Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley

jeep driving down to vineyards

Sonoma County sits adjacent to the other county synonymous with wine making in northern California, Napa County. Sonoma is significantly, with an area of 1,768 square miles compared to Napa’s 788. The two counties are separated by the Mayacamas Mountain Range, both counties extend south to the San Pablo Bay, which via the San Rafael Bay, connects to the San Francisco Bay. Sonoma County extends westerly to the Pacific Ocean. The county has two main rivers, the Sonoma Creek, which runs from Sugarloaf Mountain down into the bay, and the Russian River, which originates from outside of Sonoma, in Mendocino County’s Laughlin Mountain Range, then cuts through Sonoma feeding from various lakes and creeks until it empties into the Pacific Ocean about sixty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sonoma Valley is often referred to as the birthplace of California wine industry and is home to some of the earliest vineyards and wineries in the state. Located north of the San Francisco this region is also called The Valley of the Moon, which refers to the translation of the Native American word Sonoma as ‘the valley of the moon’. Sonoma Valley wineries are always prepared for the busy summer tourist season and offer special events during the summer months such as music and art festivals (including the well known Sonoma International Film Festival) gourmet dinners in the vineyard and cycling and foot race celebrations.

While the area was originally inhabited predominantly by the Native American Indian tribes, Wappo, Miwok, Maidu, Wintun and the Pomo, the valley was selected by the Franciscans of Spain as the northern most location for their chain of twenty-one mission running up and down California. The Mission San Francisco Solano was established in 1823 under the newly independent Mexico. Soon after the mission was built General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo ordered el Pueblo de Sonoma, later to be referred to as the town of Sonoma, to be built in the standard form of a Mexican town centered around the plaza. The historic plaza is still the town’s center point and one of Sonoma Valley’s many tourist attractions. The Russians became the first modern settlers to inhabit the area, building Fort Ross on the coast in 1812. This would later become Sutter’s Fort when it was sold to John Sutter, an early European settler who became a Mexican citizen and received 50,000 acres in a land grant from the Mexican government

In 1846, led by U.S. Army Major John Fremont, Sonoma would become the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, an attempt to establish independence from Mexico. A Flag similar to today’s California flag, with one star, a bear, and a strip along the bottom, was raised in the Sonoma town square in May of that year. Mexican General Vallejo, who was in charge of the area extending to Sacramento, was quickly captured and held prisoner at Sutter’s Fort. Mexican troops were sent north to return order, but were defeated. Unbeknownst to them for almost two months, the Mexican- American war had begun. When news did arrive, the revolt for independence was abandoned and the settlers joined the fight in support of America, replacing the Bear Flag, with the Stars and Stripes in the Sonoma town square.

Sonoma County, like Napa County, was one of the original counties when California gained statehood in 1850, in a concession of land granted to America from Mexico as a condition for the end of the war. While the town of Sonoma was the original Sonoma County seat, the more prosperous towns of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma were vying for prominence, and in 1854 the county seat was moved to Santa Rosa. But reminders of Sonoma’s role in the development of the area can still be seen today by visiting the National Historic Landmarks of the downtown Sonoma Plaza – original site of the Bear Flag Revolt, as well as the San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Mission – one of the original 21, and also the northern most, of the California Spanish missions.

Sonoma Valley, home to the town of Sonoma, is located in the expansive Sonoma County, which also includes the equally-renowned Healdsburg region, the Alexander Valley, Russian River, and other well-known appellations. The Sonoma Valley sits at the southern end of the county with the Sonoma Mountains to the west, and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east, forming the border with Napa Valley. These valleys and ranges taper down at their southern ends to the San Pedro Bay. It is widely held that Sonoma Valley gained its name, which translates to “many moons,” from the Miwok Indians who viewed the moon seven times as they traversed this expansive valley.

The valley contained a confluence of lava residue, river sands and gravels, and when combined with the Mediterranean climate, was found to be ideal for growing, amongst many other earlier crops, grapes. California’s first vineyard, the Buena Vista Winery, was established in 1857. In the late nineteenth century, it was Sonoma Valley residents who solved the imported vine disease problem of Phylloxera by widely adopting the practice of grafting onto native, resistant, root stock. Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, owner of the Buena Vista Winery, was instrumental in designing large scale, industrial wine-making, though even with the Phylloxera insect issue eradicated, Sonoma Valley and Napa County both had protracted struggles ahead, losing residents after the Great Earthquake of 1906, followed by the Prohibition era and Great Depression. Large scale production didn’t return to California wineries and take hold in the area again until after World War Two, with the greatest boost coming on the heels of the 1976 wine tasting contest, the Judgment of Paris, which effectively introduced California wines to a broader audience and established their quality as being world class. With the approval and demand that followed, Sonoma began to grow and establish itself as the epicenter for large scale wine making, eventually becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions surrounding San Francisco, attracting visitors from around the world.

Today, Sonoma Valley is an American Viticulture Area (AVA) with 250 wineries, making it one of California’s premier winemaking regions. Notably, this is one hundred fewer wineries than the smaller, neighboring Napa Valley, which produced the two top wines that famously won the Judgment of Paris and put California wineries on the map. Napa Valley leveraged those wins more effectively and was able to forge prominent name recognition and turn it into a greater draw for tourists, making Napa synonymous with quality viticulture and wine production. Sonoma continues to produce similar-quality wines as its more famous neighbor though, and is ever growing in stature and draw by accommodating tourists with greater accessibility, not only in attitude, but in prices, with far more wineries offering free tastings. Additionally, Sonoma Valley benefits by being located closer to San Francisco, just 45 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.