Sonoma County is known for its wineries, and rightfully so — hundreds dot its bucolic landscapes, from major labels stocked at your local grocery store to family-run upstarts that only distribute locally. Whether you’re visiting from nearby or venturing in from further afield, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with the area’s picturesque vineyards and stately tasting rooms. But between wine stops — or, gasp, instead of them — you can and should plot a course to check out Sonoma’s other booming beverages. Here’s where to go and what to do when you get there.
Taste the Local Spirits
It stands to reason that any place accustomed to turning grapes into delicious wines should be well-equipped in raw materials and studied in the art of fermentation. So in Sonoma you’ll find passionate distillers sourcing local grains and making straightforward expressions alongside unique experiments. Tasting straight from the source is always a good time, though not every distillery has a tasting room, and some that do are by appointment only. But it’s easy to string together a few stops to sample the local goods.
Prohibition Spirits opened in 2008 as Sonoma’s first craft distillery. The family-run operation started with limoncello and still makes cellos today, including orange and fig varieties, but now you can also find gins, rums, whiskeys, brandies, amaro and a variety of liqueurs. Visit the tasting room on Sonoma Plaza and work your way through the menu.
Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol was founded in 2012 by husband and wife Timo and Ashby Marshall. The award-winning operation makes a full bingo card of spirits, including vodka, gin, sloe gin, barrel-aged gin, wheat whiskey, rye whiskey and bourbon, all made using organic grains that are milled, mashed, fermented and distilled on site. You can try them all, or however many you deem reasonable, at the friendly tasting room, which is open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday.
Over in Petaluma, Michael and Jenny Griffo run Griffo Distillery, which they opened in 2015 as a way to merge their shared desire to start a local business with Michael’s background in science. They make vodka, gin and multiple whiskeys, plus a cold brew coffee liqueur that leans into actual coffee flavor, rather than sugar, and is a great addition to espresso martinis. Griffo aims to keep its footprint minimal, so spent grains are sent to local pig farmers, and it employs production methods that reduce water usage throughout the fermentation and distillation processes. In addition to spirits, Griffo also makes canned cocktails that feature fresh juices and taste better than most options on the market, so pick up a few packs of those. And while in the tasting room, you can also peruse a selection of cocktail kits and bitters to use at home.
Barber Lee Spirits is a joint effort between Lorraine and Michael Barber (the husband-and-wife winemaking team behind Barber Cellars) and Aaron Lee. They formed the company in 2017 and set up shop in downtown Petaluma in 2019, with a tasting room, production facility and a small barrel room. The tasting room feels like a cozy bar. Sink into a leather chair and work your way through the lineup, which includes absinthe, apple brandy, single malt rye and heirloom corn bourbon. Once again, sustainability is a focus here. Spent grain is fed to pigs and cows, grape skins and spent herbs go to compost, and the bottle’s leather labels are made from scrap leather. So you can pat yourself on the back with each sip.
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Sample the Beer and Cider
It’s possible you’ve come face-to-face with Sonoma-made beers even if you haven’t realized it, as the county is home to award-winning favorites like Lagunitas and Russian River. By all means, visit both. Lagunitas Brewing Co. was founded in 1993 as one of the OG Sonoma breweries, and today it’s one of the largest craft brewers in the country. You can find their beers nearly everywhere these days, but it’s still worth a trip to the mothership. Russian River Brewing Company followed in 1997 and now has a massive, state-of-the-art brewery in Windsor plus a brewpub in Santa Rosa. Russian River is best known for beers like Pliny the Elder, a double IPA, and Pliny the Younger, a cult-favorite triple-hopped ale that is only available for two weeks each February and draws crowds who line up to score bottles. Swing by to tour the facility, sample the beers, hang out in the beer garden and have lunch at the very good restaurant.
HenHouse Brewing Co. is another local favorite, with a brewery in Santa Rosa and a tap room in Petaluma. Both bring in rotating food trucks, so you can hang out and make a day of it while trying the lineup. HenHouse makes core beers like Best Life Blonde Ale, Oyster Stout and Stoked Hazy Pale Ale, plus coveted seasonal releases like Big Chicken Double IPA.
If you’re in the mood for cider, you don’t have to go far to find some good ones. Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor makes small-batch fermented ciders from local apples and runs a small tasting room, where you can sample what’s on offer. Owners Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli grow more than 100 apples and pears on their farm, pressing the fresh-picked fruit on-site at the cidery. They’re making some of the more interesting ciders in town, or anywhere, including vintage-dated bottles and coferments, in which apples are merged with native grapes or wild-picked blackberries.
Where to Stay
Sonoma County is relatively big, and depending on your itinerary, several different towns can be convenient home bases during your stay. If you want to park yourself in Healdsburg and partake in its many tasting rooms, try the modern Harmon Guest House, which is one of downtown Healdsburg’s newer hotels, with comfortable rooms and a rooftop terrace. Or book a room at the aptly named Hotel Healdsburg, which has a spa, a tree-lined courtyard with a 60-foot pool and a Charlie Palmer restaurant called Dry Creek Kitchen. Both hotels are next to The Matheson, one of the most exciting restaurants in the area, with fine dining downstairs and a more casual restaurant and rooftop cocktail lounge upstairs.
Petaluma is similarly charming. Originally built in 1923, Hotel Petaluma has undergone recent renovations, so the century-old property has all the modern trappings you want. It’s also next door to Barber Lee Spirits, which makes for convenient nightcaps after having dinner at the attached Shuckery, a seafood restaurant and oyster bar.
Santa Rosa is another popular spot to base your stay. It’s conveniently located for Sonoma County day trips and has enough restaurants and bars to keep you occupied at night. Try Hotel E, which occupies an iconic Beaux Arts building situated right on Old Courthouse Square. It’s also walking distance to a Russian River Brewing outpost that’s stocked with pizzas and drinks, so you’ll never be too far from a fresh beer.
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