There’s no shortage of things to do, taste or sip in Sonoma, where wineries line the lanes and cute boutiques and bistros crowd town squares. It’s tempting to scamper here, there and everywhere. But a single multiple-attraction destination can be appealing, especially when the weather turns drippy and damp.
That’s what brought us to Cornerstone Sonoma on this particular gray and gloomy day: A singular desire to not move the car. What awaited, though, was unexpectedly grand.
If you haven’t been to this wine-country marketplace and garden since it opened more than a decade ago — or ever, for that matter — it’s high time for a visit. Cornerstone, which began with visions of garden splendor and tourist-wooing cachet, feels like it has come into its own at last.
Let’s start with the backstory, though: There’s a spectacular landscape and garden festival held each year in France at the Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire. There, gardenscapes aren’t just beautiful, they’re statements of art, imagination and vision. That was Chris Hougie and Teresa Raffo’s inspiration when they opened this 9-acre estate just south of Sonoma in 2004, commissioning a series of eclectic landscape installations and adding shops and wine-tasting attractions that came and went. Cornerstone changed hands in 2014, purchased by Sonoma real estate and media mogul Darius Anderson with visions of realizing the property’s wine-country tourist potential.
Today, three wine-tasting rooms, a distillery and the casual-chic Park 121 Cafe and Grill share the grounds with more than half a dozen shops and 14 distinct gardens — and a certain Sunset cachet.
If you wondered what happened to the West Coast magazine’s expansive test gardens, after the publication sold its historic Menlo Park estate two years ago, the answer is here. Sunset’s offices may be in Oakland’s Jack London Square, but its high-profile outdoor attractions — five test gardens and an outdoor demonstration kitchen — came to Cornerstone.
On this particular drizzly day, garden exploration waits for a break in the weather. So we belly up to the tasting bar in the Obsidian Ridge wine-tasting room and sample a flight ($15) of Obsidian Ridge and Poseidon Vineyard wines. The Meadowcroft Wines tasting room is next door. Keating Wines is just across the way. And at the end of the complex, next to the gardens, lies Prohibition Spirits’ tasting room with its high ceilings, pressed-tin details and industrial-style bar stools painted pale pistachio green.
Fred and Amy Groth’s distillery got its start with Limoncello di Sonoma, inspired by Italy’s famous sunny yellow liqueur, but made with local fruit. Since then, the Groths have expanded to gin and brandy, with a lineup that includes pear, apple and even a local prickly pear brandy.
Fans of French antiques — and charming objects that would look right at home in a villa in Provence — won’t want to miss Chateau Sonoma French Antiques. You’ll find bright red Parisian cafe chairs, Parisian cocktail books and various enticing tableware and home decor items here. If your tastes run in more of an air-plant and oddities direction, try Artefact Design and Salvage. And if global apparel and accessories are your thing, there’s Nomad Chic, which also opened in 2015.
But it’s the garden that’s the thing here — or rather the gardens — and they’re beautiful even on the drizzliest day. At the first opportunity, we dart outside to explore. If you’ve visited before, you’ll still find old favorites here, from the colorful daisy-pinwheel installation on the lawn to the immigrant-worker homage. But lush growth now surrounds the old wishing wheel, turning your journey into a labyrinthine path, the trail circling around and finally into the center, where silvery mylar strips flutter wishes into the wind. It’s magical.
Water glimpsed down a long narrow channel of leaf-filled metal hedgerows — Walter Hood and Alma Dusolier’s “Eucalyptus Soliloquy” — draws visitors down the path to perch, albeit damply, on a bench at the waterside. Net-like cumulus clouds with dangling crystal raindrops — “White Cloud” by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot — offer commentary on today’s weather.
And, of course, those Sunset gardens beckon — five of them, including a backyard orchard, a flower room and a farm test garden currently planted with chicories, radishes, sage and verbena. It’s a place to ramble, explore and draw inspiration for your own backyard.
IF YOU GO
Cornerstone Sonoma: Open daily. 23570 Highway 121, Sonoma; www.cornerstonesonoma.com