Things To Do In Sonoma / History and Wineries

Sonoma California is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the San Francisco Bay area. Today, it represents a fun stop while touring the northern California wine country in both Sonoma and Napa Counties. There’s plenty of things to do in Sonoma. The Sonoma plaza is laid out in the normal way similar to other Mexican towns. The plaza is large, some eight acres, and represents the largest town plaza in California. Several very historic buildings line the plaza including the military barracks and the Sonoma Mission itself. Sonoma is all about California history, wineries and great dining choices.

sonoma mission

Sonoma Mission

Mexico’s Northernmost Outpost in Alta California

The history of this town is quite interesting and goes all the way back to the origins of settlement in California. One of the most visited sites in Sonoma is the Mission San Francisco Solano. In fact, the entire town of Sonoma is a National Historic Site.

The Sonoma Mission has a unique distinction among the famous California missions. The San Francisco Solano Mission was built by the Mexican government after the Mexican Revolution expelled the Spaniards from North America. As many know, the Mexican government secularized the mission system and confiscated a good amount of their land. In the case of Sonoma, the mission erected there by the Mexicans was used as much as a military encampment as it was a religious center. The Russians had long been involved in fur trapping and trading to the north of San Francisco Bay and the mission established in Sonoma was thought to be a good location to keep an eye on any Russian movement. At one time there was even the idea of establishing a mission further north in what is today Santa Rosa California but those plans never materialized.

sonoma barracks

Sonoma Barracks

The Mexican military garrison stationed at Sonoma was led by the famous General Mariano Vallejo. In 1834, Vallejo was sent to secularize Mission San Francisco Solano for the relatively new Mexican government. When you learn more about General Vallejo, the relationship he had with the Russians to the north is quite interesting. Vallejo’s Russian counterpart was a man named Rotchef. The two leaders had a polite but guarded relationship. Vallejo always insisted that the Russians were technically on Mexican soil. At the same time, he officially tolerated the existence of their Fort Ross and Bodega Bay settlements to the north and west. As more Americans entered California coupled with Mexico’s loss of the province and 1850 U.S. statehood, Vallejo attempted to gain favor with the new government of California. He had lost most of his property and was even imprisoned for some time during the Mexican American War. Incredibly, despite this, Vallejo actually supported California’s quest for statehood and went on to be one of eight Californios that were members of California’s Constitutional Convention. He was eventually appointed the Indian Agent for Northern California. In spite of all the earlier turmoil, Vallejo went on to play a constructive role in the new California government..

On a historical note, today’s city of Vallejo California to the southeast of Sonoma and adjacent to Mare Island is named after the general.

sonoma mission bell

Historic Sonoma Mission Bell

Sonoma California was also the center of the Bear Flag Revolt. This was when Americans who had been living in Mexican ruled California revolted against the government and declared the territory as being American.. This occurred in the Sonoma town plaza and it was here that the first Bear Flag was raised in June of 1846. The men involved in the revolt claimed to be acting on the direct orders of Colonel John C. Fremont. The rebels had named the region the California Republic, similar to what had transpired a decade earlier in Texas. The rebellion was fairly short lived since by 1848 the United States took control of California and raised the Stars and Stripes.

Sonoma and California’s First Winery

Sonoma California is also home to the first commercial winery established north of the San Francisco Bay area. In fact, grapes and wine were produced in Sonoma first by the Franciscan Friars at the mission. It’s also reported that General Vallejo himself had an interest in wine making.

buena vista winery in sonoma county california

Buena Vista Winery

The famous and much visited Buena Vista Winery is located just about a few miles northeast of the Sonoma town plaza. The winery was founded in 1857, just seven years after California statehood and at a time when California’s population was growing greatly due in large part to the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada’s.

The founder was a European immigrant by the name of Agoston Haraszthy who had previously experimented with grapes in southern California. Agoston was referred to as “The Count” and by all measures is considered the father of California’s wine industry. A committed farmer, an experimental innovator and vintner, a respected author, a shrewd businessman and a very talented promoter. If this wasn’t enough, the Count had been Sheriff of San Diego, founder of a city in Wisconsin, ferryboat owner and member of the Hungarian Royal Guard. Count Haraszthy brought back thousands of vine cuttings from Europe and published an account of his journey. There is no other person who helped to bring California’s wine industry more into the world spotlight than Agoston Haraszthy.

