Sonoma Wine Road: Tips for Your Trek

The Wine Road of Northern Sonoma County is celebrating its 40-year anniversary with events throughout the year.

The Wine Road is actually a constellation of about 200 wineries and 50 lodgings in three AVAs: the Russian River Valley, the Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley. Vineyards were planted here in the 19th Century, some date back more than 130 years, when Italian and French immigrants settled in this wine-growing paradise that provides some of the finest Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet.

In March, I was able to see some of the annual festivities, which included sampling the 2015 vintage right out of the barrel. Barrel-tasting is an opportunity to get a glimpse of the wine before it's fully aged and bottled. Oeneophiles are able to buy "futures," getting significant pre-sale deals directly from the winery.

So, three insider tips if you're interested in checking out some of the events in the upcoming year.

First, stay at a wine estate rather than a traditional hotel. I spent a weekend at Tara Bella, a charming winery in the Russian River Valley run by Kevin and Wendy Morrow, who began making wine in their garage three decades ago. Now they make Cabernet Sauvignon aged in French Oak for 22 months.

A view of Tara Bella - Photo by Gina Hall

Second, enjoy the best restaurants in the area. Here are my favorites.

Breakfast: Willow Wood Market Cafe
The locals flock to this out-of-the-way diner in the tiny town of Graton for good coffee and the best breakfast around. The open-face egg salad sandwich is heavenly.

Willow Wood is a great way to line your stomach before wine tasting - Photo by Gina Hall

Lunch: Willi's Wine Bar.
The small-plates menu at this former stagecoach stop is divided into "surf," "turf" and "earth." So you don't have to decide if you're in the mood for curried crab tacos with apple, cucumber and mint; goat cheese gnocchi, exotic mushrooms and truffle fonduta; or filet Mignon sliders topped with creamed spinach and whole-grain mustard Bearnaise, you can just get them all.

Enjoy the small plates at Willi's Wine Bar - Photo by Gina Hall

Dinner: Stark's Steak & Seafood
The best steak joint in the county, located in historic downtown Santa Rosa. Nothing beats a 32-oz. Porterhouse carved at your table. The beef here is of the highest order, from the Snake River Farms Kobe flatiron to the Piedmontese filet Mignon wrapped in bacon. The housemade sauces and rubs are the perfect accompaniment. Well, that and a glass of the local red.

Pickled beet "carpaccio" at Stark's - Photo by Gina Hall

The third tip is to get a driver. The roads are often winding and narrow, but the wine flows generously. So do yourself -- and everyone else -- a favor, and bring a designated driver or, better still, rent a limo for the day. After all, nothing ruins a good buzz more than getting behind the wheel. So be a passenger and drink up (not in the car, of course).