Exploring Wine Country’s Fall Color in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon


Sonoma County’s lush, green vineyards turn golden, bronze and russet as autumn approaches. Here, the vineyards of St. Francis winery in the Valley of the Moon.

Never a day passes that I don’t marvel at the beauty of where I live, but never more so than when the early fall frenzy of grape-pickers at work, crushers and pressers in motion is over. With the last cluster removed, I watch the vineyards take a deep breath. Lush, green quilts gradually turn yellow, with flings of bronze and russet added in time for Thanksgiving.

Sonoma County’s acclaimed grapes are now safely ensconced in stainless steel tanks, fermenting, awaiting the proper moment for barreling, resting until the time is right to move along the bottling line.

In your bucket because:  

  • You’re a leaf-peeper, but hadn’t thought of  visiting fall-color in the vineyards.
  • You enjoy wine and want to sample and taste the best.
  • You love to get behind the wheel of a car and go exploring.

It all begins just 32 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge with 15 wide-flung, distinct and amazingly diverse wine-production regions – Mother Nature’s perfect handprint. Sonoma Valley claims one finger of that handprint. Turn-of-the-last-century adventure writer, Jack London, dubbed it the Valley of the Moon. I call it home.

Gnarled trunks of century-old zinfandel sport especially brilliant fall color.

Driving Sonoma

A 17-mile stretch of two-lane Highway 12 passes through the mountain-edged valley between the town of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, the county seat. In any season, the route is gorgeous. In fall, breathtakingly so.

Signposts sprout with directions to wineries – Kunde, Landmark, Arrowood, Imagery, Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis and many, many more.

Each autumn, I never fail to take the turn off  of Highway 12 into the picturesque hamlet of Glen Ellen and follow the uphill road to Jack London State Park. A path winds through the buildings that made up his utopian dream, Beauty Ranch, including the stone ruins of the ranch’s winery. Beyond, vineyards continue to flourish, tinged once again by the fall season’s paint brush.

Swirling, Sipping and Tasting

With so many wineries to choose from, good advice is to visit no more than four on a given day. As many as six wines may be offered for sampling, starting with the lighter white wines and continuing on through full-bodied reds. Do as the experts do – swirl, sniff, sip, swish – and spit. Yes, spitting is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged. The less busy, less touristy fall season makes a behind-the scenes winery tour of crush pads, barrel rooms, bottling lines, cellars and caves especially enjoyable. At some, tapa-sized offering suggest perfect pairings of food and wine.

Soon after Thanksgiving, the grape vines along Highway 12 will once again turn bare. Just ahead, winter. Morning frosts will lace gnarled trunks; rainbows will arch over the mountains. Soon the pruning, tying and training of vines will begin again.  That’s how it goes throughout Sonoma  County, Mother Nature’s perfect handprint – including Jack London’s Valley of the Moon, the place I call home.


Sonoma County’s 15 wine regions range from appropriately named Rockpile overlooking Lake Sonoma, to bucolic valleys, to vineyards perched above the county’s spectacular coastline. Take away the wine, and Sonoma would still hold its head high. Don’t miss farmers market cornucopias and dining opportunities overseen by acclaimed chefs.

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