Sonoma Roars Back with Activities and Open Arms

November 3, 2017 at 9:28 pm


Sonoma vineyard

There was a raging inferno in Sonoma County last month as the world’s eyes were transfixed on the national news. But travelers should imagine another scenario now that the fires have been contained. Picture open tasting rooms with friendly wine attendants ready for conversation. Swimming pools and spas filled with tourists. Savory, tantalizing aromas emanating from the kitchens of Sonoma’s top restaurants.

Reflecting on the past few weeks, Sonoma officials are embracing visitors once again, and they remain grateful for those who helped save the community. “We are forever indebted to the heroes who fought these fires and kept our wineries and small businesses safe, and so many of our historic buildings intact and undamaged,” says Jonny Westom, executive director of Experience Sonoma Valley. “I, along with all of the businesses in the Valley, are eager to roll out a friendly wine country welcome to tourists near and far with the assurance that they will enjoy a wonderful vacation with us.”

In light of all that has happened, Sonoma as a fall getaway still provides guests a relaxing respite. In addition, folks who want to help Sonoma get back on financial track can do so by paying a weekend visit. You can explore more than 50 miles of Pacific coastline that forms Sonoma County’s western border.

Where else can visitors go and do? Emotions will probably run high on Saturday, November 18 when the city celebrates with an annual lighting ceremony at the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza. More than 150,000 holiday lights will light up the historic site at dusk. Marking the start of the festive season, the plaza will glow every night with more than 150,000 sparkling lights, strung across all eight acres along California’s largest historic plaza.

During your weekend pass to Sonoma, you can pay homage to the many wineries that are now open. It’s good to know that, thankfully, none of Sonoma Valley’s one hundred-plus wineries were destroyed. Today, tasting rooms are open for pouring ust as they have been before.

And since Sonoma Valley is entering shoulder season, you can nab great hotel rates and go to restaurants without much wait at all. You can find a variety of deals during this bonus time. Book a $150 Romance Package at the Kelley & Young Wine Garden Inn in Cloverdale. For other special offers, see

You can also bring your family and meet the furry friends who were saved at Santa Rosa’s Safari West. There’s so much more in Sonoma Valley for adults and families than meets the eye. There are lush hiking trails across 13,000 acres of state and regional parks, historic architecture peppered throughout the region, downtown shopping areas, spas and geothermal springs, and plenty of quaint towns such as Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma.

Culture mavens can also have their ears, eyes, and appetites tickled on December 2. At the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, SVMA will once again present Pairings for the Senses. Folks will come together to enjoy featured exhibitions, poetry, and a sampling of regional cuisine. Tickets at run $35 for members and $40 for the general public.

When you want a curated itinerary so you don’t have to think about the details, the tourism bureau has several listed on its website aimed at different types of travelers and interests. See

“We invite you to come see us,” encourages Tim Zahner, interim CEO of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. “Come help us recover from the recent wildfires by allowing us to delight you with world-class hospitality, awe-inspiring views, and sensory experiences unlike any other. It’s what we do best.”

If you need assistance planning your Sonoma vacation, check out California Tours Sonoma and Napa Vacation packages. (Note to readers: California Tours will be donating ten percent towards supporting the needs of first responders to the Napa fire).

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Dallas Morning News, and many other publications. She is also the founder of, a website for families who love adventure.

Napa Valley is Back

November 3, 2017 at 9:21 pm

Autumn Napa vineyard


Return and Support the Community, say officials

The blaze that lit Napa Valley on Sunday, October 15 at 10 p.m. sparked national headlines.   Media coverage of the conflagration was so widespread and exaggerated that many believed that all of Northern California was being consumed. What many outside Napa failed to realize was that the actual tourist corridor, namely the valley floor, where many of the wineries, spas, and hotels stand were largely unscathed. Stresses Napa resident Monty J. Sander, “The fires were in the mountain ridges. The floor of the Valley had no damage at all.” According to Napa officials, the fire ravaged the eastern and western hills, and fortunately, only a few businesses were singed and burned.

Now with the flames contained, there’s no better time than now to come, says Sander, “Visitors are definitely returning,” he observes. “Hotels are receiving bookings, and locals are getting out in big numbers to support the restaurants and businesses. A lot of people are pretty thankful at the moment.”

In an act of solidarity, this week Napa Valley mayors and government officials rode the iconic Napa Wine Train together to announce that the Napa Valley is reopened for business. According to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism bureau, “Currently only four wineries have reported being closed due to fire damage,” says Angela Jackson, spokesperson for Visit Napa Valley. “The majority of more than 400 wineries were open and hosting guests just days after the fires started. Additionally, all restaurants, tours and activities are welcoming guests.”

