Oenophiles flying into California wine country tend to head for Napa, which like Paris, is never a bad idea. But cognoscenti in search of further flung, less pretentious (but equally gastronomic adventures) understand the allure of Sonoma, a wine-growing county as prodigiously layered and earthy as the robust wine made from its abundant acres of gnarly old vines — some of the most masterfully tended in the world. Sonoma, fully in touch with its virtues, reminds me of that person who becomes famous but keeps ego intact, the humble, but talented, hardworking artist or entrepreneur who’s the same whether you see her at the farmer’s market buying cheese or at the premiere of her latest movie. Worth the drive whether you’re steering through weekend traffic from SFO, heading in from the desert or taking Highway 1 along the coast, this lost-in-time wine mecca has an authenticity all its own.
Shaped like a fat, longish, green bean laid out along the Pacific coast, composed of hillocks, ridges and redwoods galore, Sonoma boasts some 19 microclimates and profusion of varied soils. Much of its swathe of fertile terrain remains wild, just the right amount of it teased into submission by farmers and wine folk. Though peppered with a variety of characteristic towns, Sonoma has a star player: Healdsburg. With gourmet bravado, the hamlet-esque town aptly encapsulates the county’s mood: laid-back, stylish, food-centric, historic — with a dash of Hallmark card thrown in for good measure. Built around a beguiling town square, rife with unique shops, galleries, and restaurants, Healdsburg garners bonus points from wine lovers for the fact that it straddles three diverse wine regions — Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Russian River Valley — offering a bevy of varietals and highly respected labels.
More on the Town and How to Arrive
While we are all about the drive, flying into Healdsburg is possible too. Most people don’t realize that you can fly into Healdsburg’s backyard by booking your ticket to Santa Rosa’s small, friendly Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport, located just a few minutes from downtown. A draw for culinary travelers, Healdsburg has an array of acclaimed eateries, including Michelin-starred and James Beard-nominated Single Thread. Embracing the county’s local bounty, the epicurean-driven populace sets that foodie tone, while creative denizens make sure the town emanates a vibrant artsy tone all around. Be sure to visit on Saturdays to enjoy the stellar farmers market.
Ways To Pass Time in Healdsburg
Taste wine. You can meander around town and sip in tasting rooms (Marine Layer Wines and MacRostie get my vote), or tour Healdsburg’s outskirts by car. Myriad remarkable wineries beckon, each a distinctive riff in Sonoma’s song. Some favorites include Vérité Winery, Silver Oak, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Aperture Cellars, ReeveWines, and Jordan Vineyards. To avoid driving yourself and having to forego a tipple, book with Sonoma Wine Rides, a family-owned business, replete with driver/guides, who excel in creating customized wine itineraries.
Trek and Pedal
Hiking provides an active antidote to those hours bellied up to the wine bar swirling, sniffing, and quaffing liquid treasure. A stroll quickly turns to a sweaty detox hike in Healdsburg’s three regional Parks — Foothills, Riverfront, and Shiloh. To feel lost in time, immerse in the mystical wonder of Armstrong Woods Redwood Forest where easy trails meander among the soul-stirring trees. Don’t forget a gourmet picnic basket. Everything tastes better beneath the big trees. Bikers can take things as intensely or as cavalierly as they like on the area’s various bikeways. Consider cycling the 30-mile loop that begins and ends in Healdsburg, passing through Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, providing countless spots to stop, nosh, sample the fruit of the vine, and rest along the way.
Art abounds in Healdsburg. You’ll see it in the interior design, the elegant wines, the public installations, the guitar-strumming street artists, and the poets journaling in the park. Nearly two dozen galleries display a fine array of work, much of it created by local artists. Don’t miss Erickson Fine Art Gallery (the oldest in town), The Harris Gallery (with work by a father-son duo), Healdsburg Center for the Arts (known for its shows by local artists), Bradford Brenner (whose work hangs in museums around the world), or Paul Mahder Gallery (the largest bolthole that features fine art, ensconced in a 1940s Quonset hut).
How you dream a Michelin-starred restaurant will be, SingleThread epitomizes the spirit of the authentic, small, farm-sited Michelin-starred eateries one finds in Provence or the Languedoc. On a working farm in the Dry Creek Valley, also serving as a small inn (again reflective of what you’ll find in France), the restaurant defines soil to plate. The food from farmers, owners, and chefs extraordinaire — Kyle and Katina Connaughton — deserves its many accolades and the adoration of its hoard of fans. Come hungry for an unforgettable tasting menu.
Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen
Ever a champion of local cuisine, celebrity chef Charlie Palmer serves up Sonoma ingredients in charming contemporary American ways at affordable prices. His restaurant sits right on the historic plaza. A $55 Sonoma Neighbor menu is a steal served only on Monday through Thursday nights. Don’t miss the pork belly biscuits, a post-wine-tasting treat.
The purview of homeboy Chef Dustin Valette and his brother Aaron Garzini, this wholly local, popular restaurant embraces a bit of French mystique throughout. Meticulously prepared, thoughtfully conceived dishes mean you can confidently toss the menu aside to opt for the “Trust Me” tasting menu, in which Chef selects a minimum of five dishes, served as slightly smaller portions than their a la carte versions. Keep the faith while a sommelier pours wine pairings.
Where to Stay
You’ll sleep, eat, swim, flirt, and do downward dog in a vineyard when you stay in this newish hotel, nestled amid rows of grapes — plus a melange of rosemary, scrub oaks, and eucalyptus trees. Organically conceived, each treehouse-like suite (130 in total), harmonizes with the surroundings. You’ll swoon at Hazel Hill restaurant which summons the essence of Sonoma (the Hazel Hill Salad and Matsutake are outstanding), reset in the spa (which offers one of the world’s most expensive facials by Valmont), and have no guilt thanks to Montage Healdsburg’s total commitment to sustainability. Don’t leave without a glass of Surveyor, Alexander Valley 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, made by celebrated wine maven Jesse Katz from the resort’s own grapes.
Set a few minutes from downtown but close enough to let the able concierges set you up for Plaza-sited VIP tastings, you can pedal a bike to this whimsically divine, eclectically ingenious boutique hotel. Glamorous but not stuffy, with 24 rooms reimagined by visionary co-owner and interior designer Jay Jeffers, The Madrona reigns as a vineyard-edged 1881 mansion given new life as a hotel in 2022. Breakfast before the fire in the swanky anterooms is a highlight, as is dinner or brunch on the back porch.
Featured image courtesy of Stay Healdsburg