that added additional ultra-luxe accommodation options and gave the entire property a gorgeous facelift. It also upgraded to add the stunning 5,000-square-foot, full-service Vi La Vita Spa. With all of its upgrades, however, it has lost none of its wine country charm. Bonus: It is still home to John Ash & Co. as well. When it opened in 1980, John Ash & Co. was the first restaurant in Sonoma to produce seasonal menus utilizing ingredients from nearby producers.
Montage Healdsburg is similarly lavish. Opened in 2021, it celebrates its natural surroundings with forest views in every direction and tranquil relaxation suites while still offering big-city amenities, including an 11,500-square-foot spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, zero-edge pool and Hazel Hill, a buzzy restaurant already earning national acclaim.
The Ruse is a boutique experience at its best. It features just 11 rooms — seven in its main mansion and four suites off the main property near the putting green and heated pool — so team members can focus on providing an immersive, custom experience for every guest. Beyond the putting green and pool, the property features bocce, pickleball courts, badminton and an airy entertainment pavilion.
Finally, there is Jordan. For more than 50 years, the family-owned vineyard has helped put California wine country on the map. Located in the heart of the Alexander Valley but with vines across the Russian River as well, Jordan has its own 58,000-square-foot chateau with three bucket-list lovely suites (not to mention multiple wine tasting and tour spaces). In addition, Jordan also features a residence on property similarly open to bookings.
Sip and savor
Speaking of wineries, the possibilities are nearly endless across the Russian River. In addition to a slew of experiences directly at Jordan, the region caters to creating experiential viticultural memories beyond simply standing at a bar and tasting wine.
J Vineyards and Kendall-Jackson are two behemoths — in the best possible way — in the area. They help set the standard for hospitality across Sonoma’s various wine countries. Both are less than five minutes from the local airport as well, meaning they are the perfect bookends for a visit to the area. At J Vineyards, the focus is sparkling wine and pinot noir, and the best way to enjoy it is with its artisan cheese pairing or in the opulent Bubble Room, among the prettiest indoor spaces in the area that offers James Beard-level pairings. Kendall-Jackson feels like an adult Disneyland. The best way to enjoy it is via a combination tour of the farm and garden followed by lunch. The tour takes guests through sensory areas where each item grown in a particular area is meant to evoke the aroma or flavor profile of a specific varietal grown on property.
Speaking of outdoor ambiance, Notre Vue has its own nature preserve on property, which is home to thousands of animals, including deer, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, turkeys, cranes, rabbits, owls, hawks and more. Guests may enjoy a variety of tastings from above the preserve on the terrace or even down on the water thanks to an outdoor tasting pavilion set along the large body of water on property.
Lynmar Estates also takes advantage of the resplendent natural beauty around it, offering multi-course pairing lunches with an award-winning in-house chef using items grown directly on property amid the winery’s epic garden and farm. When in bloom, it is among the most beautiful views in California.
Similarly spectacular is Ferrari-Carano, which is covered in olive trees and has one of the largest blooming gardens in the area. During the spring, it comes alive with vivid tulips, which are best enjoyed during brunch service or in the newly opened tasting salon, a reserve VIP experience.
Bricoleur Vineyards is located where a majestic horse retirement sanctuary once sat. The family who own it was careful not to disrupt the farms, gardens or even the horse barn too much. Instead, they worked to enhance it by reimaging the barn into a chic, wooded epicenter of wine tasting, pairing lunches and even special events.
Capo Creek has a similar option, but high above the Russian River on a hillside. And, get this, the owner — a medical professional who got into winemaking and cooking in recent years — serves as the chef for the paired lunch, offering great insight on how she made the wine that pairs with it during each course. Capo also features an all-terrain tour and a cave tour, each of which is a rollicking blast.
VML goes for a more mystical approach to its tastings, focused on showcasing the magic of the region through tastings and pairings. There is a more standard flight option, aptly called its Celestial Tasting given its ethereal vibe, and then there is the Divine Tasting with limited-production bottles paired with curated cheeses.
Truett Hurst has a little Capo and a little VML when it comes to its tastings, as there is a Black Label experience that combines its blue-chip bottles with complementing artisan cheeses in an intimate setting. There is also an eco-estate tour that guides guests across its organic and biodynamic estate before enjoying a seated tasting.
Itching for dessert? Do not miss Baldassari Family Wines. In addition to perfect pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and malbec, it partners with Fleur Sauvage Truffles to do a chocolate pairing on-site.
Those looking for some fun and games need to visit BACA Wines and Armida. Like Baldassari, BACA has a chocolate pairing experience, but also a sensory adventure that challenges guests to put their tastebuds to the challenge for prizes. And Armida? It has a full-on entertainment center with bocce ball, bags/cornhole, and giant-size games ranging from Connect Four to Jenga.
Over the summer, Dutton Estate both offers games ranging from cornhole to giant Jenga, but it also stays open late select nights — sometimes until 7 p.m. — during the summer months offering extra treats with tastings including s’mores and small bites.
An important note: Never drink and drive. Pure Luxury Transportation has been safely navigating guests across the region for more than 30 years. It can work with a planned itinerary or even help put one together, ensuring everyone stays safe while having an absolute blast.
The best things to do outdoors are centered around the Russian River itself. It is a slow-moving waterway, so best for kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, or even just relaxing in a tube. There are several beaches to enjoy, including Memorial Beach, which has a lifeguard on duty as well as outfitters who can provide rentals, self-guided tour maps, and full-service tours along the water. Burke’s Canoe Trips in the area offers canoe and/or kayaks, paddles and life jackets for the day, as does Water Treks EcoTours. It also has paddleboards and by about Memorial Day will have tours featuring beach walks for wildlife, water journeys and even bioluminescent adventures at night.
There are also extensive fishing opportunities, especially for bass and steelhead, but it is important to check local guides and/or with one’s hotel one where to drop a line without trespassing.
Finally, hot air ballooning is big in the Russian River Valley area. Available year-round, there are ample balloon tours in nearly every direction, and groups like Up & Away Ballooning can plan a ride in line with a full day of wine tasting and epicurean exploration for groups both large and small.
Northern Sonoma County
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