mustard season in wine country, mustard field, things to do in wine country in winter

Things to Do in Sonoma County in Winter: Sonoma Travel Advice & Events

December-March is considered the “off-season” in Wine Country. But for many reasons, winter can actually be the best time to visit Sonoma.

Yes, there are some cool and rainy days, but California sunshine is still abound while the crowds on the other hand, are sparse. Winter is the time of year when you don’t need a reservation to snag a table at Valette or The Brass Rabbit restaurant in Healdsburg, and when you can find off-season steals at the local hotels and resorts. It’s also prime time for epic wildlife watching and waterfall hiking, attending some of Sonoma’s best events, and capturing that ever-photogenic annual mustard bloom. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Sonoma County each winter, including travel advice and tips.

Fun Things to Do in Sonoma County in Winter

mustard field selfie photo best places to take mustard photos
Me at my favorite spot of mustard photos, just past the Russian River bridge on Alexander Valley Road in Healdsburg.

Selfies in the Mustard Fields

Late winter is mustard bloom season across Sonoma County, which means it’s time to prepare for the most spectacular selfies you’ll take all year long. Trust us, as you drive by these stunning fields of yellow, you won’t be able to resist pulling over for a photoshoot. The secret, of course, isn’t how you take your picture (though a tripod is helpful, if you have one), but instead where and when—which mustard field you choose and what time of day you decide to walk amid the golden flowers for the prime shot. The strategy on timing is easy: The earlier in the day, the better the light, and you’re also more likely to have the mustard to yourself.

But what it’s really about is location, location, location. Here are some of the best places to take mustard photos in Sonoma, in our opinion: on Alexander Valley Road just past Jordan Winery just before Medlock Ames on the left side (this is a giant meadow of mustard with no grapevines); on Highway 128 north of Medlock Ames on right side (thick mustard in a vineyard with mountains in the distance); the Sonoma Valley near B.R. Cohn Winery; Kenwood near Kunde Winery; Sebastopol just off the Joe Rodota Regional Trail; and Carneros near Gloria Ferrer.

Philips Gulch Falls Sonoma Coast
Philips Gulch Falls on the Sonoma Coast. Photo courtesy of California Landscape Photography Workshop.

Waterfall Hikes

While winter is Sonoma’s rainy season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not only do the wine country vines thrive on the extra water, but so do the waterfalls at Sonoma County parks. Our favorite Sonoma waterfalls are the 25-foot Sonoma Creek Falls in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (it’s also quick and easy to access) and a pair of beach waterfalls on the Sonoma Coast: Phillips Gulch at Salt Point State Park and Stengel Beach at The Sea Ranch. The best time to schedule a waterfall hike is in the days following a storm; that’s when the falls put on the best show.

harbor seals on rock

Whale-Watching and Seal-Watching on the Sonoma Coast

Winter is also the best time to visit Sonoma for whale-watching and seal-watching on the Sonoma Coast. Exhibit A: Grey Whales, who are returning to Alaska following their time birthing and rearing their young down in the protected lagoons of Baja California. As the whales return north, they hug the coast, in most cases making mother-calf duos visible from shore. Bodega Head is a great spot to catch them on their journey. Pack your binoculars and look out for spouts of water and tails. Exhibit B: Harbor Seals, who usually birth and rear their own babies in late February and early March. One of the best haul-out spots to witness seal moms do their thing is at the mouth of the Russian River near Jenner. From the southern bank at the end of Goat Rock State Beach, you can look across the river and watch a population of 40-60 seals on the northern bank.

