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)