When we first moved to Monterey, we talked a lot about all the nearby places we might want to visit. One place that came up more than once, especially when talking about friends coming to visit, was Napa Valley. At the time I was pregnant and the idea of going to wine country when I couldn’t enjoy the wine did not sound fun. Add the idea of chasing a high energy toddler around and I had pretty much written off the idea of visiting wine country during our time in California.
Fast forward several months: I’ve had the baby, we’re getting back into the groove of taking small trips, and we had the chance to visit one winery in Paso Robles. After our experience there went so well, I started to open back up to the idea of visiting either Napa or Sonoma Valley. Based on the advice of a couple friends from the area, we decided to visit Sonoma over Napa. Sonoma was described to us as being more mellow, more family friendly, more authentic (less touristy), and less expensive. All things that were music to our ears!
So after some planning, researching, and talking with our resident expert friends we set off on a long weekend in Sonoma Valley! Our first stop was not exactly in Sonoma Valley, but it wasn’t that far off. The Jelly Belly Factory is in Fairfield, California and is a working factory with free tours. Our daughter LOVES jellybeans, especially when they come in princess packages! We thought this would be something fun for her to do on a weekend where most of the activities would revolve around the adults wine tasting. The visitor center had a surprisingly long line for the tour which concerned me a bit. However, it moved fairly quickly and within 20 minutes or so we had started our tour. I stood in line while my husband entertained our daughter by looking around the gift shop and sampling jellybeans and fudge (yes they have a chocolate shop inside too!).
The tour starts out by handing everyone a Jelly Belly hat that must be worn inside the factory. Shockingly, our daughter did not protest said hat. You are then brought upstairs to look at several jellybean mosaics of famous people. Next you are walked over to a green screen and a model of Mr. Jelly Belly the jellybean for a family photo (for purchase after the tour). Then after a few more minutes of waiting and a sample jellybean, you are led into the factory to see where all the action is. If you take this tour, it’s best to be at the front of the group. We were toward the back and consequently could not hear some of the narration by our tour guide. Throughout the tour there are video monitors playing clips of information and videos, we also missed out seeing some of those because of our positioning. All in all the tour was fun, we enjoyed seeing the process of making the candies and seeing the shear quantities of jellybeans in production! My other recommendation for visiting is that you check the calendar, the factory itself is not in operation on the weekends and holidays. So if you tour when the factory is not operating, you will not see the machines running or anything being made. You will just see stationary machinery and the videos on the monitor.
From the tour, we drove a few minutes into town to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch. The Jelly Belly visitor center has a cafe that has good reviews on TripAdvisor, but we were in the mood for something different. After lunch we started our drive into the wine region. Our winery for the day was Larson Family Winery. A winery recommended on a few blogs as being good for families. The setup of the winery and tasting room was great for families. There was an indoor tasting room which led to an outdoor courtyard. It was enclosed enough that children were contained with still having room to let them wander a bit and stretch their legs. The winery also has three friendly labs roaming around looking for bits of shade to lay in or a dropped piece of food to gobble up. There were many picnic tables around and a large turf area with cornhole boards set up. The afternoon we were there a few other large parties of young, childless, singles were also visiting. The language was a bit colorful, and once the games of cornhole started, it became harder to keep our daughter out of the line of fire. So after our wine flight was finished, we didn’t waste time picking up and heading out the door.
We continued our drive to downtown Sonoma. There is a quaint square in the center of town lined with shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. We happened to park in front of the Sonoma Cheese Factory, and spur of the moment decided to pick up picnic supplies there and walk them across the street to the park to let our daughter play. Sonoma Cheese Factory had everything we needed to make a tasty picnic dinner. We grabbed paninis, olives, cheese, grapes, and of course a bottle of wine! It turns out in Sonoma it is legal to sit at the park with a glass (or plastic cup) of wine! Our daughter played while we ate and sipped on a bench. It turned out to be the perfect way to do dinner that night.
The next morning, we drove a few minutes down the road from our hotel to Lumberjack’s in Petaluma. This probably isn’t most people’s first idea of where to eat breakfast in wine country, there are certainly more gourmet, quaint, and refined places to eat. But the food at Lumberjack’s good, cheap, and portions were big. Just like the sign says, “where the big boys eat.” Go here if you’re looking for a quick diner style breakfast.
Next up, we drove up Highway 12 to Landmark Vineyards. Along the way we passed several other wineries that looked like they would’ve been fun to visit. I had Landmark on my list of places to go because they do horse-drawn carriage rides on Saturdays. The property itself is very beautiful. The courtyard has colorful flowers, manicured shrubs, and a gorgeous aqua fountain. It felt very mediterranean to me. It just so happened we ran into a lady from my running group who was also in Sonoma for the weekend with her family. We had intended to only be at Landmark for a short time before visiting another place, but because we ran into friends we ended up staying almost the whole day!
