The Sonoma tasting room talk these days is all about offering visitors “elevated experiences:” personalized service, food pairings, barrel tastings, vineyard hikes, live music and special bottles pulled from the cellar.
Yet it doesn’t get any more elevated than sampling wine from on high, from perches above valley floors, treetops, buildings and vineyards, where bird’s eye views allow you to drink in the area’s natural beauty and soul-soothing vibe.
This is only theory, yet one broadly embraced: Wines taste remarkably better and more interesting at higher elevations, where the air is fresh and the views invigorating. We first eat with our eyes, and these Sonoma wineries have eye-popping views that make the vino go down so very easily.
Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery
South Africa natives Linda and Lester Schwartz took the high-risk/high-reward route in planting chardonnay, pinot noir and pinotage grapes on their chilly, wind-whipped property near Jenner, in what is now the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Their vineyard blocks are just 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean, thought by many to be too cold to properly ripen wine grapes. They’ve proven naysayers wrong.
The tasting room recently expanded operations to five days a week (Friday through Tuesday), with wine flights and food pairings ($55). The views are of the vineyards, of course, but also the ocean in the distance, sometimes swirling fog and always forests and meadows.
Scents of salt air and forest floor fill the air and often appear in the wines (made by Jeff Pisoni), which are precise, high-acid and age-worthy. The wines aren’t robust, but rather lean and elegant. And if you think you despite South African-grown pinotage — a cross of pinot noir and cinsault — the Fort Ross version might change your mind.
15725 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner, 707-847-3460, fortrossvineyard.com
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
Come for winemaker Theresa Heredia’s remarkable, cool-climate chardonnays and pinot noirs from Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast — many from single vineyards — and stay for the relaxing atmosphere of the outdoor terrace as you enjoy the Elevation Tasting ($45), accompanied by cheeses, nuts and dried fruits.
The winery sits atop a ridge overlooking the Russian River, on Westside Road between Healdsburg and Forestville, and the view is of a vast expanse of redwoods, firs, oaks and madrones. Indoor tastings, when pandemic safety protocols allow them, are almost as visually rewarding, with floor-to-ceiling windows affording a similar view as the terrace, and with a mix of tables, banquettes and comfy couches to sit on while you savor.
10701 Westside Road, Healdsburg, 707-473-2090, garyfarrellwinery.com
Ambassador to Italy James D. Zellerbach founded this winery in 1953, entertaining the then-crazy notion that chardonnay and pinot noir could be successfully grown and vinified into elegant, Burgundy-style wines on hillsides high above the town of Sonoma. Zellerbach’s vision proved 20/20, as Hanzell (now owned by the publicity-shy de Brye family) is widely admired for its lean, crisp, age-worthy wines that resemble white and red Burgundy wines.
The Hanzell Tasting Experience ($45) takes place overlooking the Ambassador’s 1953 vineyard block – recently certified organic — on one of Hanzell’s new outdoor platforms. On clear days, San Francisco Bay can be seen from the 900-foot-elevation estate; on the ground, sheep, pigs and chickens roam the sustainably farmed property.
18596 Lomita Ave., Sonoma, 707-996-3860, hanzell.com
Iron Horse Vineyards
It’s all bubble, bubble, no toil or trouble at this iconic Sebastopol sparkling-wine-centric winery. It has an east-facing view of its vineyards and, on clear days, all the way to the Mayacamas mountain range and Mt. St. Helena. Fog seeps into this Green Valley of Russian River Valley site morning and evening, refreshing the grapes, yet the days can be gloriously sunny for sipping Champagne-quality bubblies and taking in the visuals.
As outstanding as the sparkling wines are (still chardonnays and pinot noirs, too), tastings ($30) are casual, non-fussy and staged from a redwood barn-style building (spitting tasted wines down the hill to stay sober is not only OK, but encouraged). Seated tastings in a gazebo are offered on weekends, also $30.
9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507, ironhorsevineyards.com
Kamen Estate Wines
Winery owner and screenwriter Robert Kamen (“The Karate Kid,” “Transporter”) has a tasting room in downtown Sonoma. But for a breathtaking view and a breath of fresh air, make the drive (with a reservation, of course) to his 1,200-foot-elevation vineyard in the Moon Mountain District.
