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5 of Sonoma County’s most exceptional wine tasting experiences

According to the Wine Institute, in 1996 Americans drank 1.89 gallons of wine per capita. Twenty years later, this figure increased to 2.94 gallons. Now considered an important part of American culture, wine is so popular in the U.S.A. that there are 7,700 wineries spread across all fifty states. As wine drinking has become more popular, so has wine tasting. Wine tasting is now a common weekend recreational activity, and boutique wineries and urban wine tasting rooms have become a mecca for wine lovers. For most, wine tasting is simply stopping at a winery, bellying up to the bar, and sipping a few of the current wines. Tasting rooms are often crowded and noisy and you have to elbow your way to the bar to be served. This may be okay for most people, but for wine aficionados there’s a more exclusive way to taste wine. What constitutes an exceptional wine tasting experience? Being seated in a private room or in a cave or at a terrace table overlooking lush vineyards with a knowledgeable server is a great start! An exceptional wine tasting experience should be relaxed and unhurried and last longer than 90 minutes. But first, you have to choose right winery. We recommend that you contact the winery before you visit to see what private tasting experiences they offer. Exceptional wine tasting experiences can include sampling estate or reserve wines, a lineal tasting of one varietal, or even an educational tasting where your server helps you identify the tastes and smells found in each wine through a “sensory” experience. Or perhaps food pairing with several different wines hand-picked by the winery chef is your thing. We’re talking about being pampered, seated, and educated by someone with a sommelier-like knowledge of the wines being served. Exceptional wine tasting should be personalized and exclusive (two but not more than ten people), and indulgent and luxurious. Of course, it comes with a cost, but it’s well worth the price for the type of experience you don’t normally get at in a casual stop at a winery. We’re big fans of Sonoma County, California, renowned for its chardonnays and pinot noirs. We’ve traversed it numerous times, visiting several wineries from north of Healdsburg along Dry Creek Road to the Lakeville Highway in the southern tip of this expansive wine region. Along the way, as we discovered a few unique and indulgent wine tasting venues, the idea was born! Why not look for the best wine tasting experiences in Sonoma County and share them with our readers? We planned, we traveled, we tasted and here are our five favorites: La Crema Winery La Crema’s spacious and well-appointed tasting room is in downtown Healdsburg. You’ll be treated well here. The hospitable and knowledgeable La Crema staff take great pride in their service. They’re eager to ensure their guests have an excellent experience. Wine club members visiting the La Crema tasting room can sit in the members-only lounge at the back of the tasting room, with comfortable living-room style seating, enjoying the winery’s premium wines. We made an appointment to taste the 9 Barrel Wines, La Crema’s top of the line series ($50 per person or $40 for wine club members). Lisa, our wine hostess, reserved the special “9 Barrel Library Room,” a luxurious and private setting. La Crema’s 9 Barrel line showcases their premium product. To create these magic potions, the winemaker blends the best from nine different barrels to make a perfect wine.  This is not a blend of varietals, but rather the best of the Russian River Valley chardonnays and pinot noirs. As a bonus, Lisa poured some of their other premium wines—including the Saralee chardonnay—made from grapes that come from the highly prized Saralee vineyards, one of the Sonoma Valley’s most renowned growers.  Lisa tells us, “Happy grapes come from that vineyard,” where La Crema recently opened a second tasting room in the former home of Rich and Saralee Kunde. The two-story tasting room is sumptuously appointed and spacious, with a peaceful, inviting atmosphere that beckons visitors to stay all afternoon. Rodney Strong Vineyards The Rodney Strong Winery, just two minutes south of Healdsburg on the Old Redwood Highway, is housed in a striking, dramatic building. Fronted by a wide, inviting staircase, it beckons you up to the second-floor tasting room. Your first impression is that it’s one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging high tasting fees and drawing throngs of wine lovers. But it’s not. Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine, but a visit here provides so much more. During the summer, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and offers wine and food pairings on the terrace. We came for the indulgent food and wine pairing. For $70.00 – $90.0 per person, Rodney Strong offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we received cards describing our five-course meal and winemakers notes for each of the paired wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general wine expert. Rodney Strong did not disappoint! Two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were thoroughly relaxed and very content. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for Sonoma County wines and impressed with the Rodney Strong staff who made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch. Sbragia Family Vineyards Perhaps our favorite wine tasting experience was at Sbragia Winery, north of Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road. On the winery’s terrace, the view overlooking Dry Creek Valley from nearly every angle is breathtaking. Rolling hills planted with grapevines stretch across the horizon. Views of Lake Sonoma are to the right of this gorgeous vista. Sbragia offers a variety of different options including a three-course food and wine pairing for $60 per person, a blending workshop, tasting and brunch (prices range from $120 – $150 depending on the wines, less for club members), or a sensory tasting for $50 per person ($25 for wine club members). The winery also conducts customized tastings such as a compare-and-contrast of one varietal (a chardonnay to chardonnay or vintage to vintage), given advanced notice. We reserved places for the sensory tasting. What an experience! Our host, Andrew, a wine collector for 20 years before joining Sbragia, is a wealth of knowledge on everything wine related.  Seated in the private library, he provided a generous charcuterie board of fresh deli meats, locally produced cheeses, olives, and nuts to go with our sensory tasting. Through a sommelier-like experience guests learn what aromatics are, using the La Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit, while tasting five different Sbragia wines. The kit contains 54 little jars of different aromas. We used ten, two per tasting, for this exercise. We started with a Sauvignon blanc, followed by a chardonnay, before working our way into the reds.  In a sensory tasting you start smelling and tasting the wine to try and detect the different characteristics. With each wine, Andrew handed us two different vials and ask us to guess what we were smelling.  He also supplied us with a wine aroma wheel that separates the fruits in white wine from fruits in red wine, floral scents and flavors, vegetal, oak aging characteristics and even off odors that sometimes show up in a flawed wine or a wine with a bad cork. Each time we tasted, sniffed, and wrote down our guesses. Then Andrew would tell us what the actual scent was and let us smell the vial again. We guessed wrong most of the time, but the exercise was an important step in developing our palates.  After two and a half hours, we were done! There were just the two of us, so we really got a crash course on wine tasting.  This would make a fun outing with friends. Pangloss Cellars Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge, in the small town of Sonoma, occupies a historic 116-year-old building, formerly home to a general store. Located across from Sonoma Plaza, the large and handsomely appointed tasting lounge features rock walls framed by rustic timber supports. Exposed beams in the ceiling and wood floors add to its beauty. But the dramatic wall of wine bottles at the back of the tasting bar is the most eye-catching feature in this cavernous lounge. Accented with vintage armchairs and couches comfortably nested around private tables, for $30 to $50, visitors can relax over wines paired with small plate foods – caviar, charcuterie, cheese, pate and chocolate. Even the tasting bar in the center of the room is lined with chairs so you can sit and sip comfortably without standing. We opted for the private, more focused, 90-minute Cellar Experience with Alissa. For $35 per person, each guest is served an individual cheese and charcuterie plate, from local sources, to accompany an immersive wine tasting. We sampled seven wines, particularly enjoying a 2014 Pinot Noir sourced from 4 different vineyards in the Anderson Valley. Reservations are required for the Cellar Experience, 48-hour cancellation. Lambert Bridge Winery About six miles northwest of Healdsburg on West Dry Creek Road, Lambert Bridge Winery offers a fitting ambiance for a private sampling of limited production wine paired with locally sourced artisanal foods. The tasting room, housed in a vast former ranch style winery, with ancient wisteria vines clinging to the front porch and gabled roof, features a redwood bar fronted in hammered copper next to a fireplace with a huge granite hearth. Adjacent to the tasting room, through wood framed windows and doors is the barrel room with soaring redwood ceilings and glowing candlelight on tables set for reserve tastings. We arranged for the winery’s most dramatic and private tasting – a food and wine pairing guided by its resident sommelier, JP Lonergan. Seated in the serene, cool, quiet cellar room, we tasted six wines – one white and five reds – which had been decanted three hours earlier. The wines paired with individual plates of locally sourced cheeses, salami, marcona almonds, olive tapenade, figs and the delicious Vella Cheese Company dried jack reserve. The foods were plated in a left to right progression to align with the wines from lighter to darker varietals. We started with the 2014 Chardonnay and worked our way to the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Gilfillan Vineyard. As JP described the character of each wine, the detailed precision of the winemaker, and attention paid to the grapes in the estate grown vineyards, we could taste the quality of these exceptional wines sought out by serious wine collectors. “The attention to the detail in the vineyard, the crush pad, and the bottling makes the difference,” said JP. This, then, is the best of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It provided unique opportunities to learn about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills in a luxurious, rewarding atmosphere. Impress your friends or impress your date. We guarantee that any of these five exceptional wine tasting experiences will do the trick!

