SoCal to Sonoma:
A Scenic Wine Country Road Trip

wine country road trip

Image courtesy of Bohemian Highway Travel Co

In an ode to the old adage, “life is about the journey, not the destination,” we’ve curated a wine lover’s road trip itinerary from Southern California to our Northern California haven of Sonoma. Rather than racing from point A to point B, might we suggest slowing things down a bit and just enjoying the ride. Below are three scenic stops in and around some of California’s best (but lesser-known) wine regions en route from Los Angeles to Sonoma.

Day 1: Los Olivos

About two and a half hours north of Los Angeles, and 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara, is the quaint town of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley. For a small western town of three square miles, this charming hamlet boasts over 30 tasting rooms as well as a handful of stellar restaurants, shops and boutique hotels – many of which are housed in historic, pastel-colored Victorian buildings. Given the small footprint of the town, you can stroll until you see a place you want to stop. But if you’re more prone to planning, a few highlights for where to taste, eat and stay:

  • Dragonette Cellars: Lauded cool climate Pinot Noir, Sauv Blanc and Syrah from Santa Barbara
  • Stolpman Vineyards: An inspiring range of natural or low-intervention wines including fun blends from lesser-known Rhône and Italian varietals, served in their “little red cottage”
  • Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café: Rustic farm-fresh fare in a convivial space, plus a noteworthy wine wall that made a cameo in the 2004 movie, SIDEWAYS
  • SY Kitchen: A hop skip and jump from Los Olivos in Santa Ynez, offering thoughtfully sourced, refined Italian meals and craft cocktails in a stylish farmhouse
  • Wine Country Cabins: Rustic-yet-refined cabins in the center of town with access to benefits at Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn
  • The Landsby: A modern, design-forward boutique hotel and lively first-floor bar in the Scandinavian-inspired town of Solvang, just 10 minutes from Los Olivos

Day 2: Big Sur

From Los Olivos, head north on the scenic coastal Hwy 1 to Big Sur. The jaunt is about 3 hours, so a lunchtime stop in the small seaside village of Cambria is a great way to break up the trip. We highly recommend tacos and a cerveza at Medusa’s Sunshine Taqueria on Main Street. For extra points, get your tacos to-go, and enjoy them at Moonstone Beach. From there, head north to the rugged and often-misty coastal town of Big Sur heralded as the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States.” You could easily spend a week exploring the towering redwoods and crashing coast of this mystical hamlet, but you can take in a lot in a day if you play your cards right. Read on for play, eat and stay recommendations.

  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Perhaps one of the most beautiful parks on California’s Pacific coast, stretching from the Big Sur coastline into nearby 3,000-foot ridges. It features redwood, tan oak, madrone, chaparral, and an 80-foot waterfall that drops from granite cliffs into the ocean waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Esalen Hot Springs: Founded in 1960, Esalen is a holistic learning and spiritual retreat center situated on the rocky cliffs and wild coastline above Big Sur. Esalen offers all-inclusive multi-day workshops (i.e yoga, forest bathing, meditation) that allow access to daily meals and accommodations as well as the property’s farms, yoga centers and hot springs at the edge of the sea. These natural hot springs, which emerge from the earth at 119 degrees Fahrenheit, are also open to the public in the middle of the night (12-3am) by prior reservation. Lucky and bleary-eyed guests can enjoy the tubs, indoor and outdoor showers and clawfoot tubs, all perched over the ocean and under the starry sky. Clothing optional. Note: Tubs might be temporarily closed to the public due to covid, so please call Esalen to confirm access and availability. 
  • Ventana Big Sur Resort: Situated high above the Pacific where the forest, mountains, and sea converge is Ventana. This boutique luxury resort offers 59 secluded suites (all with expansive balconies) set on 160 magnificent acres of natural splendor. Guest stays are all-inclusive for a hassle-free and enriching experience including on-site dining (The Sur House is not to be missed), amenities, wellness and fitness, and activities. Ventana is more than just a place to hang your hat for the night.
  • Deetjen’s Restaurant: Established in 1939, the restaurant in the historic Deetjen’s Hotel serves up the best breakfast in all of Monterey County. Enjoy their signature eggs benedict, homemade granola, smoked salmon bagels or huevos rancheros in one of their cozy dining rooms, appointed with fireplaces and traditional English décor. This is the perfect place to fuel-up before your hour-long drive to Carmel Valley.

