by Karen Solomon
Though wine-drinkers all over the nation may be familiar with the parade of bottles that flow from Napa Valley, a visit to nearby Sonoma County wineries next time you're in the Bay Area will prove to be a fresher and fruitier alternative.
The charm of Sonoma is reflected by the region's smaller vineyards, more charming and antique architecture of the tasting rooms, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff. In contrast to the often factory-like appearance of Napa's high-yield wine production, in Sonoma it is far easier to envision the traditional techniques that ring as deep and as fragrant as an echo in a French oak barrel.
Another reason to head out to Sonoma for a visit is its charming and tourist-friendly downtown area. Here you'll find a small green park offering shade from a day in the hot and dry wine country. Starting at the corner of Napa Street and First Street, there are many wonderful options for rest, fine food, and great shopping.
This park, called Sonoma Plaza, was once home to General M.G. Valleijo, and the architecture is reminiscent of its former Mexican inhabitants. This park is also historic. On this spot, in 1846 when the West was being won, rabblerousing horsemen raised a flag in the name of the now-assimilated Bear Republic. Today, this grassy square is home to the restored Sonoma City Hall, the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (the last of California's 21 great missions), the historic Sonoma Barracks, and the Depot Museum. It's also a great place to take in a bit of shade, a park bench, and watch the wild chickens cross the road.
Of course, there are plenty of amenities in addition to downtown Sonoma's history to keep the tourist comfortable and well fed. Swank hotels in residence since the mid 1800s and earlier are drenched in antiques, quiet rooms and good service. And, what goes better with wine country than food? The Basque bakery is not to be missed, and carries an excellent selection of sandwiches, pastas, tarts, tortes and wines by the glass in a casual atmosphere. Coffee stops and cafes abound. And, join the herd of cheese-tasters sampling the Monterey jack at the Sonoma Cheese Factory.
The four corners of Sonoma Plaza are also a shopper's delight, and here you will find everything from wine shops and adorable housewares, to books and antiques. If tasting has become too intoxicating, visitors can easily be entertained by Sonoma's downtown district for the better part of an afternoon.