This Sonoma County Wine Region Is a Total Hidden Gem (and Now’s a Great Time to Visit)

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Napa and Sonoma valleys might get all the hype, but there’s no more quintessentially California experience than sipping superb Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Fort Ross-Seaview while overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean. Plan your next weekend getaway to the Bodega Bay-Jenner-Fort Ross stretch of the Sonoma Coast and discover this little-known hidden gem of a wine region. The idyllic coastal California scene produces award-winning wines reflecting the extreme, maritime climate and dramatic topography of the area. It’s also the perfect place to hike, beach hop, seal watch and gorge yourself on incredible local seafood (hello, Dungeness crab and freshly shucked oysters). Here’s where to wine taste, eat, stay and play over 48 hours on the coast.

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What Is the Fort Ross-Seaview Wine Region in Sonoma County, CA?

You may not be familiar with the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation by name, but there’s a good chance you’ve tasted one of the lesser-known AVA’s (American viticultural area) outstanding Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs. Hirsch, Flowers, Pahlmeyer, Peter Michael and Marcassin all grow grapes in this area.

Located high in the coastal hills above Fort Ross Historic State Park and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Fort Ross-Seaview region is defined by its soaring elevation and remote, rugged terrain—the perfect trifecta of cool temps, plentiful sunlight and elevation above the fog belt for producing top-rated wines. Separate and distinct from all other wine-growing regions in California, Fort Ross-Seaview has established itself as one of the most highly prized cool-climate growing regions in the state, and the unique conditions parallel seaside wine regions like Languedoc, France; Barcelona, Spain; and the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany.

There’s really no wrong time to visit this special stretch of the Sonoma Coast. Mild weather year-round means winters are fair game (storms make for a dramatic and moody backdrop), but springtime brings sunshine and wildflowers before summer fog sets in. Whenever you decide to go, plan enough time to soak it all in…because there’s a lot to see and do here.

Where to Drink Wine in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

With only 500 vineyard acres, Fort Ross-Seaview may be small in size, but it’s big in its reputation for producing some of Sonoma County’s most sought-after wines. And Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery is the only on-site tasting room open to the public in this AVA.

More than 30 years ago, South African couple Lester and Linda Schwartz broke ground on Fort Ross vineyard, despite being warned that planting so close to the ocean was a risky move. Thanks to their tenacity and sourcing exceptional heritage clones that would thrive in this rugged terroir, we can now enjoy award-winning Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Pinotage (a grape from South Africa that’s rarely grown in the U.S.) at the winery’s industrial-chic tasting barn surrounded by Madrone trees and vineyard expanses with stunning views of the Pacific.

Reserve your spot for the winery’s tasting experience (Fort Ross is open Friday through Tuesday by appointment only), where estate chef John Vong cooks up elegant small bites to complement four of Fort Ross’s superb estate-grown wines. While you sip, savor and soak in the views, take notice of the large metal sculptures on the grounds, which Lester designed and built himself.   

What to Do in Fort Ross-Seaview (Other Than Sip Wine)

The stretch of Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to Jenner offers lots of opportunities to pull over and admire the rugged coastline, and Pinnacle Gulch Trail is one of them. Known mostly to locals, this short, half-mile downhill out-and-back hike puts you right out onto a small, quiet beach. On the way, admire colorful wildflower blooms in springtime—the California poppies, sticky monkeyflower, red paintbrush, blue iris and more are really going off right now. Bodega Head Trail is another favorite, promising panoramic ocean views and picnic tables where you can nosh on a yummy crab roll (see below) that you’ll grab on the way. The relatively flat 2.8-mile roundtrip trail loops around the headlands and climbs gently to an overlook with dazzling ocean views, wildflower displays, and if you’re lucky, a glimpse of migrating whales (don’t forget the binoculars!).

For those eager to get out on the water, there’s no better way to spend the day than by reserving a spot on one of Kayak Fishing’s tours. Spike and his team of kayak anglers host several different guided trips on Bodega Bay and the Sonoma Coast—from half-day treks for fishing (lingcod, rockfish and salmon) and Dungeness crab harvesting (they’ll even steam your catch for you at the beach before you head home) to weekend-long camping and kayak fishing trips from Ocean Cove. Save some time during your Bodega Bay-Jenner-Fort Ross weekend getaway for beach hopping (Bodega Dunes, Wrights, Shell, Blind and Jenner beaches) and seal spotting at Goat Rock Beach where the Russian River empties into the Pacific. May is prime time for catching harbor seal pups resting on the shore, and volunteer docents are there on the weekends to share info (and their scopes) about the adorable marine mammals.   

