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Sonoma Valley Hidden Gems

The Sonoma Plaza, built in a gentler age that did not include many residents, tourists, or vehicles can feel zoo-like on summer weekends.  Still…there is a magic in the plaza that is magnetic.  And, if you want to head out of town, you simply have to drive a few miles and you are in one of the most abundantly blessed places on the earth.  The Valley of the Moon. Jack London, world traveler and prolific writer, stopped in his tracks when he came upon Glen Ellen, just a few miles outside of Sonoma.  Here his wandering ended, and it was then he started calling himself “a sailor on horseback.”  Sonoma Valley is fecund, ripe, and sensuous.  The buttery colors of light love this place, spilling over the old water wheel and roadhouse in Glen Ellen.  Farther up the highway you’ll come upon Kenwood and Sugarloaf Park, offering a view of the entire Bay.  This is truly a magical area that must be experienced at least once.

Gundlach Bundschu Winery

Nineteen GB wines were entered in the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibit, and each won a medal.  Grapes have been grown in their vineyard since 1858, planted by an early settler, Jacob Gundlach.  In 1868 his son-in-law, Charles Bundschu, joined him.  During prohibition, wine production was halted and it began again in 1973 by Jim Bundschu, great-great-grandson of Gundlach.  He now runs the winery with his son.  The tasting room is in an original stone winery building filled with historical memorabilia.  Nearby is a 430-foot-long hillside cave, the longest in California.  This is a true family winery, and there’s plenty of space for picnicking or taking in Mozart on the green during the summer.  Some of the most beautiful outdoor spaces in the valley are here.

Benziger Family Winery

Take a 45-minute tractor-drawn tour of these vineyards that are grown using bio-dynamic principles.  Flowers, animals, insects and humans all work together to create a healthy life for the vineyards and each other.  Benziger is proof positive that a business can use sustainable methods while maintaining a good product and being financially sound.  This family-owned winery in love with their land, and you can feel it.

Sonoma Plaza

This eight-square acre piece of earth that is the center of Sonoma has seen it all. The Franciscans, the Mission, their attempts to Christianize the local Indians, the first farming, the reign of Vallejo and the Californios, Kit Carson joining in the Bear Flag Rebellion to create a separate country called California (successful, but it only lasted a month), fires, a great earthquake, strangers moving into her midst, and tourists pouring in to taste her past glory and her current cheeses, breads, and wines.  Yes, you can get lost in a maze of boutique and eateries, but the cool grass of the plaza is always ready for you to take a nap and soak in the dreams of those who came before and those who will follow.

The Lavender Festival

Next to Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, the lovely lavender plant is celebrated in late May or early June.  There are countless kinds of lavender and if you want to learn about them, this is the place to go.  You’ll discover how to cook with lavender, use lavender oil, and the medicinal properties of lavender oil.  Beautiful.

Robert Ferguson Observatory

Turn up Adobe Canyon Rd. in Kenwood and head to the hilltop.  The road dead-ends at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.  This place is a marvel on its own.  There is an all-year waterfall and Indian ruins.  Climb the top of Bald Mountain and if it’s clear, you will be gifted with a 360 degree view that may include the Golden Gate Bridge.  But there’s more… The Robert Ferguson Observatory is the largest observatory that’s open to the public on the West Coast, and it’s just a short walk from the parking lot.  There is daytime solar viewing, and evening stargazing through various-sized telescopes.  Night viewing is only 2 dollars, and there are also regular astronomy classes.   Call (707) 833-6979 for their viewing schedule and ask about the huge, new 40-inch refractor telescope!

Jack London Historic Park

Jack London was the first writer who became a millionaire, and after traveling the world he and his wife Charmian settled in Glen Ellen.  Their first home was called Beauty Ranch, and Jack went into devising new farming techniques with the same gusto with which he approached travel, writing, and his love for Charmian.  London Park is 800 acres.  An easy walk through redwoods, Manzanita, and golden hills leads you to the burned ruins of Wolf House, the 17,000 square foot home he and Charmian built of redwood timbers and volcanic rocks.  It is a quiet, lost dream amid the redwoods. London is buried in the park beside two pioneer children of the 1850’s. The House of Happy Walls, which Charmian built after Jack’s death, is a dramatic home filled with printings of his 54 books, letters, and the items collected on their many exotic voyages.