Day 3: Carmel Valley

Head north on Hwy 1 toward Carmel-by-the-Sea, but bypass this well-heeled seaside town (ironically, heels over 2″ are banned in town!). Instead, veer east on the path less traveled towards Carmel Valley, a charming western village and burgeoning wine country mecca. Carmel Valley offers a lovely alchemy of agriculture, western-style main street architecture and innovative wineries, all with an easy-going charm and gracious hospitality. Our picks for the best places to eat, drink and stay are below.

  • Folktale Winery & Vineyards: Founded in 2015 by “a band of artists, craftspeople and lovers of life,” Folktale offers wine tasting, dining, concerts and events on their magical piece of land in the valley. Their winery and wines are a love letter to Bordeaux, reflected in the chateau style of the estate residence as well as the acid- and minerality-driven Cabernets and Bordeaux blends (we love their signature Bordeaux red blend, The Hound — expertly-crafted and food-friendly!). Guests can enjoy a tasting, wood-fired pizzas and other house-made provisions in Folktale’s Wine Garden.
  • Joyce Wine Co.: This gem of a tasting room is hidden in plain sight on the vibrant stretch of downtown’s main street, East Carmel Valley Road. The father and son winemaking team (led primarily by son, Russell who has been touted as one of Monterey County’s new-wave winemakers) produces small-lot single vineyard Pinots, Rhône style varietals as well as a zippy Albarino and Riesling from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Their airy, modern tasting room and lively patio are a great spot to taste wines and soak up the valley’s ever-present sunshine.
  • Roux: A charming bistro known for its French & Mediterranean tapas, farm-fresh local ingredients and of course wine. Guests can dine in the lively restaurant or on the lush outdoor patio. Their weekend brunch is second to none, with bottomless mimosas, crab cakes and French-style eggs. A locals favorite!
  • Blue Sky Lodge: A charming and inexpensive mid-century motor-lodge in the center of town featuring basic but comfortable guestrooms and suites with private patios. The property also has a few convivial public spaces: a funky 60s style pool and whirlpool surrounded by old oaks and a grassy lawn; a breezy portico and indoor parlor with floor-to-ceiling book shelves and curiosities to name a few. Their tagline, “feels like home” hits the nail on the head.
  • Bernardus Lodge & Spa: Luxurious yet intimate 4-star resort on a stunning 28-acre property in the heart of Carmel Valley’s wine country. Bernardus is celebrated for its farm-to-table dining (the centerpiece is Lucia Restaurant & Bar) utilizing ingredients from the property’s gardens and orchards as well as neighboring farms, as well as its spa and wellness programs and activities on-site and in the area.

Day 4: Sonoma

Grab some snacks, put on our MacArthur playlist, and you’ll arrive in Sonoma in no time (about 3 hours)! Head straight to MacArthur Place, where we will welcome you for a relaxing getaway in the heart of northern California wine country. Our historic, six-acre property offers intimate gardens, grand historic buildings, winding flagstone paths, fire pits, as well as newly-reimagined guestrooms and cottages (many with fireplaces, outdoor showers, private patios or other special features), a stylish mid-century pool, and a range of incredible spa and dining experiences. Since this is the culmination of your road trip (or the outbound half at least!), we recommend leaving the itinerary curation and driving to the experts:

  • Behind the Cellar Door Wine Tour: We have partnered with experts in itinerary creation, Bohemian Highway Travel Co, to curate a day of exploring Sonoma Valley’s premier wineries. Venture behind the cellar door to those who don’t normally open to the general public. You’ll be whisked away in a vintage Land Rover Defender or luxury SUV to three off-the-beaten path boutique wineries and have an in-depth look at the vineyards and winemaking process. Enjoy a chef prepared farm-to-table lunch with the Mayacamas mountain range as your backdrop. By day’s end, you’ll understand why Sonoma Valley was named “Wine Region of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast for its commitment to sustainability and to producing world class wines.

Day 5+

There are endless wineries, vineyards, restaurants, farms, parks, beaches and outdoor activities to explore in Sonoma so we suggest a two+ day stay in Sonoma if time permits. Our Concierge can assist with planning a bespoke experience, or you can peruse our Journal for itinerary suggestions — whether you’re looking for great hikes, locals’ weekend tips, an art & design-themed excursion, a family-friendly outing or the best spots to dine, we are full of suggestions.

We hope you loved our take on the idyllic wine country road trip – allowing you to make the most of each day. Enjoy your stay!

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