Written by Niki D’Andrea Category: Travel Issue: April 2015
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The heart of Sonoma wine country beckons with salubrious – and scrumptious – activities.

“Seventy miles north of San Francisco,” the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau brochure says. “A million miles from stress.”

Well that sounds lovely, I think, thumbing through the thick, glossy pages shimmering with images of verdant vineyard-covered hills and people smiling around piles of plump produce. I’m riding in a car coming from the airport in Oakland, which is 30 miles east of San Francisco, and frankly, looks right around the corner from stress.

The brochure continues: “What you call a vacation, Healdsburg calls ‘going to the mailbox.’” When I read this, I hear it in my head with a teasing tone. Nanner-nanner boo-boo. But once I roll into town –  one of Northern California’s wine capitals, home to a hip population of around 11,000 (reportedly including musicians Tom Waits and Charlie Musselwhite), and a bastion of sensible indulgence (nightclubbers, go to SF; there’s nothing for you here) – I understand the city’s pride in its almost otherworldly peacefulness. Healdsburg is a sleepy town slurring somniloquies about skin-tingling spa treatments, bucolic bicycle rides, fine wines and edifying art walks. I’m happy to post from this metaphorical mailbox.


Wine: In Vino Veritas
Three of the finest regional wine appellations in Sonoma County lie in Healdsburg: Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley. Within these three American Viticultural Areas lies a total of more than 35,000 vineyard acres and 260 wineries. Though known mostly for its fruity, full-bodied Zinfandels, Healdsburg thrives with more than 30 different grape varietals, thanks to warm coastal weather and superior soils, which include everything from dense, clay-rich soil to rocky volcanic ash. “One of the things that elevates Sonoma County is the diversity and variety of soil,” says Clay Mauritson, owner with wife Carrie of Mauritson Wines in Dry Creek Valley (2859 Dry Creek Rd., 707-431-0804, mauritsonwines.com). The Mauritsons grow their vines in more than 30 soil varieties, but Clay will gleefully tell you there are 118 different subclassifications of soil in Sonoma. And I’d be willing to bet he knows something about each one. “I’m a soil junkie,” he admits with a grin, asking me if I can’t taste the volcanic soil that grew the vine which produced the grapes that went into the small-batch Malbec I’m currently drinking. (I can’t.) “I think the taste is a bit like eating a strawberry and getting a seed stuck in your teeth,” he says.

The Mauritsons’ Dry Creek Valley neighbor, Quivira Vineyard and Winery (4900 W. Dry Creek Rd., 707-431-8333, quivirawine.com), takes an earth-friendly approach to making out-of-this-world wines, operating on a 100 percent solar-powered property flush with fig trees, fragrant herb gardens and chickens clucking atop mulch piles. “It’s very much farm country,” Quivira marketing director Andrew Fegelman says, plying me with smoked cheddar goat cheese from nearby Redwood Hill Farm, to pair with my pour of 2011 Quivira Zinfandel. The deep purple Zin holds notes of plum, but no oaky tones, thanks to being aged in a “neutral barrel” (one that’s been in use three years or more, and thus won’t impart much flavor to the fermenting juice). Quivira sells food products, including olive oil and fig preserves, in addition to its wines, which are bolstered by biodynamic practices like filling cow horns with manure and burying them for four months over winter (known as Biodynamic Preparation 500). Thankfully, I did not taste that “terroir” in my wine, either.

PHM0415GE05Where Dry Creek Valley is known for its food-friendly varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, the Russian River Valley is lauded for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both made from cool-climate grapes that thrive in volcanic soils along the foggy valley floor and on the chilly mountaintops. The RRV is also home to the only growers of Prosecco in Sonoma, Viszlay Vineyards (929 Limerick Ln., 707-481-1514, viszlayvineyards.com). The family-owned, boutique winery produces only 1,200 cases of wine per year and five varieties, including their version of the Italian sparking wine, labeled as a Brut Cuvée. All of their wines are 100 percent estate, and available exclusively at their tasting room and online.

