Sonoma, California is a historically significant town at the southern edge of the Sonoma Valley, a short drive north of San Francisco yet seemingly worlds away. It is the social and political center of the Sonoma Valley wine appellation, and it was the first stop on our Sonoma County anniversary-with-a-toddler adventure in January 2016.
Town center is a large park known as Sonoma Plaza. The perimeter is packed with cafes, restaurants and boutiques. We drove into town around 10am, expecting to have a nice coffee and breakfast before walking around the central plaza – but our daughter fell asleep just as we were pulling into town, so we parked right in front the Sunflower Cafe and enjoyed a delightful coffee in the car while she napped for a bit.
The north side of Sonoma Plaza houses the remnants of the Mission San Francisco Solano and the Sonoma Barracks. The Mission was established in 1823 – the last and northernmost mission in the Alta California region. The region was previously inhabited by many native groups, including the Miwoks – the name inspiration for a certain fuzzy resident of the Star Wars universe. The mission brought agricultural development, including the first grapes grown in the Sonoma Valley – used for sacramental wine during church ceremonies.
Mission operations ceased in 1833, at which point the land adjacent was developed as barracks for Mexican soldiers sent to oversee the secularization of the area. In 1846, a group of American immigrants stormed the barracks, seeking to declare the California Republic, independent of Mexican rule – this short-lived insurrection was called the Bear Flag Revolt, and remains ingrained in California’s history on the state flag. Today, remnants of the Mission and Barracks form the heart of Sonoma State Historic Park. An adobe church stands at the corner, and the Mission San Francisco Solano Museum houses all kinds of fascinating artifacts from the mission’s history.
Sonoma Wine Tasting
After a little dose of political history, we went on to discover some vineyard history, driving up to the Buena Vista Winery, just north of Sonoma town. “Pioneers of the California Wine Industry,” Buena Vista was founded in 1857 – the earliest commercial wine producers of the area. Established by a self-styled “Count” from Hungary, the vineyard has been in continuous operation for over 150 years; the Tasting Room and Visitors Center are well maintained structures that are on the National Register of Historic Places and a California Historical Landmark. Now owned by the bon vivant Jean-Charles Boisset, Buena Vista is part of the Boisset family of vineyards, with more than 20 wineries worldwide. His family history and knowledge of wine has made Buena Vista an absolute destination for all ages!
The large parking lot must be packed all summer long, but one of the benefits of off-season travel is the easy pace of enjoyment: no lines, no wait, just occasionally limited hours of operation. We walked to the Tasting Room, enjoying the Hedge Labyrinth along the way. The terraces and patios belie the activity this vineyard must experience all summer: droves of guests picnicking at the fountain, enjoying any number of the famous wines offered at the vineyard, private events and weddings taking over the terraces. When we arrived on a cool winters day, we entered the Tasting Room in the old stone Press House, dawdling at the cozy fireplace before ordering a tasting sample.
The Tasting Room is spacious, full of visual distractions that are fun for well-behaved children (if your kid likes crashing into things or likes to throw his favorite toys, maybe a room filled with wine isn’t the best idea – but you probably already know that…..) We parents shared a tasting, keeping an eye on Avi as she explored. The massive underlit onyx table was a big draw for her, and she loved the spinning sensory columns, wrapped with different textures, fabrics and papers – they’re a great tool to understand how people talk about the texture of wine – and also a lovely distraction for little ones.
The Count himself took us on a marvelous tour of the landmarked Visitors Center, telling us the history of the vineyard, the buildings and the area. Back in the 1860s, the Count had hired manual laborers to excavate wine-aging caves from the stone hillside, using that excavated stone to build up the walls of the building. The caves were excavated with picks, and you can see the scars of the blows in the softer limestone areas of the walls. Over the years, the building had deteriorated, but was painstakingly restored and reinforced to withstand earthquakes in 2011 – just in time to survive the terrible earthquake of 2014.
The original cave cellars are still part of the Visitor Center, which also houses a number of delightful tasting rooms. Entering through heavy velvet draperies, the Bubble Lounge feels like a glamorous crystalline speakeasy, where you can enjoy customized champagne tastings. The Blending Cave, located inside one of the original stone caves, invites oenophiles and novices to create custom blends, suited exactly to your taste, and bottle them with personalized labels. The Historic Wine Tool Museum takes up an entire floor: a multi-media display of winemaking tools that date back to the late 18th century. The tools are fascinating, with all kinds of imaginative shapes, and kids of all ages will find something interesting in this museum.
Once the tour was over, we decided to enjoy a leisurely late lunch at the Girl & the Fig, back near the heart of Sonoma. Sondra Bernstein, the Girl herself, opened the restaurant in 1997, and she’s been honing the art of locally sourced, French-inspired American dining ever since. We were delighted to get a comfortable seat in the enclosed back patio area -complete with a wide bench that Avi could spread out on.