This is a time where a visitor’s dollar counts more than ever, Sanders adds.   Tourists will do well to frequent the wineries and attractions without too many crowds and participate in a slice of recent history. To encourage people to come, many local businesses are donating a portion of their proceeds towards fire relief. Indian Springs Calistoga and Napa Valley Lodge will be donating $10 a night per reservation to  for all reservations made by November 9 for stay dates from now through November 30.

Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch and Solage , operating on schedule, are providing complimentary nights that encourage guests to linger as well as resort credit for spa treatments and restaurant meals. “Every stay helps heal the valley,” say Auberge officials. In fact, Auberge will match funds to the Napa Valley Community fund when guests make their own donations.

Other hoteliers are providing specials and discounts to attract visitors. At the Napa River Inn, the boutique property is offering a fourth night free after three paid consecutive nights when bookings occur November through February.

Hospitality vendors from various industries are also hosting benefit events together. The Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa is partnering with the Von Strasser Family of Wines and Brian Arden Wines to put on an outdoor movie night on Thursday, November 2nd at 5:30pm to benefit the Napa Valley Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund. A full 100% of each $30 ticket and proceeds from wine sales will be donated to help families and businesses affected by the wildfires.

Museums in the area are flinging doors wide and posting events as scheduled. In November in Yountville which was previously blocked during the fire, the Napa Valley Museum will be hosting the world premiere of “France is a Feast,” a photo journey following the famous cooking celebrity, Julia Child and her husband Paul. The rarely seen black and white photos were taken by Paul between 1948 and 1954.

Restaurants are welcoming visitors and planning celebrations. In fact, La Toque, a Michelin-starred winner, will continue to wow guests with its 20th annual Thanksgiving feast featuring a turkey and the trimmings, and its famous Chef Ken’s famous turkey sandwich leftovers as a parting gift for each diner.

The city itself is going to celebrate the holidays with fervor. Napa’s 55th Annual Christmas Parade, is slated for Saturday, Nov. 25 at 5 p.m. As in year’s past, locals will decorate parade entries, including cars, horses and even children, with festive lights. Santa Claus will be in the “Big Chair on the Riverfront” to hear Christmas wishes.

The celebrations this November and December will have an added dimension of significance after all that has happened. “We are humbled by the incredible dedication we have seen from the emergency service response teams who continue to work to keep everyone safe,” remarks Clay Gregory, president & CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “The outpouring of support from around the world has been heartwarming to everyone in our community, and the spirit of collaboration to rebuild and reopen is remarkable. Our thoughts remain with those impacted by these wildfires, including the more than 13,000 people whose jobs are supported by the Napa Valley tourism industry,” adds Gregory.

If you need assistance planning your vacation, check out California Tours Napa Vacation packages. (Note to readers: California Tours will be donating ten percent towards supporting the needs of first responders to the Napa fire).


Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Dallas Morning News, and many other publications. She is also the founder of, a website for families who love adventure.

Must-See Sonoma County Itinerary

May 13, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Sonoma County is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 450 wineries. The food-centric region boasts hundreds of restaurants, from historic roadhouses, to contemporary locavore pubs, to many Michelin-starred destinations. Like any great region, there are numerous natural landmarks here, as well, including historic state parks, and beautiful ranches dating back to the 1800s.

Adding to the pleasure, each geographical area within Sonoma County’s million-plus acres offers its own distinctive treasures, as diverse as coastal ocean cliffs to inland mountain ranges. Indeed, you could easily spend two or three days in each area, and only scratch the surface.

With so many wonderful choices, a first-time visit might seem overwhelming. But take a dip with our highlights guide, and discover a taste of the most celebrated experiences. Follow along as we explore the “must-sees” of Sonoma Valley, the town of Sonoma, and the Carneros area just south of it all.

Day 1

The birthplace of the California’s commercial wine industry in the 1850s, Sonoma Valley now covers more than 14,000 acres of vineyards, dotted with more than 50 wineries and tasting rooms. Rich with bucolic farms and some 13,000 acres of open parkland, Sonoma Valley also boasts some of the County’s best outdoor recreational activities.

So prime yourself for a busy day with a hearty breakfast at El Molino Central. It doesn’t look like much from the outside of its small white stucco frame, but inside, there are organic heirloom corn kernels being painstakingly hand-ground on a stone wheel for tortillas and tamales. Dig into the mouthwatering chilaquiles topped in soft-scrambled Field of Greens eggs, roasted tomato and Alma’s salsa verde, and be sure to add a side of refried Rancho Gordo heritage beans.