More wines are up the hill at Christopher Creek Winery (641 Limerick Ln., 707-433-2001, christophercreek.com). The winery boasts a panoramic vineyard view from its wooden deck that makes me feel like I’m on a boat amidst waves of purple grapes and undulating green vines – though the shockingly (and irresistibly) potent Petite Sirah Port, with its chocolate-cherry-leather-berry tango and sweet little palate bite on the finish, may have contributed to that impression.

It’s impossible to try wine from all of Healdsburg’s wineries in just a few days, especially when experts recommend visiting no more than six per day. Complimentary tasting passes and a winery map are available at the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau (217 Healdsburg Ave., 707-433-6935, healdsburg.com). Be sure to pick up a dining brochure while you’re there, as I did, to read about “meals prepared with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.”

Top 5 Healdsburg Wines
MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir: The impenetrable deep purple color – almost black – mirrors the deep, fruit-forward flavor in this full-bodied wine with oaky notes (macmurrayranch.com).

Lambert Bridge Winery Bevill Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc: An enticing vanilla nose, light tang and light body make this subtle Sauvignon Blanc seductive (lambertbridge.com).

Quivira Granache:
This ruby-colored vino strikes a perfect balance of fruit and spice, with a  short, oaky finish (quivirawine.com).

Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel:
More tannic than other Zins, this super fruity, medium-bodied Zin tastes and smells very cherry (mauritsonwines.com).

Christopher Creek Chardonnay:
The clearest Chardonnay I’ve ever seen is subtle on oak and big on buttery fruit flavor (christophercreek.com).


Dine: Everything’s Organic
Like a seafood restaurant showing the freshness of its food by displaying it alive in a water tank before it hits the plate 30 minutes later, many of the farm-to-table restaurants in Healdsburg serve veggies so vibrant and earthy it’s like they just came out of the ground minutes ago, little roots quivering in the California sun. Herb gardens, greenhouses and produce patches frame many of Healdsburg’s dining establishments.

Almost everything here is house-made and packed with homegrown flavor. If you think medicated nasal spray stings your nostrils, then you’ve never accidentally snorted the house-made horseradish at Costeaux French Bakery (417 Healdsburg Ave., 707-433-1913, costeaux.com). As I chew the most intense French dip sandwich I’ve ever encountered – piled with salty beef, slathered with the aforementioned hell slaw, and topped with strands of thick, caramelized onions – my burning sinuses are somewhat soothed by CFB’s homemade bread, so crusty, crunchy and divine. Costeaux’s beautiful bread makes another appearance at Healdsburg Bar & Grill (245 Healdsburg Ave., 707-433-3333, healdsburgbarandgrill.com), in the form of bodacious toasted sourdough buns framing an Angus beef patty topped with molten pepper jack cheese and cooked to a juicy medium-well with a slightly charred, garlic-encrusted exterior.

One of the trendiest and tastiest nosh spots in town, Spoonbar (219 Healdbsurg Ave., 707-433-7222, spoonbar.com) serves California fare from Chef Louis Maldonado, a Top Chef finalist in 2014. As I marvel at the spoon-water sculpture through the full-glass windows of the dining area, I can’t help but also marvel at the level of care given to preparing the farm-fresh fare, and to curating the extensive wine and cocktail menus. The food menu changes every six weeks, and the chicken, I am told, took four days to tenderize. My cocktail, the “New East Side,” smells like a garden, and tastes like a bouquet of gin, lime juice, mint and yuzu, with a frothy cucumber-elderflower foam.


Dry Creek Kitchen (317 Healdbsurg Ave., 707-431-0330, charliepalmer.com/dry-creek-kitchen) is a palace of perfect pairings, where knowledgeable servers know just the bubbly champagne foil for the slightly of-the-sea aftertaste of the very tender ahi in a tangy citrus sauce. Likewise, the perfect bloody red – a 2011 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (see “Top 5 Healdsburg Wines” sidebar) – is served with one of the best steaks I’ve had in my life, topped with fresh cracked black pepper and amazing Béarnaise sauce.

