Sounds of nature, birds singing, the gentle breeze blowing through the trees, beautiful mountains to the east and west, and vineyards as far as the eyes can see. Sonoma County is the gentle, laid-back cousin to busy and trendy Napa County. And while the town of Sonoma might be its “city” heart, the small community of Kenwood is near its serene heart.
From Santa Rosa to Sonoma and its beautiful square, Sonoma County has plenty of wonderful options to keep wine travelers busy. But at its heart is Kenwood, a small community with several wineries, family farms, small tasting rooms and exquisite and affordable restaurants.
Spend a day or two in Kenwood and discover the heart of Sonoma County.
From the small — Kaz Winery — to the larger — Blackstone and Chateau St. Jean — the village of Kenwood has enough wineries to keep a visitor busy for days. But the town also has smaller tasting rooms, family farms to tour and wonderful restaurants. If you only have 24 hours to spend in Wine Country, consider this 24-hour jaunt into Sonoma County’s Kenwood, a little more than an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
After picking up your rental car in San Francisco drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and head north toward Wine Country. At Infineon Raceway along Highway 37 turn north on Highway 121 and keep your eyes open for vines. They’re everywhere.
If you haven’t had lunch yet and can’t wait for the 30-minute drive to Kenwood, stop off at Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace. Sure, this is a winery and a tasty one at that. But in addition to a wine bar where you can enjoy a tasting of four wines from an extensive list for $5, scattered around the room are delectable food samples to taste with the winery’s tasty sauces. Once you’ve enjoyed the food samples and wine, buy some lunch — consider a turkey and bacon panini — and take it out to the patio and enjoy the awesome views over the vineyard below.
Whether you stop at Viansa or you’ve decided to drive on into Kenwood, head straight to the Birmingham Bed and Breakfast where you’ll be welcomed by the friendliest innkeeper imaginable, Jerry.
When you stop to check in at the Birmingham, don’t let your schedule be too tight – and you really shouldn’t be operating on a schedule in laid-back Sonoma County anyway. You’ll get sucked into an enjoyable conversation with Jerry and end up forgetting all about the great wine to taste nearby. But do stop by the inn first; you’ll get your card that enables you to enjoy tastings in Sonoma for free.
Once you leave the inn jump back in the car for the very short drive basically across the highway to Chateau St. Jean. It’s close enough to walk, and considering you’re probably going to be sampling plenty of great wines this afternoon, walking might just be a smart thing to do.
Roughly across the highway from the inn is Chateau St. Jean, a larger winery you’ll probably find many of its varietals of back home. But keep an eye out for the wines available only in the tasting room. The tasting fee normally is $10 but with the tasting card from the inn it’s free. You’ll enjoy five wines here at no cost.
After you leave Chateau St. Jean go a hundred yards or so north to Kaz Winery. If you’re looking for an eccentric winery experience, Kaz is your place. Billed as the smallest winery open in the valley, Kaz is a unique little place that keeps production small.
Richard Kasmier started Kaz Winery in 1994 with 400 cases. After hitting a peak of 2,000 cases a year in 2005, the winery has scaled back down to 1,000 cases produced a year. But don’t be fooled by the small production numbers; Kaz averages two barrels per wine, meaning there are lots of options to choose from. Kaz isn’t just about the tasty wine, either. The wine labels themselves are a sight to behold.
And while you’ll have a great time tasting the wines at Kaz’s little family owned and run winery, step it up a notch by signing up for Winemaker U and learn more about what goes into Kaz’s great wines.
If you plan to visit Kaz you better plan accordingly. The winery is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It’s open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every other day.
Considering most wineries in Sonoma and Napa valleys close in the 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. range, you’re probably out of time for wineries on day 1. And besides, you probably don’t need anymore to drink before dinner anyway.
And speaking of dinner, hopefully you arranged with Jerry to make a reservation at Doce Lunas, a fantastic little restaurant in Kenwood. Sure, you could drive south into Sonoma for some excellent dining choices. But this is a day in Kenwood, remember? And Doce Lunas is a fantastic dining experience at decent prices. Walk over and enjoy the family dinner, which will include a soup, such as shrimp and corn chowder; salad; a choice of entree and dessert. If your body can handle more wine, there are plenty of choices here.
