In Sonoma, California, the folks are friendly, the grapes outnumber cars, and the relaxed small-town atmosphere makes Mayberry look like a vibrant metropolis.
There is one caveat about vehicles, however: Sonoma is home to a world-class racetrack, Infineon Raceway, that occasionally hosts some of the most prestigious motor sports in America. NASCAR visits once a year, as does the Indy Racing League and its celebrity driver Danica Patrick. The loudest tourists by far are the drag racers of the National Hot Rod Association, which served as the occasion for my visit on a beautiful July weekend.
Some have called it a culture clash as loud, fast cars scorch their way down an asphalt track nestled in pastoral wine country. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of it as the best of both worlds.
Locals will tell you that, whether or not you’re a car fan, race weekends are among the best to visit Sonoma’s peaceful downtown, about eight miles north of Infineon. The reason? Radio traffic reports warn Bay Area commuters to avoid the highways surrounding the track, leaving historic Sonoma to a lucky few.
Even counting for traffic, the Saturday and Sunday at the track are half-day affairs at most. I arrive at 11 a.m. (ear plugs in tow) and stay for about five hours, keeping score of the winners and losers in my program. Walking around the trailers behind the grandstand isn’t a bad between-race diversion — drag racers are more accommodating to autograph seekers than their NASCAR and IRL counterparts.
Following an afternoon of adrenaline-fueled entertainment, it’s time for something more organic. Downtown Sonoma is far enough into the valley to be completely removed from any hustle or bustle — and noise from the track. Start at City Hall, in the center of historic Sonoma Plaza, and you’re within easy walking distance of shopping, restaurants, art galleries, and more wine tasting than your taste buds may be able to handle.
Wine tasting is by far the city’s main attraction, and navigating the variety of vino is a delicate proposition. Many tasting rooms close their doors by 5 or 6 p.m.; others are free (just look for the “free wine tasting” signs); still others require reservations.
If you’re new to the game, duck into every open door, get ready to learn about wine, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your palate is more refined, do some scouting at the Visitors Bureau next to City Hall, which can provide a master list of wineries and tasting rooms in the area.
Not surprisingly, the best thing about the neighborhood restaurants may be their expansive wine lists. Walk east down Napa St. to enjoy the refined California cuisine at Cafe Le Haye, where a $20 dinner entree is guaranteed to be paired with the perfect red, white, or sparkling. A great bang-for-the-buck Thai restaurant, Rin’s Thai, offers more wine and $10 dinner entrees across the street.
Just around the corner, on 1st St., I relax in the open-air lobby at the Ledson Winery and Hotel as jazz streams from its grand piano over wine from the house label. At this point in the night, the sights and sounds of cars zooming past at 300 m.p.h. is well in my rear-view mirror.
The beauty of Sonoma is that no two races, and no two sips of wine, will be exactly the same. How it managed to fit so many possibilities into such a small town is beyond me.
Until I figure out that one, I’ll keep coming back.