SONOMA — It's 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, which seems like an excellent time to be sitting on a sun-splashed patio, gazing out at dappled green vineyards and surrounded by big bottles of tiny bubbles.
But I didn't need to travel to the Champagne region of France for this trip. I'm in Sonoma County, just an hour or so north of San Francisco, and a region that's on the rise in the fizz firmament.
Here's a guide to discovering Sonoma's brut forces.
BUENA VISTA WINERY
Buena Vista Winery was founded in 1857 by the self-proclaimed "Count of Buena Vista," Agoston Haraszthy, a larger-than-life character and innovative vintner. Today, the winery has been reimagined under the guidance of Jean-Charles Boisset of the French Boisset winemaking family. Buena Vista is known for a variety of still wines but has a strong bubbles component, producing excellent sparkling white and rose wines. Also available is the La Victoire Brut Champagne which is imported from France. Enjoy your tasting in the Bubbles Lounge, where you can sink into the comfort of blonde velvet couches. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. except major holidays, 18000 Old Winery Rd., Sonoma, 800-926-1266, http://www.buenavistawinerycom .
GLORIA FERRER CAVES & VINEYARDS
The Ferrer family were pioneers in the region, planting the classic grapes of Champagne (pinot noir and chardonnay) in the 1980s. The Ferrers have centuries of experience; they are the family behind Freixenet, the Spanish sparkler in the black bottle. Enjoy a tasting and some nibbles on the patio, take a guided tour or explore the effects of differently shaped glasses on taste. Also check out Gloria Ferrer's extensive collection of vintage glassware. Tasting experiences range from $7-$40; tours and elevated tasting experiences range from $25-$75 per person. A wine to try is the vintage-dated Royal Cuvee, a showcase for the estate vineyard and a wine first served to the king and queen of Spain in 1987. Cheese and charcuterie plates and non-alcoholic beverages available for purchase. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 23555 Highway 121, Sonoma, 707-933-1917, http://www.gloriaferrer.com .
J VINEYARDS & WINERY
Founded in 1986 by then-recent Stanford graduate Judy Jordan, J Vineyards is a modern winery producing sparkling and varietal wines. The winery, which was purchased by the Gallo family a few years ago, is set in Healdsburg, a town in the northern part of the county that has sprung from sleepy village to hotspot with upscale restaurants and hotels. The visitor center features the Bubble Room, where you can enjoy a five-course tasting menu paired with sparkling and varietal wines. Tours of the winery and vineyards are available as well as food-and-wine pairings on the terrace. Open most days 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 888-594-6326. Tours Thursdays-Sundays, check http://www.jwine.com for details. Prices start at $20 for signature tastings and go up to $110 per person for the full food and wine pairing experience in the Bubble Room. Reservations recommended.
IRON HORSE VINEYARDS
Set on a hilltop in Sonoma's Green Valley at the end of a long, winding and one-lane road, Iron Horse Vineyards outdoor tasting room boasts million-dollar views of vine-covered slopes. Despite the rustic feel, Iron Horse is known for wines of elegance. Its wines have been poured at the White House on several occasions, starting with the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings. Tastings are by appointment only and start at $25 per person, fee refunded if you buy a bottle. Tours also available including once-a week truck tours with winemaker David Munksgard. GPS address: Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyards, 9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507, http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com .
KORBEL CHAMPAGNE CELLARS
Want to see a 4-foot-tall glass designed for bubbly? A 5-foot-tall bottle? Head to Korbel, a major producer (1.5 million cases) in Sonoma County, making 960,000 cases of its flagship Korbel Brut a year. The red-brick winery building, founded in 1882, includes a museum with a sizable collection of tools of the trade as well as the super-sized glass and bottle, created for the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. A wine to try is the Korbel Natural, which has a little less sugar and is a crisp and dry alternative with soft, creamy bubbles. Buy picnic fare at the Korbel deli and enjoy it on outdoor decks surrounded by redwoods (the Korbel brothers started as sawmill operators). Open most days 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 13250 River Rd., Guerneville, 707-824-7709. Public tours and tastings free for groups under 20, or upgrade to a private guided tour for $20 a person.
Sonoma County is quite large, so consider splitting visits up over a few days. Buena Vista and Gloria Ferrer are close to each other and to Sonoma, a small town where boutiques and restaurants surround a tree-shaded square. Iron Horse and Korbel are near Guerneville with B&Bs strung along the Russian River. J Vineyards is to the north near Healdsburg. As always when visiting wine country, if you don't have a designated driver, look into using a car service for a carefree experience.