El Molino Central

El Molino Central

Other options:

  • Community Café, a Mad Men-like retro diner with modern dishes like Truffled Eggs & Toast, a sumptuous soufflé of thick-sliced toasted English muffin stuffed with egg yolks, draped in fontina cheese, broiled, then smothered in sautéed wild mushrooms, asparagus and a drizzle of truffle oil.
  • Sunflower Caffe Espresso & Wine Bar, where the specialty is sweet or spicy chai latte “dirty” style, with a shot of espresso added (great with the Peruvian spiced chicken omelet with cilantro lime cream, sweet-spicy aji chile crema and black bean chili).

A visit to Buena Vista Winery is next, to see the oldest commercial winery in California.  Founded in 1857, it’s complete with caves that are now historical landmarks. The buildings and cave have recently been renovated for modern safety measures, but remain elegantly dark and mysterious, with a new attraction: an interactive museum of ancient winemaking tools.

Buena Vista Winery

Buena Vista Winery

Now head to the 400-acre Bartholomew Memorial Park just over the hillside, which is also home to Bartholomew Park Winery. The on-site museum shares the long history of Sonoma winemaking, including a display of primitive agricultural tools used since the park’s original villa was built in 1861.

Other options:

You’re ready to catch your breath for a few minutes, so dig your toes into the grass beneath the shade trees in the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza (the largest such plaza in California). When you’re ready to get up, lunch is just steps away, at the famous The Girl & the Fig. The French-country restaurant has built its reputation on stellar, seasonal plates like duck egg ravioli with spring mushrooms, onion crema, green garlic, spring peas and baby carrots sprinkled in smoked paprika.

The Girl and the Fig

The Girl and the Fig

Other options:

The Plaza is great for shopping in the many boutiques, art galleries and gourmet food stores lining its sidewalks. You’ll also want to tour the National Historic Landmark adobe buildings right along the walkway, designed in 1834 by the Mexican Governor Mariano Vallejo. Stop, too, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, designated as the largest visual arts organization in the San Francisco North Bay region.

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

That evening, stay at El Dorado, a 27-room luxury boutique hotel dating to the 1840s but completely modernized and charming with four poster beds and French doors leading to private balconies overlooking the Plaza and gardens.

El Dorado Hotel

El Dorado Hotel

Other options:

For dinner, the AAA Four Diamond Award Santé  restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a worthy, and most memorable indulgence in upscale California cuisine. Treat yourself to the 7-course chef’s tasting menu including amuse and cheese plate — sweet butter poached lobster is an entree signature. Sip, too, since the wine list features more than 500 Sonoma and Napa wines.

Day 2

Carneros spans 8,000 vineyard acres with more than 20 wineries, tucked atop San Pablos Bay just south of the town of Sonoma. There’s lots to see, so fuel yourself with a big breakfast at The Fremont Diner, where chef-owner Chad Harris fills our bellies with Sunset magazine award-winning comfort food like fried chicken and waffles, fried fruit pie, chicory coffee, fluffy biscuits and creamy gravy.

Schug Carneros Estate Winery is another nearby treasure, internationally renowned for its Pinot Noirs. The place is classic, set on a hillside of vineyards bordered by rose bushes, a German chalet-style winery, and stone caves lined with wine barrels.

Zip over to another icon, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, to toast your adventures with the signature sparkling wine at just around the Hwy. 121 bend. Established nearly 30 years ago, this winery was the first sparkling wine house in the Carneros area, though you’ll learn on your entertaining, educational tour through the caves and vista terrace that the Ferrer family has been making sparkling wines for more than 150 years.

Gloria Ferrer

Gloria Ferrer

Other options:

In December of 2013, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa was named the No. 1 restaurant in all of America, courtesy of Open Table. So what better place for a star-studded lunch, featuring a six-course tasting menu prepared by executive chef David Bush paired with wines from St. Francis’ artisan collection? You might have bouillabaisse of fresh fish and shellfish, fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds and grilled crostini topped in rouille with a glass Cabernet Franc, for example, plus grilled bavette of beef with Bloomsdale spinach in sesame-miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips and truffled ponzu alongside a glass of Merlot.

