The Giants of Sonoma

Visiting Sonoma County's legendary wineries


With this installment of "Driving Sonoma," we’ll be packing up and heading south out of Geyserville, and back towards San Francisco. We’ve made a couple of great loops through the various American Viticultural Areas that fill most of Sonoma County, and today I’m planning on taking advantage of the richness of the region to sneak in a few more visits.

Because of its natural beauty and friendly outlook, Sonoma County is a great place to visit. The fact that it’s hard to move and not bump into a famous (or soon to be famous) winery makes it all the more appealing. One of the most well known and historically important properties in Sonoma is the Simi Winery.

Since 1876, Simi has been a fixture of the Alexander Valley. Located just off Highway 101, south of Geyserville at the northern edge of Healdsburg, it’s an easy visit to include in one’s travels, and well worth it. The old stone winery is a great, historic feature that remains a testament to the wealth and prosperity the region was enjoying during the late 19th century.
Sonoma County AVAs
The region, and of course the wine industry, has had many ups and downs in the intervening years, but Simi has managed to remain at the top of its game. Bold moves like hiring Zelma Long (a pioneering female winemaker) as head winemaker in 1979, and adding Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker in 1985 -- 20 years before the film Mondovino made him famous -- are just some of the reasons Simi wines remain attuned to the modern palate.

If you’re lucky enough to be travelling during the summer (is it still with us?), you should also plan on stopping for lunch at Simi. Fridays (2pm-6pm) and Saturdays (11am-4pm) are the very limited hours for Simi’s Pizza Café, an al fresco dining experience that brings together brick oven pizza and fine wine. It's a great way to pass some time!

Leaving Simi and heading south once again on Healdsburg Avenue puts us on our way to our next visit: Matrix Winery. Just head down on Healdsburg Road until you get to the big intersection where Vine St. and Mill St. meet. Hang a right on Mill St., which becomes Westside Rd once it passes under Highway 101, and head down the road about three miles.

Matrix specializes in Pinot Noir, producing wines from Russian River Valley vineyards as well as a Sonoma Coast bottling. They are generally quite fruit-driven wines, polished and packed with flavor, but Pinot is not the only wine on offer. In addition to a fine Zinfandel and excellent Chardonnay from one of my favorite California vineyards, Stuhlmuller, there is also the Matrix Bordeaux Blend. This is a real value in California Meritage, and while it may be difficult to find it is a great reason to plan your visit to Matrix, using the Visa Sonoma Trip Planner, of course!

If we were in a hurry to continue south, we would turn around and get back to 101 as directly as possible, but heading south on Westside Road is a much more scenic, and pleasant alternative. And besides, it also leads us to another winery stop, and what is wrong with that?

Hop Kiln winery is about a mile south of Matrix, and it’s really easy to find with its iconic triple cupola roof. The name comes from its previous incarnation as a, yes, you guessed it – hop kiln. Founded just after the turn of the century as a hop farm that supplied many of the brewers of the Pacific Northwest, the Hop Kiln estate was reborn in 1975 as a premium Sonoma County winery.

While Hop Kiln built its earliest reputation on great wines from Petit Sirah, Zinfandel, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer (I know -- talk about bold!) they have really made a name for themselves with their propriety blends that are fresh, fruity, complex, and easy on the wallet, not to mention playfully named!

While Hop Kiln is proud of their Big Red, Rushin River Red, and Thousand Flowers White, their varietal wines continue to be stars of the show. There are two labels being produced at Hop Kiln today, the eponymous Hop Kiln as well as the winery exclusive HKG label that focuses on the estate’s expressions of Sonoma’s favorite grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So make sure to plan a visit when you are in the area.

If you have the time, why not buy some bread, cheese, and meats at Hop Kiln -- ask to borrow some glasses, a cutting board and a knife -- and finish off your day with a grand picnic overlooking the winery's pond. That sounds like a great plan for the entire afternoon to me, especially on a fine late summer’s day.

After filling up at Hop Kiln, it’s time to continue south, and from here there really is only the scenic route to take. After heading south for a few miles Westside Rd. turns to the west, where it meets River Rd. We’ll want to take a right here and head over the river to continue our southbound progress.  The easiest route is to remain on River Rd. until it takes you back to 101 South. Just a few miles further along is one of my wine country landmarks. You see, I don’t get out west very often and when I do I am usually very busy so I like to plan a special finale to my visits to the area.