The Count is considered California’s most acclaimed and flamboyant vinicultural pioneer. Many of his experiments and findings are still a part of text books today. He is recognized by many as having been the number one authority on wine producing.

buena vista winery

Buena Vista Winery grounds

By the year 1863, Haraszthy had financial backers out of San Francisco and was producing about 2 million gallons of wine per year. This was an enormous amount in that era. Agoston was affected by national financial depressions and weak wine prices and resigned from winery management in 1866 and subsequently the partnership put together in 1863 dissolved by 1880 after putting out only 100,000 gallons per year during the 1870’s. Beginning in 1880 Buena Vista Winery was owned by a California businessman.

Two additional articles with photos you’ll find interesting are the Jack London Historic Park on our Western Trips site and the Juan de Anza Expedition and the founding of San Francisco on Trips Into History.

Visiting Wine Country

Today, the output estimate at Buena Vista Winery is about 500,000 cases per year produced from 900 acres of vineyards. The winery you visit today is on the same site as the original. The hand dug caves are still visible but are off limits to tourists. The grounds of Buena Vista are quite attractive with great views and an ample picnic area. The Buena Vista Winery, although very historic in it’s own right, is just one of many in Sonoma and Napa Counties and an exploration of the wine country can certainly be a week long visit if you’re so inclined. When you stop by the town of Sonoma you will want to pick up the latest winery map at the Chamber of Commerce to help plan your tour route. There are some 300 or so wineries, large and small, in Sonoma County. Sonoma offers tourists a wealth of opportunities to expand their vinous horizons against the backdrop of one of the world’s most dynamic wine regions.

bear flag

Photo of First Bear Flag, from the public domain

Another very interesting stop just a few miles northwest of Sonoma California is the Jack London State Historic Park. The park grounds are part of what were London’s estate including the cottage residence where he wrote books, short stories, articles and letters while he oversaw various agricultural enterprises. London was also a friend of Luther Burbank whose home and gardens were just to the north in Santa Rosa. Jack London’s wife, Charmian, continued to live in the cottage until she passed away in 1955. It was her wish that the ranch be preserved in memory of Jack London and the California Parks system now administers the site.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of history in the Sonoma California area both in terms of wine production and also with the origins of California itself. It’s a fun area to visit as part of a northern California or San Francisco vacation.

(Sonoma and Buena Vista Winery photos are from author’s private collection. Bear Flag photo from the public domain)

Luther Burbank and a Tour of His Historic Gold Ridge Farm

Luther Burbank was America’s preeminent horticulturalist and his historic work is one of the reasons we have the tree and plant and vegetables we enjoy today. The Burbank flowers are some of the world’s most beautiful displays.

luther burbank gold ridge farm cottage

Gold Ridge Farm Cottage

Luther Burbank conducted his experiments in primarily two locations, both in the region north of San Francisco California. In Santa Rosa California about 60 miles north of the Goldengate Bridge was the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens. The second location was in Sebastolpol, about 10 miles due west of Santa Rosa and much closer to the Pacific coast. We’re very fortunate that the historic societies have preserved these two sites for all to enjoy. Both locations are in Sonoma County California, one of the most scenic county in the state. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens is located at 204 Santa Rosa Avenue in downtown Santa Rosa, CA. You’ll enjoy touring this site if your California trip takes you up to the Sonoma wine country. Gold Ridge Farm in Sesastopol is located just north of Bodega Highway and about a half mile west of the town’s downtown area. Gold Ridge Farm is very unique for several reasons.