Other options:

  • Madrone Vineyards Estate, originally built in 1887, but recently remodeled with a new small bites pairing
  • Hamel Family Wines with breathtaking glass and wood architecture; try the Reserve Experience with a cheese-charcuterie board and small bites

Soak up even more beauty at Jack London Historic State Park just minutes away, which the renowned 19th Century author himself called “Beauty Ranch.” You can easily spend at least three hours here, strolling around the House of Happy Walls museum, London’s famous writing cottage, the Wolf House ruins, the delightful and innovative Pig Palace, barns, the lake and bathhouse. Hikers and horseback riders share the 26-mile trails, too, marked by a 2,000 year-old redwood tree.

Other options:

All this exercise means you can reward yourself with an extra fine dinner, and there is little finer than Glen Ellen Star, where former French Laundry talent Ari Weiswasser draws crowds nightly for his award-winning California-Mediterranean cuisine. The menu changes frequently with the seasons, but always celebrates a fire-fed wood oven for favorites like wood roasted heirloom baby carrots smoothed in Oaxacan mole and topped in sesame seed brittle; and wood oven roasted lamb meatballs atop couscous, red charmoula and preserved lemon. Save room for a sweet finish of homemade salted peanut butter ice cream.

Glen Ellen Star

Glen Ellen Star

Other options:

Need more information, please visit

If you need help in planning your getaway, check out our Napa and Sonoma Valley vacation package.

Carey Sweet is a food, wine and travel journalist based in Sonoma County. You can read her work in the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Time Inc. publications, airline travel magazines, Gannett newspapers and numerous travel magazines and websites. Follow her on

Napa Valley- Reservations Required

November 27, 2012 at 12:33 am

Appointment only wineries are worth it! They say wine is like a story and Napa Valley certainly has a lot. Don’t miss your opportunity to get all the juicy details from insiders. Wineries requiring reservations offer one-on-one time and often the chance to meet the winemakers themselves. Don’t deprive yourself of the true VIP experience by only sticking strictly with public tasting.  Make a reservation and finally find the time to relax, have a glass of wine, and take advantage of the intimate setting at these “exclusive” wineries.

Straight from the vine, freshly picked Napa Valley Grapes

Pros-Not the most experienced wine connoisseurs-fear not. Surprisingly the appointment only wineries are not as exclusive and highbrow as many may think. The wineries we experienced were down to earth and most importantly not phased by our sometimes-remedial questions.  The value of tasting are largely better, by limiting the number of patron wineries can focus on quality control rather than surviving the bum rush at the tasting bar. Savor the moment, no one is rushing you and you have the wine host all to your self. With private tasting you have a captive audience, the pourer has no reason to move on to bigger wallets- don’t be shy to ask for seconds.

Cons– yes you do have to pay a tasting fee that is on average more expensive than the public wineries. Keep in mind you are also paying for the opportunity to taste some superior quality wines available nowhere else. Why not bring home a Souvenir; often tasting fees are waived when you decide take a bottle home.

Wanting to try the experience for ourselves we called ahead and made appointments with two of Napa’s hidden gems: Fleury Estate and Schweiger Vineyard & Winery.

Front patio view from Fluery Estate Winery, Napa Valley

Appointment only Fleury Estate Winery lives up to its motto: 100% Good Juice. Their wine BDX is featured exclusively on French Laundry’s Tasting Menu- an honor that is not overlooked in the valley. Owners’ son, Eric, admits that they have no plans of making their wine available in stores anytime soon. Despite their upscale following Fleury’s atmosphere is surprising casual and fun. Eric was charming and candidly shared some of the family stories behind the wines. We spent most of our appointment with him and his passion for the family business was obvious.  Tasting highlights include: Reserve Howell Mountain BDX and the Port.

Schweiger Vineyard & Winery, Napa Valley

Historically Napa Wineries have been family owned. Boutique appointment only wineries, like Schweiger, are keeping this tradition alive, keeping both grape growing and wine making in the family. Upon arrival at this mountaintop vineyard we observed owner Fred Schweiger running a tractor through the rows. Erin our hostess sat on the balcony and chatted with us like an old friend. She told us about the wine, family history and even doted on her favorite vineyard dog.  We learned that every year wine-maker and son Andrew releases his Dedication Wine, of which he honors someone important in his life. We easily could have spent our entire day there our day was that enjoyable; at Schweiger Vineyards & Winery, “…what’s important is family and friends”.  Highlights: cheese plate with tasting & cellar and “wine blending tour”.

Interested in visiting similar appointment only wineries in Napa Valley? For a complete listing of appointment only wineries in Napa Valley please see Check out California Tours’ Napa Valley Packages and book your private wine country get-away today!