Sweeping views of Sonoma Valley and San Francisco Bay at the Sky Deck experience ($80) are accompanied by Kamen’s top-tier sauvignon blancs, Bordeaux-style reds and syrahs, paired with cheeses. A tour of the certified organic vineyard before the private tasting sets the tone for enjoying the wines. The address and directions for the Sky Deck experience are provided at the time reservations are made.
Sonoma tasting room: 111B East Napa Street, Sonoma, 707-938-7292, kamenwines.com
Kunde Family Winery
Seated tastings in the Kinneybrook Room and on the large, well-spaced patio are back at this revered Sonoma Valley winery, operated by the Kundes for more than a century (vines were first planted on the now-1,850-acre ranch in 1879).
Fourth- and fifth-generation family members continue to sustainably farm the land and produce the wide range of wines on the menu. The most mesmerizing way to gauge their commitment is to enjoy the two-hour Mountain Top Tasting ($80), which includes reserve-tier and tasting room-exclusive wines matched with cheeses and charcuterie.
The experience begins with a walk through a demonstration vineyard, continues with a motor coach ride through the estate vineyards and hits its peak at the tasting deck, at 1,400 feet. On a quiet morning, one can almost hear an acorn drop on the valley floor below or a conversation between cyclists pedaling on Highway 12. By midmorning, the hustle and bustle of harvest can be seen and heard, yet it’s easy to tune out the sound and bask in the wines and grand views of Sonoma Valley.
825 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-5501, kunde.com
Robert Young Estate Winery
In 1935, Robert Young — at 16 — inherited his family’s ranch and eventually began replacing prune-plum trees with wine grapes. In 1963, Robert cultivated cabernet sauvignon and followed that with chardonnay a few years later. His son, Fred, and his siblings founded Robert Young Estate Winery in 1997. Over time, the family modernized the tasting experience, from pouring the wines in an old barn to welcoming guests to the Scion House, built in 2018 atop a hillside, 800 feet above the valley floor and with panoramic views of Alexander Valley.
The tasting menu includes $30-$60 options, with cheese and charcuterie boards available; the Vineyard Experience ($125), which includes lunch, is held under an ancient oak tree at the Bob’s Burnpile Block – Bob being founder Robert Young. Guests can see what Bob saw back in the day.
5102 Red Winery Road, Geyserville, 707-431-4811, ryew.com
Sbragia Family Vineyards
From its site just below Lake Sonoma, the Sbragia tasting room has fantastic views of Dry Creek Valley, from the north looking down the valley. Visitors can see terraced hillside vineyards of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and syrah grown in rust-colored soils and framed by oak and fir trees, and the occasional decorative palms planted on vintners’ properties.
Sonoma native Ed Sbragia, who made Napa Valley’s Beringer Vineyards one of America’s finest producers of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, established this winery with his family in 2006. Now, he and winemaker son Adam make cab and chardonnay, as well as classic Dry Creek Valley sauvignon blanc and zinfandel, the latter grape planted by Ed’s father, Gino, in the 1950s. Take a seat on the terrace, take in the scenery and taste the wines with cheeses and charcuterie ($25 – 50).
9990 Dry Creek Road, Geyserville, 707-473-2992, sbragia.com
Stonestreet Estate Vineyards
Most tastings at this Alexander Valley winery take place at the visitor center on the valley floor, at the junction of Alexander Valley Road and Highway 128. There, guests sample wines made from the 5,000-acre Stonestreet Mountain Estate on Black Mountain, with vines planted at elevations of 400 to 2,400 feet.
The only way to experience the estate’s remarkable views of Alexander Valley and beyond, grapevines growing in myriad soil types and exposures and occasional wildlife sightings is to take the Stonestreet Mountain Excursion. The price is as lofty as the highest elevation of the estate, at $650 per couple, yet the experience is unrivaled for those who truly want to learn — and see and taste — the impact mountain viticulture has on wine styles, complexity and age-ability.
The three-hour, privately guided driving tour and tasting — which includes lunch — shows off the many chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon vineyard blocks, with evocative names such as Cougar Ridge, Bear Point, Rockfall and Monolith, that are the backbone of some of Jackson Family Wines’ finest bottlings.
7111 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-9463, stonestreetwines.com