I love to travel even if it’s not that far away and just came back from a trip to Napa and historic Sonoma, California. It was a family gathering and unveiling for my youngest brother who passed away last year. We also lost both of our parents in 2013. Since then, we haven’t had a chance to be all together because we’re spread all over the U.S.
One of my brothers lives in Napa near Yountville, and his backyard looks over a large vineyard. In the morning, if it isn’t cloudy, hot air balloons float playfully over his house.
I was able to get an amazing deal on Southwest Airlines from Burbank to Oakland because they were having a summer sale. It’s always been one of my favorite airlines. My sister Janet flew in from Grand Junction an hour after me. We met up at the airport, had a little lunch, and then took a Napa shuttle that stopped about a mile from my brother’s house.
Strolling in historic Sonoma
Janet broke her tooth and had an appointment the next day with our sister-in-law who has a dental practice in downtown Sonoma. I tagged along to her appointment and strolled around historic Sonoma to see what I could find while I was waiting.
A quick snack
After her dental ordeal, Janet was hungry so we parked near Sonoma Plaza in historic Sonoma to find a snack. Her mouth was still numb, so we had to wait to have lunch until she was able to chew. The Sunflower Caffé looked inviting. We popped in so she could drink a yummy smoothie while I had a cup of tea. It’s a whimsical natural food eatery with giant sunflowers painted all over it.
Francisco Solano Mission
After our snack, we walked over to the Francisco Solano Mission and a docent eagerly volunteered to give us a tour.
The mission was built in 1823 by Padre Altimira. It was the last one built in Alta California and the only one constructed after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexican government also used it as an outpost to prevent the Russians, who they thought were pushing South, from invading and taking over. It was only in operation as a mission for 11 years. When the Mexican Secularization Act was put into law in 1833, all of the missions closed and became privatized.
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The mission is small and simple compared to San Juan Capistrano, Carmel or Santa Barbara, which are large and elaborate. You can view a collection of illustrations inside painted by Henry Chapman Ford in 1875. He was able to capture all the missions when they were in extreme decay and disrepair. It’s an important collection because it drew attention to the issue and encouraged their restoration for posterity. Most of the California missions were restored during the early 20th century.
More mission stories
I’ve always been fascinated by the California missions and wrote a post about a trip I took to Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Los Rios Historic District. In another post, I talked about the beginning of the California wine industry, which started at Mission San Fernando and San Gabriel in Los Angeles. The 2 Boomer Broads (our podcast) did a show with Maggie Espinosa who walked over 800 miles to all of the California Missions. It’s a fascinating story. Be sure to listen in.
Other things to do in historic Sonoma
Sonoma Plaza is surrounded by cafes, shops, and wonderful old buildings. A row of barracks, built in 1836, stands beside the mission and was used by the army, under the command of General Vallejo, to protect the area from the Russian invasion that never happened. Among the old buildings in historic Sonoma are The Blue Wing Inn (pictured below) and The Toscano Hotel.
Make sure to stop at the Sonoma Visitor’s Bureau
In the center of Sonoma Plaza is the City Hall building built in 1846, and alongside it is the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau. We were glad we walked in there because they gave us stickers for a 2 for 1 wine tasting that we took advantage of later that day. We also got directions to the Vallejo Estate. In addition to commanding the troops at the barracks, General Vallejo oversaw the secularization of the mission. The town of Vallejo, near San Francisco Bay, is named after him. You can take an easy ferry ride from Vallejo to the San Francisco wharf.
The Vallejo Estate
After our mission tour, we started hoofing it to the Vallejo Estate. It was a warm day and we didn’t realize how long of a walk it was. By the time we arrived, my feet hurt because I was wearing sandals and I was sweating. We walked along a bike path, which was a great workout, but I wish I’d been wearing my tennis shoes. We gave ourselves a self-tour of the Victorian-style home, which, to me, was too adorable for a General.
Lunch before wine-ing down
By the time we walked back to town, Janet’s teeth were no longer numb and we were ready for lunch. We stopped for a bite at the La Casa Restaurant across the street from the mission. I ordered their fish tacos and they were great! Soon it would be time to go back to Napa to pick up my daughter, who was coming in from LA, but we didn’t want to miss our 2 for 1 wine tasting. After lunch, we drove a short distance to the Buena Vista Winery. If you’re in Sonoma you gotta have wine, right?
Buena Vista Winery
The California wine industry started in Los Angeles at Mission San Fernando and San Gabriel. They produced wine using “Mission Grapes” for religious purposes. The Buena Vista Winery is the oldest working “premium” winery in California with grapes originating from the wine regions of Europe.
It was founded by Count Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa from Hungary in 1857. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1840 and settled in Wisconsin where he attempted to grow grapes. The weather there was too harsh and his grapes failed. In 1849, he moved to San Diego where he became well known as the town’s sheriff. However, he still couldn’t get his grapes to grow. Later he moved to San Francisco but didn’t have any better luck because it was too foggy. Finally, in 1856, he bought property in Sonoma where his grapes thrived.
Buena Vista Winery has a collection of red wine called “Legendary Badge,” which has Sheriff’s badges on its bottles in Haraszthy’s honor.
The development of fine wine in California
The Count went on a tour of Europe in 1861 to study winemaking methods to improve the quality of his wines. He returned to Sonoma with over 300 varietals and thousands of grapevines. Two years later, he established the Buena Vista Viniculture Society to expand and modernize the area’s fledgling wine industry.
There’s a collection of Vinicultural Society wines at Buena Vista named after the organization. They are only available at the winery itself or to wine club members.
The Count was eventually forced out of the wine business by his investors and left for Nicaragua. There, he supposedly met his fate when he fell off a tree branch into alligator-infested waters.
Buena Vista Winery continued to produce excellent wines and in 1873 officially became California’s first premium winery. Over the years, it has received numerous winemaking awards. Wine production halted during Prohibition and the winery laid dormant for years. In 1943, the property was purchased by the Bartholomew family. Its first Post-Prohibition wine was released in 1949 with huge success.
Boisset Family Estates bought the winery in 2011. They own a collection of premium vineyards including Amberhill, DeLoach Vineyards, Raymond Vineyards, Legend Vineyard Exclusives (John Legend) and others with roots in Burgundy, France. After taking over, they’ve made significant improvements to the wine and the winery itself.
If you’re ever in Sonoma, make sure to stop off for a wine tasting at Buena Vista. It is also an excellent location for weddings.
Planning a trip to Sonoma Valley?
Find a hotel near Sonoma
- Booking.com – Find a hotel in Sonoma.
Get the best price on a flight to the Bay Area
- Hotwire – Find the most affordable flight to Sonoma on an awesome search engine
Rent a car in the Bay Area
- Hertz offers car rentals that are affordable and trust-worthy.
Take a Tour of Sonoma
- Napa/Sonoma Wine Tour – If you’re visiting the wine country of California, see it all with Viator.