If you would like to travel after sheltering in place for a couple of years but flying still feels too risky, why not explore the world-class destination that is our Sonoma County backyard?
People from all over the world are drawn to the area we are fortunate to call home and spend thousands of dollars to experience what we can so easily access.
Four local inns have wine-lover appeal. The Gables Wine Country Inn in Santa Rosa, Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen and Raford Inn in Healdsburg have working vineyards on the property, while the newly renovated Madrona, previously best known for its Michelin-star restaurant, has a compelling wine list.
A 25-acre vineyard, with sheep often roaming through it, gives guests a glimpse of the ranch’s holistic approach to grape growing.
Alex Benward, 38, and Lauren Benward, 41, are the fifth generation of family members to live and work on the ranch that dates back to 1936. Alex is president and oversees the farming operations, while Lauren handles sales and hospitality.
Alex and horticulturist Kelly Koeberer often give guests tours of the vineyard, planted primarily to sauvignon blanc, field blends and zinfandel.
“Alex and Kelly used to be focusing on sustainability but they’re taking it to the next level, drawing inspiration from the land stewards before us,” Lauren explained. “The management of grazing practices is one example. The sheep will eat the cover crops and their manure will fertilize the vineyard. We also have chickens roaming free in the olive orchards, with their manure fertilizing it.”
“Alex’s tours are tailored to what people want,” Lauren said. “He’ll be as technical as people want to get. He’ll explain how much hand work goes into the vineyard to coax the best expression out of the site. He covers the growing season, different blocks, soils and history.”
Guests can taste wines from the inn’s namesake Beltane Ranch label. Kevin Holt is the winemaker and he produces 1,800 cases per year, operating out of Fel Wines in Sonoma.
The ranch has four guest rooms, as well as a cottage suite and serves what Lauren describes as “farm to table” breakfasts. A typical entree is a poached free range farm egg over polenta and asparagus from the garden, along with fresh raspberries.
While wine-lovers likely will be most taken by the vineyard, the 105-acre property also has 4 acres of olive orchards to explore, as well as hiking trails. One path that loops around the property cuts through the vineyard, past the orchards by the horses, burros, the longhorn cattle, the sheep, the chickens and the produce garden.
While the bed and breakfast draws many Bay Area travelers, Lauren said more locals are reserving stays to reconnect with nature after being isolated during the pandemic.
11775 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, 707-833-4233. beltaneranch.com
The Gables Wine Country Inn
With Taylor Mountain in the background, rows of riesling fan out in a vineyard near the Victorian Gothic circa 1877. Larry and Pam Willis purchased the inn, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2012 and planted the vineyard in 2017.
“I think people are fascinated by the vineyard, especially people who don’t know a lot about wine,” Larry said. “It gives them the appreciation for the effort that goes into producing that glass of wine. And it gives them the chance to roam through the vineyard and discover what things look like at that particular time of the growing season.”
For curious locals, the inn is offering a tour of the vineyard and the inn, along with a taste of wine bottled from its grapes for $25 per person.
Visitors get to learn about the grape growing process, how vines are tended to endure over time and why each step of the process is important, Larry explained.
“The first question (visitors ask) is always ‘Why do you grow riesling,’” he said. “It’s not hot enough here to grow bigger reds and ground water level is too high for pinot noir and everybody grows chardonnay … so riesling it is,” he explained.
People are also curious about when to pick the grapes.
“We show them the refractometer and explain how it works to measure the sugar levels,” he said. “We monitor it about three to four weeks before harvest.”
The Willis’ son-in-law, Rosendo Avila, is the vineyard manager and the couple pick grapes alongside Avila and his crew. Chris Loxton of Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen purchases the fruit and bottles a riesling/viognier blend.
The inn, with a mahogany spiral staircase and three Italian marble fireplaces, has seven guest rooms and a cottage. It serves three-course, decadent breakfasts with homemade breads, pastries and creative entrees like a “Cloud Souffle,” two eggs whipped and baked into an airy concoction.
An international destination, the inn has a world map on one of its walls that’s dotted with multicolored pins to track where guests are from.
“Europe, China, Australia, Minneapolis, the East Coast and Florida,” Larry said. “But we’re starting to see a bit more of locals who stay for honeymoon and wedding nights. We’re seeing a slight uptick in those kinds of visitors.”
4257 Petaluma Hill Road, Santa Rosa, 707-585-7777. thegablesinn.com
Following a $6 million makeover, this grand old Victorian opened its doors last month after being closed for nearly two years.
The inn has a brand new bar, as well as upgraded private dining rooms, and the restaurant has a wine list that will appeal to curious palates.
“The list is a mix of hyper local and then a nod to Old World traditional wines, with both sides trying to reward and showcase the odd and funky alongside icons,” said food and beverage director Ashley Luna. “It’s a list that matches and blends in the bohemian spirit of the property.”
With two categories — “Locally Collected” and “Curious from Afar” — the list features, for example, chardonnay bottlings alongside German and Austrian whites.
Locals, Luna said, don’t have to be overnight guests to dine at the restaurant and explore its eclectic wine list.
“One of the concepts we took from Jay (Jeffers, the inn’s interior designer) when he approached the design was, ‘What would this space look like if one family continuously lived here since it was built?’ Luna explained. “We thought of the wine list in the same way. If that family was throwing a dinner party, it would pop some bottles from neighbors, and then also grab some fun and peculiar bottles that they picked up in their far away travels to share with their guests.”
1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg, 707-395-6700. themadronahotel.com
Raford Inn Bed & Breakfast
The front yard of this Victorian inn is ribbed with rows of pinot noir.
Co-owners Rita Wells and Dane Pitcher purchased the inn in 2004 and planted their vineyard — a third of an acre — in 2016. They produce a barrel or two each year, up to 576 bottles per vintage, offering a taste to their guests.
“Our employees and friends tend to the vineyard and Dane makes the wine on site,” Wells said. “We chose pinot because we like it and it does the best in this area.”
Pitcher gives the vineyard tours and loves being out among the vines, sharing the wine culture.
“The guests like that his tours are so up close and personal,” Wells said. “They really like the time he spends with them. He shows them how we grow grapes, how we make wine and finish with a taste.”
With its Queen Anne accents and wraparound porch, the inn is a designated historic landmark, dating back to 1880. It has six guest rooms and offers a full breakfast with entrees like Stuffed French Toast Soufflé or Artichoke Frittata with sun-dried tomatoes.
The inn’s website offers Sonoma County residents 25% off their first visit and 10% off future visits. Wells said as the world eases out of the pandemic, the inn welcomes locals who don’t want to step on an airplane just yet.
10630 Wohler Road, Healdsburg, 707-887-9573. rafordinn.com
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.