Coming from Chicago in early January, we loved being able to eat outside – but the dining room itself is a marvelously casual room; the kind of place you could imagine lingering for hours with good friends, laughing kids, great food and wine. The bar anchoring the entry lounge is a substantial vintage wood bar, probably from the late 19th century, with apertifs, wines by the glass and specials written directly on the warbly mirror.
Speaking of the food! and wine! We ordered an array of options, famished from a busy day of exploring. Heirloom radishes were the singularly most beautiful salad I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying, an array of reds, creams and even a black radish, sprinkled with grey sea salt – “dewishus,” as Avi gladly said, chomping into a crisp disk. The charcuterie platter had a great array of local cheeses, as well as duck prosciutto, mortadella and finocchiona, all made in house. I ordered an amazing swordfish, graced with a delicate yet flavorful coriander crema, while Tyler dug in to the steak frites– perfectly fried potatoes crispy and crunchy next to a lovely rib eye. Avi gladly shared a plate of everything, noshing on fries, steak, fish and delicious bread. A flight of viognier tastings allowed me to explore a range of my favorite varietal, while Tyler enjoyed an oyster stout – beer brewed with oysters! The staff was wonderful, each telling us a little of the history of the restaurant, including their biodynamic relationship with various vineyards and farms in the area: kitchen scraps become compost, feeding the soil, returning via plate or glass – a beautiful cycle of nature, landscape, palette and dining.
You can take some of that beauty with you: a small area of the lounge is dedicated to Sondra’s food and body products. A marvelously sweet-acid fig balsamic vinegar, gooey caramel, and floral/savory salt blends will grace your kitchen, while the lusciously creamy hand creams and body soaps send a little Sonoma spa and sunshine home.
We headed out for one more adventure before sunset: Sonoma’s Train Town. Just one mile south of Sonoma Plaza, Train Town features a quarter-scale railroad on 4 miles of track. My daughter LOVES Thomas the Train, and we knew this had to be on our list of stops. We arrived at 4pm – just in time to catch the last train ride. Thankfully we were there in late season and none of the other rides were open, or we would for sure have heard sadness from our daughter.
Parent Tip: if you’re traveling when it’s warmer and more rides are open, plan for 2 – 3 hours at Train Town. It’s small, but the toddler set will love it all!
Train Town was created by Stanley Frank, a passionate train enthusiast on evenings and weekends, and opened to the public in 1968. The obsessively detailed train and its carriages can carry up to 90 passengers per 20 minute, 4-mile ride, complete with a pause at the Train Town petting zoo.
The Zoo is part of a reproduction mining village, where kids can walk in to the firehouse, church, saloon, general store, or just sit on a little bench at the edge of the pond feeding ducks. Bridges throughout the property are reproductions of famous regional bridges, including the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bridge. Chugging through wooded glades, deer, squirrels and log cabin vignettes elicit gasps of delight and smiles from all. We were thoroughly enchanted by the little park.
We left Train Town just as the gates were closing, around 5pm; an early winter sunset was already darkening the skies. One of the challenges of traveling with a toddler is trying to keep a meal and sleep schedule – so, even though we adults were both sated from our phenomenal lunch, we stopped in at the B&V Bar and Grille facing Sonoma Plaza.
We arrived during happy hour, and ordered half priced truffle fries, steamed broccoli, and chocolate ice cream for Avi, watching the locals come in and catch up with friends at the end of their workday. We said hi to some of the people we’d met throughout the day at Buena Vista and Train Town, laughing about the old tropes – local watering holes are a great place to get the real vibe of a place, and after a full day of adventures, we felt the embracing warmth of a busy town in the off season, delighted to host guests there to enjoy the bounties of any season.
Know before you go
Things to do
- Sonoma State Historic Park
- Sonoma Train Town
- BV Sonoma, 400 1st St E, Sonoma, CA 95476
- Sunflower Cafe, 421 1st St W, Sonoma, CA 95476
- Sweet Scoops Sonoma, 408 1st St E, Sonoma, CA 95476
- The Girl and the Fig, 110 W Spain St, Sonoma, CA 95476
- The Boisset Collection, 849 Zinfandel Ln, St Helena, CA 94574
- Buena Vista Winery, 18000 Old Winery Rd, Sonoma, CA 95476
- Francis Ford Coppola Winery, 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, CA 95441
Photos by Tyler Mallory Photography and the author
Many thanks to Sonoma County for setting up delicious visits to Buena Vista Winery and Girl and the Fig. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t you will be the first to know.