If you’re looking to spend a weekend exploring Sonoma wine country, consider making Healdsburg your base of operations. It’s easy to get to (minus any traffic woes) just off Hwy 101 about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, so just enough removed from the small city sprawl, car dealerships and office parks of that area. Yet it still has all the conveniences and amenities you might need, and enough small town charm to make it feel like a proper country getaway from the city.
The biggest reason of all: it’s located at the intersection of three wine regions – the Russian River AVA, Dry Creek AVA and Alexander Valley AVA.
Two blocks west of downtown, we were surrounded by vineyards and wineries on our way to the rental house friends had booked for Friday and Saturday night. The tree-lined road turned north, curving along more vineyards and parallel to Dry Creek, with houses hidden amongst clusters of trees or at the end of snaking driveways. Our rental had a stand of redwoods that towered up a slope at the back, with picture windows looking out to a vine-covered valley below and the hills and mountains beyond. If you come in the spring, you may get rained on like we did, but you’ll also be treated to an explosion of green. In the morning, our view was obscured by fog and mist, which slowly burned away as the sun rose higher.
Whether you have a list of wineries you want to visit or choose your stops on a whim, Sonoma makes for great scenic driving, with rolling hills and roads that meander for miles through the pretty countryside. The winery scene has continued to improve as well, with lots of nice, obscure finds that aren’t named Coppola or Gloria Ferrer.
Eventually you’ll get hungry, and that’s when you’ll be glad you chose Healdsburg. The town is a foodie haven, or heaven, whatever you like, with a host of acclaimed restaurants and eateries lining its downtown, many that’ve graced the pages of Sunset, Food & Wine, or other glossy food mags.
For instance, there’s Shed, a market and café that sells everything from roasted hazelnuts and pickled collard greens, to expensive cutting boards and sauce pans (and a picnic basket for $440). The mostly farm-to-table café and James Beard award winner offers items like heirloom beet salad, celery root and ricotta dumplings, or chicken liver pate on toast. It also comes with an origin story tailor made for those glossy mag features.
Dry Creek Kitchen is everything you’d expect from famed restaurateur Charlie Palmer, with a menu highlighting regional ingredients like chilled octopus carpaccio, char broiled lamb chops and Point Reyes blue cheese crusted filet mignon. Healdsburg Bar & Grill is more of a neighborhood joint, if your neighborhood serves a $15 Umami bacon blue burger, with a menu of salads, burgers and milkshakes.
The list goes on. There’s Sonoma Cider Taproom and Restaurant (bahn mi sliders, ceviche shooters), Chalkboard (pork belly biscuits, housemade pasta), Barndiva (egg yolk ravioli, kale lasagna) and one I’m especially keen on trying, Café Lucia (Portuguese mac & cheese, wild prawn risotto). And while I can’t personally vouchsafe for the food at these restaurants, they all sound delicious. Also, in case you were worried about slumming it in some dated B&B, there’s at least ten 3- and 4-star hotels and inns within walking distance of downtown restaurants.
Now, if you were hoping to find old Healdsburg on your trip, you’re likely to be disappointed. Like much of wine country, Healdsburg was a sleepy (and somewhat quaint) farm town 20 years ago, with not a lot going on and not much to recommend it. Sure, there were a few high-end experiences to be had here in there, but it was mostly pickup trucks and local eateries. (Places like Giorgio’s are still around, where we ate one night, with red-checkered plastic table clothes serving old school Italian.)
These days downtown Healdsburg is like a set piece, with latter day construction and rehabbing of old building that house gleaming restaurants, hotels and fancy food markets. It’s eye-popping, like something you’d expect to find in a hot new neighborhood of San Francisco, like there’s a lot of money here. Which there is; Sonoma’s wine industry is a goldmine. And it’s attracted successful people fleeing the city, looking for their own little corner of paradise (not too far from the city). And they’ve brought their expensive tastes and sensibilities with them.
The wine country has long been a dichotomy between wealthy, educated, practically aristocratic winery owners, and everyone else – the pickup-driving farmers and regular small town folks who’s families might go back generations. If you hit it big and had the aspirations of the former, you could join the club like Coppola or Mario Andretti (to name a few famous names) have done. But fine wine has always been tied to good food, so it’s natural that the North Bay would have a close association with fancy foods (the kinds of things you’ll find in Dean & Deluca), even from the beginning.
As the wine industry here was slowly building through the 1980s, food was coming along too. But I feel the foodie movement hit the gas pedal with the opening of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena in 1995. Having the CIA in its midst is at the least a great resource, if not a bellwether, for the region’s culinary aspirations. Plus all those graduates came out with a solid foundation and bold ideas, and a number stayed local, either starting their own restaurants or joining the staffs at others. The whole thing creates a virtuous cycle. These high-end restaurants create sophisticated palates and a “scene”, which increases demand for great food, which draws more culinary talent to the region. Ergo: modern-day Healdsburg.