6 reasons to visit Sonoma in 2016

Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery at Sonoma, California
Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery at Sonoma, California

Napa Valley, of course, started California's wine revolution, but in recent years neighboring Sonoma County has become a celebrated wine destination in its own right with its scenic vineyards, high-end boutiques and sublime Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties. Sure, Napa may boast larger and more well-known wineries, but Sonoma Valley boasts its own superlative tasting rooms. And while the two valleys are both renowned for their picturesque settings and rolling, vine-strewn hills, Sonoma, with its cozy inns, farm-to-table fare and fewer crowds offers plenty of enticements for wine enthusiasts. Plus, as spring ushers in lush, green landscapes, now is the perfect time to plan a trip. With that in mind, here are six reasons to visit Sonoma.

You Can Enjoy Free Wine Tastings

Along Sonoma's Wine Road, you'll find more than 400 wineries welcoming the public for tastings, and the chance to purchase wines that are often unavailable or difficult to find elsewhere. Even better, at more than 60 of the wineries, you can score free tastings. While some wineries simply don't charge, others are on the Visa Signature Perks plan, which allows cardholders to receive complimentary tastings for two, a savings of around $20 or more per person. Plus, the Visa Signature program also cardholders to receive discounts on purchases made at the qualifying wineries.

You'll Embrace Sonoma's Subtler Charms

Smaller and more neighborly than Napa, downtown Sonoma features a lovely square with a park at its center and a storied city hall. Known as Sonoma Plaza, the area ranks as the largest plaza in California. After checking out the plaza, visit the state historic park, which takes up one block of Spain Street and encompasses a number of noteworthy Spanish colonial sites, including the Mission San Francisco Solano, the 21st and last mission built in Alta California. Meanwhile, the historic El Dorado Hotel and Kitchen, with its highly touted restaurant overlooks the plaza, and the elegant Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, sits only a few blocks from the plaza and is known for its fresh California fare at Santé restaurant. Should you need a break from wine tastings, savor craft cocktails and modern munchies at Whiskey Bar & Grill downtown or check out the shops, galleries and eateries around the plaza. Foodies should also carve out some time to explore the Sonoma Cheese Factory, which offers essential picnic ingredients, from wine and local cheese varieties to fresh sandwiches.

You Can Check Out the Quaint Town of Healdsburg

A shopper's and diner's delight, Healdsburg, too, centers itself around a charming plaza. Occupying less than five square miles, the area is chock-full of wine tasting rooms, galleries and fun gift and clothing shops. If you want to pick up a memorable souvenir, make sure to check out Studio Barndiva for local artwork. And if you're interested in staying in the area, the Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, a Four sisters Inn, will put you in the thick of the town's charm and action in stylish accommodations.

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You Can Visit Madrona Manor

For inimitable surroundings and an over-the-top dining experience in the Healdsburg area, check out Madrona Manor, a beautiful Victorian mansion built in 1881. The grounds overlook gorgeous vineyards and feature vibrant gardens, a lovely pool, citrus trees and fresh vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Guests can reserve luxury suites in the mansion, the Carriage House, the School House and other cottages and vintage structures. After exploring the property grounds, make sure to check out the dining room inside the mansion for an elegant foray into molecular gastronomy that is sure to appease your taste buds.

You Can Explore the Sonoma Raceway

Home to the nationally televised NASCAR, IndyCar and motorcycle races, the Sonoma Raceway is a little-known bonus attraction for car enthusiasts visiting the area. Set at the southern threshold to California wine country, the Sonoma Raceway features a scenic, hilly track that visitors can tour for free when there are no racing events. And on many days you can watch drivers enrolled in its Audi sportscar experience take to the track or suit up and ride the tracks yourself. Car enthusiasts won't want to miss the spit-and-shine garage housing McLarens and other luxe cars. After your visit, wash away the road dust with a short drive to nearby Ram's Gate Winery, Viansa Sonoma Winery or Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, which offers free wine tastings to the general public.

You Can Visit Superlative Beaches

Sonoma's best edge over Napa Valley just might be what lies at the edge of its western shore – Pacific Ocean beaches. Rugged cliffs overlook golden sands and migrating gray whales for more than 55 miles along the dramatic coastline. And if you plan a spring trip, keep your eyes peeled for whales, which head southbound from Alaska to Mexico (volunteers can be found at Bodega Head to help spot whales and answer questions). Other crowd-pleasing beaches include Bowling Ball Beach, Goat Rock Beach and Salmon Creek Beach.

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