Right off the highway in Rohnert Park, and in Petaluma, as well, one can find good, old reliable, In n Out Burger! Yes, it’s true; even I can’t resist the allure of this great American tradition. It may seem funny that one would want to cap a week of wine and dining amongst the riches of Sonoma with such a simple meal, but often times in life the simplest things are those that return the greatest satisfaction! Double-double, please!

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dwild
    236836 3

    Recommend Rodney Strong too for a fine lineup of wines, especially 7 different cabernets all of which are distinct and tasty.

    Sep 07, 2010 at 3:33 PM

  • Greatly enjoy the articles on touring wine country. My wife and I make it out when we can and we most enjoy Sonoma. Reading of the drives along 101, River Road, etc. triggered quite a few fond memories today. Think I'll pop open one of the zins tonight and re-read the article.

    Sep 07, 2010 at 4:23 PM

  • To think that years ago I was stationed at the Coast Guard Training Center, in Petaluma, and never even once visited any of the fantastic wineries in and around Sonoma (though I did check out Bodega Bay where Hitchcock filmed "The Birds")—but of course I was younger then and wasn't the least bit interested in wine...which is really a shame, when I think about it, because the wines from there, just like Sonoma itself, are amazing.

    Sep 07, 2010 at 5:41 PM

  • Snooth User: Nikechulo
    537820 3

    My girlfriend and I recently went through this area. It's fantastic, and we can't wait to return. Hop Kiln was quaint and reasonable. I bought a bottle of their Rushin' River Red and some of their nice, unique mustards. Our favorite (although a little more pricey) was Lynmar just a bit further south from Hop Kiln. What a beautiful winery! I think it's a must visit when in the area.

    Sep 07, 2010 at 7:34 PM

  • As a native of Healdsburg, now living in South Australia you made my heart sing with wonderful memories of my childhood running through the vineyards and wineries of Sonoma County. How lucky was I? Sonoma County is abundant with world renowned wineries that produce such fantastic wines. Thank you!

    Sep 07, 2010 at 7:34 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Sonoma really is a beautiful place. the fact that you can soak in such scenery while enjoying an endless array of world class wines makes it that much better!

    Sep 08, 2010 at 6:57 AM

  • How is it that you missed Rochioli Winery next door to Hop Kiln? Their wines are much higher end and sonoma's best. If your into commercial gift shops and tourist stops, I guess Hop Kiln would be nice. Unfortunately ,you failed to mention that this area has some seriously good wineries. Try Hartford Winery not far from Hop Kiln. Their Pinots are off the charts! The best of the bunch for Pinot. Oh my god! Why In and Out burger? The best natural food products and chefs in the country are here. Gregory, was this a advertisement for your said giants?

    Sep 08, 2010 at 10:00 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Aloha Ray,

    Perhaps you missed all the previous installments of my trips through Sonoma? I am able to appreciate In and Out burger as well as the finer options offered in the county. I like diversity, that's why i added In and Out burger. And frankly, it's affordable. If you don't like In and Out that's fine with me, but they make a good burger and I like to stop by there once a year or so when I get the chance.

    Limiting oneself to talking about only the best chefs is like limiting oneself to talking about only the greatest, and therefore most expensive wine. It's boring and elitist.

    Rochioli does make great wines, some of the best Pinots in the county in fact. Which is why they get $40 for their estate wines and closer to $100 a bottle for their single vineyards. Hop Kiln on the other hand produces a very popular and decent quality line of wines at very affordable prices.

    I'm not sure people need all that much help finding great $100 bottles of wine. What I hear over an over again is that people want to find out about affordable wines. So that's what I've done here.

    As the email that accompanied this article stated, the advertising was for Visa.

    Sep 08, 2010 at 10:49 AM

  • Snooth User: pinotdavid
    487215 10


    I used to hang out a lot at Hop Kiln Winery when I lived in Sebastopol and knew the owner, Marty Griffin quite well, and loved what he called Marty's Big Red. Does Marty still own the winery?


    Sep 08, 2010 at 6:06 PM

  • Snooth User: PeggyG
    585440 1

    If you find yourself in Healdsburg, be sure to visit the Boisset Taste of Terroir. It is a tasting room like no other - the fusion of Burgundy and Sonoma Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

    Sep 21, 2010 at 3:32 PM

  • Snooth User: tonystro
    554776 26

    Thanks for the informative article. I'm heading to Sonoma in late October (I do so every year. Lucky me!) and I'll definitely fit some of your recommendations into my itinerary. I've found your website to be an invaluable asset to an old winelover like myself. Keep up the good work. Thanks again.

    Oct 11, 2010 at 9:38 AM

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