Even though the distance from Burbank’s home in Santa Rosa was only about 10 miles east of Sebastopol, the climate was different. Being closer to the pacific Ocean meant that Sebastopol had a generally cooler climate than Santa Rosa. Climate of course is very important to anyone growing trees and plants and for Burbank’s experiments it meant a difference.

luther burbank farm trail

Walking path through Gold Ridge Farm

Some of Luther Burbank’s plant breeding achievements are truly remarkable. During his life Burbank developed over 800 strains and varieties of plants. These included over 100 varieties of plums and prunes. and over 50 varieties of berries and much more. At any one Burbank managed some 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants.There was the Burbank potato in 1871 and later the Burbank russet. It was said he sold the rights for the Burbank potato and used the proceeds to help build his home and gardens and farm in Sonoma County California. Luther Burbank had originally been from New England.

When Luther Burbank purchased the Gold Ridge Farm, that had already been the farm’s name and he chose to keep it. Burbank however referred to the farm as an Experiment or the Experimental Farm. Today, it’s commonly referred to as The Luther Burbank Experimental Farm. While Luther Burbank always kept his residence in Santa Rosa, he journeyed to the farm by bicycle or by horseback. The distance being about 10 miles or so. At his site from 1886 until his death in 1926, Luther Burbank had the climate, soil and enough space to experiment with plantings of trees and fruit as well as grapes, vegetables, shrubs, bulbs  and more. When Burbank purchased Gold Ridge Farm, the area was about 10 acres. In regards  was to the climate, Burbank had stated that the climate in Sebastopol was more favorable for growing some types of plants and to conduct his plant cross breeding experiments. Trees that covered about two-thirds of the area were cleared to make way for Burbank’s experiments. In 1904, an additional 5 acres were added to the farm. At the time, Burbank marveled at the scenery of the area with the valley and Mount St. Helena to the west and the gentle slopes of beautiful Sebastopol.

luther burbank trifliate orange

Close up view of Luther Burbank's Trifoliate orange

To highlight a few of the hybrid plants now to be seen at Gold Ridge Farm, the photo at left is Trifoliate Orange,  This is a Chinese hybrid, used by Luther Burbank. It is a very thorny plant. Mr. Burbank thought he could work with this plant to improve its fruit. He thought that the trifoliate orange’s ability to withstand harsh cold winters would allow it to be grown in the Midwest. Unfortunately, Luther Burbank gave up his citrus experiments when his entire citrus orchard was destroyed by three bad winters in a row. He determined that if Sonoma County California could have winters this rough on the trifoliate orange, it would be extremely difficult for this fruit to withstand the heavy snows and low temperatures of the Midwest. Climate was a key consideration in plant cross breeding.


Another interesting creation of Luther Burbank was the Shasta Daisy or “Crazy Daisy”. Luther Burbank loved the oxeye daisies that grew in front of his early family home in Massachusetts.  Many years later, Burbank was inspired to develop these wildflowers for use as garden flowers. He began by cross-pollinating the oxeye daisy with the English field daisy. Burbank then dusted the best of his hybrids with the Portuguese field daisy.

crazy daisy

Burbank Yellow Crazy Daisy

The result was very good but to have brighter flowers Burbank then pollinated them with the Japanese field daisy. The Shasta daisy hybrids were finally introduced in 1901 after 17 years in development.

The fact is, the work and experiments of Luther Burbank gave us a great many of the tree, fruit and vegetable varieties we enjoy today. One of Burbank’s goals was to increase the world’s food supply by manipulating the characteristics of plants. This he succeeded in doing. Luther Burbank ranked with the best scientists and mechanical developers of the America. Burbank was a friend of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and both men visited at the Burbank home in Santa Rosa California. When Luther Burbank passed away in 1926 he was buried near his greenhouse on the grounds of his home.

Another article you’ll want to read is a tour of the Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa. Included are photos of the site. Another fun Sonoma County wine country stop is the historic town of Healdsburg California, just about 15 miles north of Santa Rosa on U.S. Hwy 101.

Both Santa Rosa and Sebastopol California have honored the work accomplished by Luther Burbank with the designation of highways, schools and entertainment venues in his name.

If your western trip takes you near to or near Sonoma County California, I think you’ll want to include a visit to both the Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol and the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa to your trip planner. There’s many of fun and interesting places to explore in Sonoma County, and these two historic sites are good examples.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)