Little Black Book

Sip Sustainably: A Female Winemakers Guide to Sonoma County

by Nicole Kliest
Rochioli Photo courtesy of Rochioli Winery.

More than just a treasure trove of vineyards, farm-to-table cuisine, and natural splendor, Sonoma County is a leader in the sustainable wine movement. Local winemaker Ashley Herzberg of Amista Vineyards gave us a tour of the area's best food, wine, and sites.

SONOMA COUNTY, — It's 8 a.m. on a quiet foggy morning when I arrive at Amista Vineyards. The property is nestled on twenty acres in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley and is cradled by regal redwood trees and a lush backwater pond. I'm greeted by winemaker Ashley Herzberg and a serving platter of glasses filled with blanc de blanc.

Welcome to wine country, where bubbly at 8 a.m is not frowned upon but rather encouraged. 

I'm here because five years ago Sonoma County embarked on an endeavor to become the nation's first 100-percent-certified sustainable wine region. They've already made great strides: There are 495 wineries in Sonoma County, and they've reached an astonishing 99 percent so far. Amista Vineyards is one of them.

Becoming certified sustainable isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. Growers must complete a self-assessment that includes 138 best practices, followed by a plan that focuses on everything from water conservation to energy efficiency. These self assessments are then reviewed by third-party auditors — environmental scientists, biologists, and colleagues of this ilk — and it's only their approval that gives vineyards the certification.

The diverse wine growing regions in Sonoma County produce more than 60 varietals. The varied geographic conditions — mountain ranges, valleys, lakes, coastal fog from the Pacific Ocean, hillside terroir, high elevations — are like being in five different countries at the same time. If you have a sweet tooth for wine, Sonoma County is the candy shop.

Of course, there's more to do here than revel in before-noon wine tastings. The farm-to-table food scene is flourishing and only getting stronger. And let's not forget that we're in California, land of glorious outdoor activities. Cue the hiking, kayaking, and cycling. Wine, cuisine, and connecting with nature is how time around here is best spent.

Left: Medlock Ames. Right: Jackson Family Wines. Photos by Nicole Kliest.

Where to Wine

The best way to experience any travel destination is through the lens of a local, which is why Herzberg's guide to tasting below ought to be treated as sacrosanct. 

Not surprisingly, she recommends your first stop should be at Amista. "We make estate-grown sparkling wines, the ideal way to kick off a day in Sonoma County," she says. "My favorite wine to start with is our sparkling grenache. Pale pink and crisp and made in the traditional Champagne method, it’s perfect to have in your glass while you take our self-guided vineyard tour down to the creek to see if the steelhead and coho salmon are running." 

Next is Comstock Winery, another Dry Creek Valley vineyard that's certified sustainable and solar-powered. "Definitely try their sauvignon blanc," Herzberg advises. 

Third stop: Reeve Winery, because Herzberg thinks it feels "off the grid." She suggests sipping their riesling while relaxing in the vineyard and watching the sheep roam by. 

Then Rochioli Winery in the Russian River Valley. "They were one of the first families to plant pinot noir and chardonnay in the Russian River Valley." Hit Lynmar Estate because "their gardens are seasonal and so inspiring and beautiful." 

The last stop on your perfect Sonoma tasting day is Littorai Wines in Sebastopol. "This was one of the first pinot noirs that I fell in love with when I moved to Sonoma County when I was 22," she says. "Ted Lemon makes fantastic wines, and stewardship of the land is always of the utmost importance to him."

If six vineyards in one day feels too ambitious (which it is), Herzberg recommends two or three tastings per day so you can really enjoy the wines at each location and the beautiful scenery along the way.

Photo courtesy of El Barrio.
Photo courtesy of Spinster Sisters.

Where to Eat

You'd be amiss to rely on tasting room cheese and crackers to fill your stomach. Instead, break up tastings with lunch at Campo Fina in Healdsburg, a favorite of Herzberg's. "This is where all the local winemakers and wine industry people come for lunch."  

If you're in Sebastopol, Herzberg suggests Handline for "sustainable seafood and local greens and their support of local wineries and breweries." Another post-tasting option is El Barrio in Guerneville, a recent discovery of hers. "The cocktails are delicious and the small bites will tide you over after tasting and before dinner."

If you're on the hunt for seasonal ingredients, Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa is a no-brainer, as is Diavola in Geyserville, "another place where you will see all the local winemakers and winery owners out to dinner on a regular basis." 

If you happen to be in  Sonoma County in late winter, don't miss Sonoma County Restaurant Week, this year from February 21 to March 1.

Where to Shop

As one might expect in the California countryside, Sonoma County shopping is peppered with quaint boutiques and artisanal shops more than big-name designers and retailers. (And hooray to that.) For treasures sourced from Europe, stop at Sonoma Country Antiques in Sonoma, where you can pick up a jar of raw honey from Beekind. Step back in time at Bosworth & Son General Mercantile, which evokes the charm of an old general store. Pages Books On the Green is a family-owned bookstore filled with curated titles. For home decor to remind you of your trip long after you've left, make a pit stop at 14feet for their assortment of home goods, including Japanese copper pots, handmade bronze bottle openers, and ultra-cozy linen towels.

Avenue of the Giants. Photo by Bruno Wolff/Unsplash.

What to Do

Once you've nailed down your tasting and eating itinerary, all that's left to ensure your Sonoma stay is 100 percent idyllic is some time outdoors. Start with the redwoods. California's coastal redwood trees are not only the world's tallest living things, they also happen to be among the oldest existing on the planet, with an average lifespan of 500 to 700 years.

Glorious Armstrong Redwoods, a mere two miles from Guerneville's Main Street, has a tree that's more than 1,400 years old (it's called Colonel Armstrong). The tallest tree in here is some 310 feet tall. Spend a few hours here roaming the nature trails, forest bathing, and enjoying an afternoon picnic.

One of your days would be well spent visiting the 55 miles of Pacific coastline that border Sonoma County, which makes accessing the beach all too easy. Go kayaking, take a hike, or simply relish the scenic views. If you need somewhere to star on Google Maps, check out Sonoma Coast State Park.

Photo courtesy of Kenwood Inn and Spa.

Where to Stay

Of the twenty cities in Sonoma County, Healdsburg may be the best base if you want a central location where tours can easily pick and drop off. The best spots in town are Hotel Healdsburg, which has an exquisite spa and a 60-foot outdoor pool, or neighboring H2Hotel, a LEED-certified, eco-friendly property with a green living roof and private room patios. The luxury option in town is the exquisite Hôtel Les Mars, which is also one of Fathom's World's Most Romantic Hotels. 

Read more about all three hotels on Fathom:
- Hotel Healdsburg
- H2Hotel
- Hôtel Les Mars

If you're looking for something a little more rustic, head to Kenwood Inn & Spa. The Mediterranean-inspired property is a luxurious respite on two-and-a-half acres of landscaped grounds, with three courtyards, a pool, two hot tubs, and fountains. If you want to feel like you're in the Tuscan countryside, this is a safe bet.

If you've done the whole rustic rolling hills ordeal and want to switch it up, Gaige House + Ryokan is a 23-room property that delivers traditional Japanese hospitality fused with modern Asian details. If the idea of soaking in a deep granite Japanese tub overlooking a bubbling creek while enjoying your private interior glass Zen rock garden atrium sounds appealing, you've found your sanctuary.

Keep Exploring Wine Country

Fathom's Guide to Everything Great in Napa and Sonoma
Paying My Respects to the Godfather's Grape Patch
How to Survive Napa with a Hangover
Country Style Meets City Sophistication at Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma