5 Great Neighborhoods in Sonoma

Get to know the best places to call home in this historic California town.
By: David Bolling
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Sonoma is not just the city. The name embraces the 10,000 people inside the two square miles defining the city limits as well as the 25,000 others strung in a skein of unincorporated towns lining the Valley of the Moon along Highway 12 and creeping upland into the adjoining hills and mountains.

Armstrong Estates

Armstrong Estates is local builder Steve Ledson’s homage to an earlier time that may never have existed but looks great in the guise of spacious Craftsman homes with wide porches on wide streets with big lots and lots of lawn. Ledson is known as a stickler for detail and the quality of his finished work. His own restored country house sits in sparkling white splendor on three-plus acres in the center of the subdivision, surrounded by magnolias, redwoods, oaks and palms.

The neighborhood is embraced by an air of calm and serenity, the houses embellished with lush landscaping. Homes start somewhere north of $2 million and call to mind a simpler, safer era when kids rode bikes to school and played stickball in the street.

Historic Overlay Zone

Hard up against the western edge of Armstrong Estates is Sonoma’s Historic Overlay Zone, where restrictive zoning seeks to preserve the traditional Sonoma style, whatever recent generations believe it to be. The area is studded with stately heritage trees, deep lots that disappear into acres of backyards, a mix of Mediterranean, Victorian and Craftsman homes with never fewer than three bedrooms each and a prevailing commitment to a lifestyle of leisure and practical comfort.

Most commonly described by one word — Eastside — the historic zone is constantly argued over and the subject of endless planning commission appeals. Don’t even think about cutting down a tree without consulting your neighbors. That second-story addition you’re planning up against the property line? Forget about it.

But if you’re a successful professional — young or old — this is where you’ll probably want to live. 

Lovall Valley Road

Lovall Valley Road is a specific stretch of asphalt but also a cultural and demographic address. The farther up it you live, the more cash you have to invest in architectural extravagance. California invented the term “ranchette,” which describes an estate of at least two acres, often with a barn and a horse and a pool. Lovall Valley Road is riddled with ranchettes and homes that cross the threshold of 10,000 square feet, separated from each other by acres of vineyards, pastures and white-fenced paddocks and barns. This is where you come to be a country squire.

But if you just want the manor house without the acres to worry about, you’ll probably explore Old Winery Road, which intersects Lovall Valley and is dotted with all manner of manor houses shaded by enormous eucalyptus trees. Old Winery Road leads, as the name suggests, to Buena Vista, the oldest winery in California. 

The Springs

One hundred eighty degrees in the opposite direction geographically, demographically and architecturally is The Springs, the amalgam of unincorporated Highway 12 towns all with names — Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs, Aqua Caliente — that bespeak the historic spa period when San Franciscans rode the train north to take the region’s healing waters. Funky, ethnic, rundown and now building up, the Springs has what passes for affordable living with a spicy Hispanic flavor.

Taco trucks ply the cheapest and tastiest fast food you can find up and down the highway, while countless cafes, mercados and bodegas service the local trade. The sumptuous Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is an island of luxury in a sea of modest bungalows and summer cabins. Property appreciates the higher you climb the flanking hillside, and creative gentrification is happening all over the Springs as investors and second-home buyers snatch up the relative bargains in real estate.

Glen Ellen

Finally, there’s sunny, laid-back Glen Ellen, home to Jack London’s fabled Wolf House, his Beauty Ranch and the state park where he’s buried. Glen Ellen also hosts Doobie Brothers manager B.R. Cohn, his award-winning winery and annual for-charity rock concerts, along with countless cult winemakers whose vintages you’ll never taste unless you’re a member of their clubs. They are all nestled in a carpet of vineyards that stretches in every direction, intersected by roads and trails that lead up into mountains on both sides of the valley.

Downtown Glen Ellen is blessed with a gourmet market with a deli to die for and an exhaustive wine list. Village life centers around the market, the post office and an old-fashioned auto body shop. Homes range from modest cabins to Pixar honcho John Lasseter’s mansion-in-the-making, which will reportedly top 14,000 square feet.

Out on the highway, Little Vineyards has its own recording studio where proprietor Rich Little plays his Chapman Stick. On Jack London Ranch Road just outside the state park is Benziger Family Winery, a biodynamic model of sustainable agriculture with a tram tour through geologic time. The Gaige House is a nationally acclaimed Bed & Breakfast, and the Chauvet Hotel has luxury condominiums for rent that are part of the National Historical Registry. 

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