Sonoma Coast, Jenner, CA, sonomacounty.com/cities/jenner,  Bodega, CA, www.sonomacounty.com/cities/bodega

Jordan Winery tour, oak tank barrel room Healdsburg

No Wait List for the Jordan Winery Tour & Tasting

During summer and fall, the Jordan Winery Tour & Tasting books up weeks in advance, but during winter, it’s far easier to reserve seats with shorter notice. Only offered once a day Monday through Saturday during winter, the experience begins with a walking tour around the French-inspired chateau and its towering oak tanks. Guests then enjoy a chardonnay tasting with hors d’oeuvre pairing before a seated tasting featuring a flight of cabernet sauvignons with cheese pairings, an hors d’oeuvre and extra virgin olive oil tasting. Price is $45 per person.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery, 1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, 707-431-5250, jordanwinery.com/visit 
Russian River Brewing
Russian River Brewing Company’s annual release of Pliny the Younger takes place in February. Photo courtesy of Russian River Brewing. 

Russian River Brewing Pliny the Younger Release in February

Beer lovers will tell you that the best time to visit Sonoma is in February when Russian River Brewing releases their cult Triple IPA Pliny the Younger. This annual release last just two weeks and has become quite the phenomenon at the Santa Rosa brewery, so much that patrons post up long before the doors open and stand in line for hours in order to get their hands on a few pints (there’s a three pint/three-hour limit in order to keep the line moving, albeit slowly). Starting in 2019, the wait times should shorten a bit; Russian River opened up a second location in Windsor and now pours Pliny the Younger at both breweries.

Russian River Brewing Company, 725 4th Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95404 or 700 Mitchell Ln, Windsor, CA 95492, (707) 545-BEER, russianriverbrewing.com
scallop en croute puff pastry appetizer at Valette
The scallop en croute puff pastry appetizer at Valette.

Sonoma Restaurant Week in March

Foodies can eat their way through Sonoma County’s best restaurants every March for Sonoma Restaurant Week. During these 10 days, more than 100 participating restaurants—like Healdsburg’s Barndiva, Valette, Dry Creek Kitchen and Spoonbar—offer delicious, pre-fixe menus at killer deals. Choose between a two-course lunch ($10 or $15) or a three-course dinner ($19, 29 or $39). This is a great opportunity to make a dent in your Sonoma restaurant bucket list without breaking the bank. Reservations are recommended.

Restaurants throughout Sonoma County, sonomacounty.com/restaurant-week
Wine Road barrel tasting event
Photo courtesy of Steve Knudsen.

Wine Road Barrel Tasting Event in March

There’s something truly special about tasting wine straight from a barrel before it’s ready to be bottled, and that’s exactly what the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting celebrates. For two, no-frill weekends in March, more than 80 wineries throughout the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys open up their cellars to give visitors an exclusive first taste and chance to purchase wines months before they’re released, often at a discounted price. In many cases, these weekends also offer the rare opportunity to meet the winemakers in person. Passes range from $40-100 and give you access to as many of the participating wineries that you can get to. We recommend the weekend pass and sticking to one region a day.

Wine Road Barrel Tasting, Healdsburg & Geyserville, CA, wineroad.com/events.
Pigs & Pinot event chefs
Photo courtesy of Damion Hamilton

Pigs & Pinot Event in March

If you like bacon and pinot noir, this event can’t be missed. Celebrity Chef (and local restaurateur) Charlie Palmer puts on his Pigs & Pinot event every March; it’s an entire weekend of festivities celebrating pinot noir at Hotel Healdsburg on the Healdsburg square. The “Taste of Pigs & Pinot” brings together dozens of other chefs from around the country who prepare pork dishes to pair with pinots from more than 50 participating wineries. Palmer is also committed to philanthropy, and there’s a huge charity component to the event, which over the years has aligned with a variety of different nonprofit organizations and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those groups in the process. Ticket prices range from $125 to $175, depending on the event.

Pigs & Pinot, Downtown Healdsburg, 707-922-5249, pigsandpinot.com

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Born and raised in rural Kansas, Lisa Mattson fell in love with wine during college in South Florida and worked for a wine magazine before moving to Northern California. Her days are spent being a writer, photographer and videographer for Jordan Winery and nights cooking Thai food or microgreen salads. When she’s not eating and sipping her way through Sonoma County, she travels the world with her husband in search of the best restaurants, snorkeling spots and tiki bars.

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