Make a small detour to the tiny town of Bodega just inland from the coast, and stop to see St. Teresa of Avila Church and the former Potter Schoolhouse (now someone’s private residence), which were both featured in Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film The Birds. Then hit up the charming Mudd + Gold herbal apothecary and gift shop that doubles as a local collective featuring a hair salon, massage space and lash extension studio in case you need any self-care while you’re in town.

Where to Eat in Fort Ross-Seaview

No trip to the coast is complete without local oysters, Dungeness crab and whatever’s on the daily catch menu at the plentiful seafood joints along Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to Sea Ranch. Plan a stop along the way to slurp a dozen or two fresh Miyagi or Kumamoto oysters at Bodega Bay Oyster Company at one of the family-owned market’s many picnic tables. Or grab a bushel to-go for an oyster feast on the beach. If you’re more in the mood for waterfront vibes, head to the no-frills Fisheterian Fish Market in Bodega Bay for clam chowder, fish and chips, oysters and crab legs on the seafood shack’s killer beachside patio. (Pro-tip: Order ahead to beat the line.) For the ultimate outdoor provisions, pick up a crab sandwich from local favorite Spud Point Crab Co. to take with you on an afternoon hike.

For a bit of local cinematic history, get a table at the casual Tides Wharf & Restaurant where some of the restaurant and boat dock scenes from Hitchcock’s The Birds were filmed. The restaurant has since been remodeled but preserves the film’s legacy with a replica of the building’s original facade. There’s also the charming Birds Cafe overlooking the harbor with excellent fish tacos and outdoor seating. Owner Melissa Freeman’s parents were extras in The Birds, and framed photos from the 1963 filming hang on the walls.

Need a post-meal pick-me-up? Roadhouse Coffee, tucked away in a small shopping center off the main road, serves up daily drip and espresso drinks in a cozy coffeehouse. Up the road in Jenner, Cafe Aquatica is a fun stop that locals love for fair-trade, single-origin coffee and espresso, plus live music on weekends. For a healthy but delicious original, order the rainbow sandwich (cabbage, avocado, greens, beet spread, shredded carrots, beets and aioli on toasted focaccia).  

Despite its small size and remote location, this stretch of the Sonoma Coast is no stranger to fine dining. Expect specialties like pan-seared Hokkaido scallops and locally sourced ingredients from the Michelin-starred Terrapin Creek Cafe. Perched high above where the Russian River and Pacific Ocean meet, the aptly named River’s End Restaurant & Inn promises sustainable upscale fare, a romantic setting and five rustic-chic cabins if you decide to stay the night.

As you make your way home from the coast, check out two local haunts: Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery for farmstead samples, full cheese boards and a life-changing tuna melt; and the old-school Casino Bar & Grill for the best burgers around, plus local chef pop-ups on weekends.   

Where to Stay in Fort Ross-Seaview

Hot off its 50th anniversary and 2022 renovation, The Lodge at Bodega Bay is designed for pure relaxation. A peaceful retreat with panoramic bay views, you could spend an entire weekend without ever leaving the grounds. Take a dip in the heated pool, soak in the infinity-edge hot tub, de-stress with a luxurious spa treatment or pedal down to Doran Regional Park on a complimentary cruiser bike.

Up the coast in Jenner is the dramatic Timber Cove Resort, perched on a bluff high above the Pacific. With the ocean on one side and redwood forest on the other, this is the perfect spot to connect deeply with nature on more than two miles of on-property hiking trails. At night, relax by your Nest-controlled fireplace and put on a record from your in-room collection. Even farther up the coast is the ‘60s planned community of Sea Ranch, known for its distinctive timber-frame structures designed by several notable architects. The iconic Sea Ranch Lodge, which will unveil a major renovation this July, was designed as the cultural hub of this community and is worth the wait to stay in one of the newly reimagined guest rooms.

allison mccarthy

San Francisco Editor

Allison McCarthy is a writer and editor with 15 years of experience in the industry. She's currently the San Francisco editor at PureWow, where she covers the best of what's...