By this point your body is probably in a food and wine coma. It’s a good thing the Birmingham is such a comfortable place. There aren’t any TVs in the room, perfect for unwinding with a good book or just simply a deep sleep after so much wine.
The second “B” stands for breakfast and at the Birmingham B&B you’re in for a special treat. An obvious staple at most bed-and-breakfast inns is breakfast. Some are fantastic while others are pretty basic. It often can depend on the culinary skills of the innkeeper.
At the Birmingham, don’t be fooled by the fact Jerry is a former coach and educator. This man knows his way around the kitchen. His breakfasts are pure genius. And not only are they creative, they are fresh. One day it might include strawberries from a farm across the street or cantaloupe from a neighbor’s property. One breakfast could include Jerry’s Birmingham eggs: an egg quiche, kind-of-souffle dish. And of course a little dab of his wife, Nancy’s, homemade strawberry jam is sure to hit the spot.
With stomachs full head out for what should be considered one of the great highlights of any trip to Wine Country, a visit to a family vineyard. And when in Kenwood, make the MacLeod Family Vineyard a priority.
The MacLeods have been growing grapes on the eastern-facing hill overlooking the valley for more than 30 years. They had been providing their suistanably grown grapes to area wineries, including Kenwood and Benziger nearby. But a few years back they started making their own wines with the MacLeod label.
Located just a few minutes from the Birmingham is the MacLeod family farm. When you arrive, Marjorie will be waiting outside the barn. She’s the daughter-in-law of founder George MacLeod.
Don’t come to MacLeod wearing your fancy tasting room dress. Not that you’ll get down and dirty, necessarily, but the mode of transportation around this working farm is a pickup truck where you and the family dog will find a seat on a bale of hay in the back.
Oh, and Marjorie will put you to work. After a short drive up the hill you’ll get out and walk around the vineyard before getting to clip your own grapes off the vine; they’re quite sweet and tasty.
After your minor “farm chores” you and other guests will take a seat at a picnic table below a large shade tree overlooking the vineyards where you will sample the family’s wines along with fruit and cheeses. After the wine pairing you’ll end back down at the barn where you can try your hand at crushing the grapes you picked.
Yes, the tasting rooms of Sonoma County offer plenty of fantastic wines and experiences. But time spent with the MacLeod family in their small vineyard learning about the process is a true travel moment that shouldn’t be missed. Make sure you make a reservation. MacLeod isn’t licensed to run a formal tasting room. But the $15 intimate tour is so much better than anything found in a tasting room.
Once you purchase a few bottles of the MacLeod wines, head back down to the highway where you’ll find Blackstone, a wine you’ve probably seen in your grocer back home. The merlot in particular is a quality product at a nice price point.
Leave the larger tasting room experience of Blackstone and find your way back to the heart of Kenwood and a tiny tasting room that packs its own punch at VJB Vineyards & Cellars. This family-owned tasting room in Kenwood’s tiny main business district is a short walk south from the Birmingham B&B. Find a spot at one of the handful of picnic tables in the center of the room, have a seat, and let the fun begin.
VJB, owned by the Belmonte family with Italian roots, makes Italian-style wines in addition to plenty of Sonoma County staples. Start out with a glass of prosecco or the Mendocino barbera. You won’t be disappointed. Purchase a bottle or two and feel good about bringing something home that no one else will have. The amount of cases produced here numbers in the hundreds, not thousands. General tastings are offered daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jerry’s large breakfast probably would be enough to last the day, but don’t miss a true tasting room experience that combines the best of Sonoma County’s fresh foods with its great wines. Be sure you make a reservation at the Mayo Family Winery’s Reserve Room, located at 9200 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood.
Sure, you can find numerous exquisite restaurants scattered throughout Sonoma and Napa counties. But the rare dining treat is walking into a winery’s special tasting room that combines its wines with a superbly prepared meal. At Mayo Family Winery’s Reserve Room, guests are seated in an intimate room where they will enjoy a seven-course pairing menu along with seven Mayo Family Reserve wines. Visit the winery’s website to make a reservation. Mayo Family Winery has three locations to taste its wines, including the winery itself at 13101 Arnold Drive at Highway 12.
As you head back to San Francisco, if there is time stop at any number of other places in and around Kenwood, including the village’s namesake winery, Kenwood, to the many wineries along the road south toward San Francisco in Glen Elen or even Sonoma town.