Pamela Baker

Pamela and Gary Baker are freelance writers based in Northern California. They have written for regional, national and international magazines, newspapers and websites including Via Magazine, Porthole Cruise and Australia and New Zealand Magazine. To read more of their stories, visit PamandGaryBaker.com.

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  1. It’s great to find such in-depth reviews of Sonoma wineries and their tasting experiences. It gives me an idea of how much to allot for our planned tasting tour of California’s wine country. They’re very affordable and Rodney Strong’s look interesting. Though I must say, I’m partial to Napa’s Chardonnay, but I won’t say no to a good Sonoma Pinot, too.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the reviews. We had a lot of fun visiting the different wineries and trying their unique experiences. Rodney Strong is a great place to visit in the summertime when you can sit outside on their patio. Hope you get a chance to visit.

  2. The rise and rise of California Wine. This piece reminds me of that day back in 1976 when the Wine World changed for ever. A day that shook wine experts to their core: The Judgement of Paris. In a blind tasting Californian Wines – both red and wine – trounced traditional French wines. Those 19th Century epic journeys – first across the Atlantic, and then across the vast prairies and deserts of America, with wine believers bravely taking their French vines to the promised land of California were fully justified on that fateful day in 1976. As the winemakers skills grow, assisted by developing technology, these wines just get better and better.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s been amazing to watch the California wine industry grow and change and just get better every year!

  3. The 9 barrel line sounds like a really interesting way to experience a mix of blends. I am a big red drinker myself but enjoy sampling a variety of good wines. I really like supporting family vineyards and always try to ensure I visit one when I am abroad. Sounds like you sampled a great variety of wines and had some delicious food too. A good red with a fantastic meat selection is always a favourite of mine.

    1. We really enjoyed the 9 Barrel line of La Crema wines. The wine tasting room in Healdsburg is a lovely place to taste, but their new wine tasting room at Saralee Vineyards is also worth a visit!

  4. Whenever I visit a new city, I make sure I go for their pub crawl as you get to taste that cities local wine and other liquor which is an experience in its self. I would suggest others to also do it.

  5. Absolutely love Sbragia. My wife and I went there six years ago and had one of the best tastings ever. We became wine club members that day and still are. We’ve never had a bottle we didn’t like and always look forward to our club shipments. Whenever we visit Sonoma or Napa, Sbragia is a must stop. After seven visits it keeps getting better. Hoping to make it out in early 2021. Don’t pass on visiting this exceptional winery.

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