By the time we left Landmark, our baby girl was in need of a nap and it was late in the day. So instead of pushing our luck and trying to drag her to another winery, we decided to take a scenic drive out to the coast. We drove River Road along the Russian River all the way out to Jenner and then down Highway 1 to Bodega Bay where we turned inland and headed into Santa Rosa. This was a beautiful, scenic drive. River Road was enclosed in trees with leaves changing color. We passed vineyards turning a gorgeous shade of gold. And once you get to the coast, you’re treating with ocean views and coastal scenery. We chose to stop in Santa Rosa for dinner so we could visit a place a friend of ours had raved about-the Russian River Brewing Company. It is an award wining brewery with a line out the door to prove it. We waited in line at least 30 minutes just to make it inside to speak to the hostess. It was then another 30 minutes or so before we were seated at a table. It would’ve been shorter if we didn’t have the kids, but because we did we had to be seated in the dining room instead of the bar area. I should note that there is open seating on their patio out front if you can find a table. The wait didn’t bother us much though, luckily our daughter was in good spirits and the free garlic cheese bread seemed to satisfy her until we could order our pizzas. While it was family friendly, I don’t know if I’d make this place a priority unless you have some serious beer enthusiasts in your family. It might be a place more suited for the kid-free population. Most of all, go early! The line is no joke!
The next morning we headed out to Forestville with the intent on visiting a nearby winery. However, plans got changed last minute but since we were there we stopped in at a cute outdoor patio restaurant called Backyard. This place was delicious! Every plate I saw come out looked amazing. They are known for their donuts and chicken and waffles, yes please!
After asking our waiter for some advice on wineries to visit, we drove out to Iron Horse Vineyards. I was excited about this one because they are known for their sparkling wines which happen to be my favorite! Down a small one lane road littered with potholes, and up a hill sits Iron Horse. This vineyard wasn’t really set up for young children. There weren’t many tables to sit at, and everyone seemed to be crowded around the outdoor tasting bar. I’m not sure if there was an indoor tasting room, if there was it didn’t appear to be open. It is also perched on top of a hill. Great views of vineyards, but no railings to keep curious toddlers from falling down the hill. There was also an oyster bar which my hubby would’ve loved, but we decided this wasn’t the place for us so we loaded up and headed out to the next stop. I would return here if I had a kid-free weekend though, it looked fun!
Our next attempt was at Korbel. We had been told that the property there was very beautiful with gorgeous gardens. Korbel offers free tours of the cellar hourly and only a few times of day for the gardens. Since we had visited a few champagne houses in France, I had an idea of what the cellar tour would be like and it didn’t sound all that appealing to try and bring our restless two year old. We decided to walk over to the tasting room and see if there was a good area to sit and taste. There’s plenty of picnic tables outside, but there isn’t anyone to pour tastings for you should you choose to sit there. You can do complimentary tastings of up to four varieties inside the tasting room standing at the bar. Again, this wasn’t quite the set up we were looking for so we tasted one or two types of champagne and plotted our next move.
We noticed on the map that we were close to Rodney Strong. We had been given a bottle of Rodney Strong in Germany by a friend who grew up in Santa Rosa. And if you notice the picture from our picnic in Sonoma square, we bought a bottle for ourselves just a few nights prior. So we decided to just take a chance and go out to the property. We were very pleased when we arrived. This was just what we had been looking for. There was a terrace with an outdoor bar and large grassy area. We loaded up some snacks, diapers, toys, and a blanket and plopped ourselves right in the middle of that grassy lawn. The gentlemen at the tasting bar were kind enough to bring our pours out to us on the lawn and we were free to just relax and let our daughter play.
We stayed until it was closing time about 5:00. Everyone enjoyed themselves. That evening we found a small Nepalese restaurant not far from our hotel. We gorged ourselves on naan, and then retired back to the hotel room to get a good night’s sleep for the drive back home in the morning.
We loved visiting Sonoma! It’s the kind of trip that doesn’t require a well laid out itinerary. Half the fun is coming and going as you please and just relaxing in a beautiful environment. Older kids may need some more entertainment than our young children. I wore our son in the baby carrier pretty much the whole time, and our toddler was content to run around open spaces, look at books, or watch a video on the iPad. We tasted some great wine, enjoyed the scenery, and relaxed with our family. All in all a wonderful way to spend a weekend!
Where we stayed-Hotel Petaluma, a historic hotel under construction in downtown Petaluma, the price was right, room was comfortable, but there’s no parking! Be prepared to carry your luggage!
Where we ate-Sonoma Cheese Factory (downtown Sonoma, paninis, coffee, ice cream, snacks, and wine), Lumberjack’s (Petaluma, inexpensive diner), Russian River Brewing Company (in Santa Rosa, award winning beer and decent pizza), Backyard (Forestville, lovely patio and delicious dishes)