The most visible damage from fires that lit up Napa Valley hillsides in October 2017 are random black in the treeline, most of them miles from wineries. To the west in Sonoma County nothing is visible from the fall’s two weeks of post-harvest smoke. While some homeowners are rebuilding, tourists see nearly nothing but a vibrant, welcoming scene in this wine country 50 miles north of San Francisco. We proved it to ourselves in a late winter visit – season of lower prices –to Healdsburg, the cultural hub of Sonoma County.
Travelers, it seems, often choose just one wine country, Sonoma or Napa. The choice is based on the time available for touring the collective 600-plus wineries or maybe by the type of wine sought. Generally Napa tends to be home of large, nationally known brands, while smaller boutiques populate Sonoma.
Because we headquartered in Healdsburg, Sonoma County beckoned. The small town sits at the intersection of the county’s three wine valleys — Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River. It’s home to more than 35,000 acres of vineyards and more than 200 wineries.
Talk to locals and they wax nostalgic about how their small town has become big league in the past 20 years. While the population is just 12,000, tourism is expansive. Today the town has 35 tasting rooms scattered amongst a Chagrin Falls-like retail scene. Culinary offerings span genres from farm-to-table and modernist American to tapas, ramen and various international influences.
At the urging of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce we sampled a breadth of lodging and dining options. The first bedroom was at Madrona Manor, an 1881 estate-turned-inn about one mile south of town. The thoughtfully preserved 8,400-square-foot manor has 22 guest rooms and suites, and a Michelin-starred chef in the kitchen. The experience is vintage luxury from original antique furniture to Persian rugs in generous bathrooms. Judge for yourself whether the lack of television is a romantic asset.
The second night was at Camellia Inn, a quaint bed and breakfast two blocks from the main avenue bisecting town, with a gentler price. Owner/innkeeper Lucy Lewand was a valuable local resource educating us about the town. We learned where to shop and dine, something hard to determine in this retail-heavy destination.
The final two nights were Two Thirty-Five luxury suites. And, how! Healdsburg’s Deas family developed four three-bedroom suites so families or friends can travel together and share an apartment-like space with hotel amenities. In each suite, three master bedrooms share common living, dining and cooking spaces. I marveled that the touch of a button makes 43-inch televisions arise from the footboards of queen-size beds. Girlfriends, time for a getaway.
Dining experiences were elevated. If there was any challenge it was the lack of simple diner food. And, that’s probably because rent is too high for that food-service segment.
Madrona Manor’s Michelin-starred kitchen feeds a special-occasion dining room, though many guests dress casually. Green ingredients come from the manor’s gardens, thus estate kale retains its sweet nuttiness and stands up to Japanese Wagyu steak bites. As if five courses on the Winter Tasting Menu paired with wine weren’t enough, Chef Jesse Mallgren sent out a complimentary smoking egg amuse bouche to announce a playful yet classic style that delights the senses.
Across town Spoonbar is a contemporary American restaurant that relies on locally sourced ingredients in the hands of husband/wife chefs Casey and Patrick Van Voorhis. Casey is from Versailles, Ohio. The duo does a little molecular gastronomy in its poke bowl, turning yuzu juice into caviar-like spheres.
Around the corner Café Lucia mixes it up with Portuguese food and wine. As if we needed another wine category, but why not. After a busy week, we both settled into ethnic versions of comfort food; mine the wild prawn risotto and his the Caldeirada-Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew.
We lacked a winery plan, so instead we wove them into daily activities. Our first winery was Korbel, the American Champagne house. And, yes they can call their sparkling wine “Champagne” because they’ve been making it since 1882, before U.S. winemakers were required to NOT do so. We stumbled upon Korbel during a motorcycle jaunt to Jenner to see the Russian River meet the Pacific Ocean. Fog kyboshed that goal, but the twisty ride to the coast was worth it. Korbel, which was on the route, has combined old and new in a charming facility where tastes are free. There they changed my perception of the brand as entry level bubbles. While Korbel wines are available at many Ohio retailers, selective products are only available on site and by mail order. And, they don’t ship to Ohio.
The next wine experience was during our Savor Healdsburg Food Tour with owner Tammy Gass. Among our five stops was the tasting room at Portalupi, which calls itself a Cal-Ital winery. There Jane Portalupi laid out a charceuterie tray and paired four samples of Italian-influenced wines. Full-bodied, yet lacking aggressive tannin, a 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel was jammy and kept revealing new layers. Wines are available on premise and online. They ship to Ohio.
The third winery was recommended by the manager of Two Thirty-Five, the tiny boutique Cartograph. Owners Serena Lourie and Alan Baker, specialize in single-vineyard Pinot Noir and offer crisp, dry Alsatian-style Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Enthusiastic newcomers to the area, the duo has been buying grapes for several years and in 2016 purchased 14 acres – 10 planted in Pinot Noir – in the Russian River Valley. They make 2,000 cases per year. For perspective, compare that to Korbel’s 1.5 million cases per year. Cartograph wines are available on premise and online. They ship to Ohio.
The fourth and final winery was recommended by another contact – the 43-year-old Lambert Bridge Winery. There, winemaker and Sonoma native Jennifer Higgins specializes in soft, elegant reds. Like the other wineries, their best selections are available onsite, mail order or to members of their wine club. They ship to Ohio.
Before, during or after wine tasting, surveying the town’s offerings is a no-brainer. Through our food tour Gass introduced us to must-have micro-experiences. Shed, for example, is a James Beard-winning farm-inspired, from-scratch deli and restaurant as well as retailer and events space. Taste of Tea is a tea-lounge where docents guide guests through tea offerings including non-alcoholic “marteanis.” Gourmet ramen noodles are also on the menu. Gass knows all the best places and coordinates public or private tours to show them off.
Because I had time and desire for something different, I indulged in a flower arranging class at Dragonfly Floral, an organic flower farm on the edges of town operated by Bonnie Z. Z graduated from Riverside High School in Painesville Township. She bought her farm in Sonoma County in 1990. Classes at the farm are advertised on the website and should be reserved in advance.
Sonoma County is so rich with experiences; we just dabbled in a few during our five-day visit. Planning ahead helped us squeeze in the best and most.