Another popular spot is Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar (344 Center St., 707-473-0946, zinrestaurant.com). Co-owned by sons of farmers, Zin maintains a farm-to-table focus but is heavy-handed in the kitchen on my visit, overcooking a few dishes but nailing others. I find the deviled eggs to be divine, surrounded by bits of smoky, scrumptious bacon; and a guy at a nearby table thinks the Monterey squid is so “great” that he orders a second serving. I’m thinking it’s time to work off some of these calories.

Play: On Feet and Wheels
The Healdsburg countryside resembles an arboretum, with rolling slopes crammed with stands of trees – bushy olive trees, fragrant eucalyptus trees, peach trees bulging with fruit. The best way to see this forest is riding the roads on a bicycle with Wine Country Bikes (61 Front St., 707-473-0610, winecountrybikes.com). This company of tie-dye-wearing cycling enthusiasts rents 700 bikes a year and offers adventures including half-day and full-day forays with stops at local wineries like Quivira, Lambert Bridge, and Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves. Segway Tours of Healdsburg (707-953-3477, segwayofhealdsburg.com) provides another way to wheel around wine country, taking Segway riders for a tour of the vineyards along the Russian River Valley, including Viszlay Vineyards, Christopher Creek, and Foppiano Vineyards – the oldest working winery in Sonoma County.

PHM0415GE03There are around 23 art galleries in town, many concentrated around the historical 19th-century plaza in downtown Healdsburg, including the Bob Johnson Art Gallery (314 Center St., 707-529-3755, bjohnsongallery.com). As you might have surmised, the principal artist is a guy named Bob Johnson, who paints portraits of Beat poets, designs wine labels, and comes up the stairs reciting Shakespeare. He takes me on a tour of the galleries surrounding the plaza, including Barndiva (231 Center St., 707-431-0100, barndiva.com), a seriously folksy restaurant where they taste things like beets in their wine, and which has an attached art studio/antique store. Further fun stops include the Hand Fan Museum (219 Healdsburg Ave., 707-431-2500, handfanmuseum.org), the first and only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the history of painted palm fronds and folding fans; and Healdsburg Center for the Arts (130 Plaza St., 707-431-1970, healdsburgcenterforthearts.com), which features contemporary local art in its galleries, plus workshops and music events.   

If you want to get dirt under your fingernails, head into the woods on a mushroom hunt with Relish Culinary Adventures (14 Matheson St., 877-759-1004, relishculinary.com), where, weather permitting, you’ll stumble upon troves of truffles to take back to Relish’s kitchen classroom (participants are told to “pick everything,” but “99.9 percent isn’t edible,” according to mycologist Elissa Ruben-Mahon). Before helping me cook and serve the tastiest umami-bomb mushrooms I’ve ever had, the Relish gurus teach me not to leave mushrooms sitting in water (they absorb it), and that many mushrooms have funny animal monikers like “hedgehog” and “hen of the woods.”

PHM0415GE07Unwind: Accommodations
Healdbsurg has many lodging options. I stayed at chic Hotel Healdsburg (25 Matheson St., 707-431-2800, hotelhealdsburg.com), home to Dry Creek Kitchen. Find the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Healdsburg at Madrona Manor Wine Country Inn & Restaurant (1001 Westside Rd., 800-258-4003, madronamanor.com), a stunning 1881 Victorian mansion turned bed-and-breakfast. Honor Mansion (891 Grove St., 707-433-4277, honormansion.com) is “a wine country resort” lauded by couples for its quiet and comfort.

“You’ll be back,” the Healdsburg visitors’ brochure says. “Assuming you ever want to leave.” I must eventually leave, but I leave knowing that many people enjoy the intoxicating environs of this Northern California city, and everybody needs a place to relax, sip a glass of fine wine, and enjoy farm-fresh food while taking in a view of light coastal fog hovering over golden treetops. To use the city’s slogan, and the last statement the brochure makes: “Thankfully, there’s Healdsburg.”

April 4
I Heart Wine Walk
Visit more than 30 wineries in downtown Healdsburg. Benefits the American Heart Association. winewalkhealdsburg.com
May 29-June 7
Healdsburg Jazz Festival
Festival acts will be announced at healdsburgjazzfestival.org.
July 18
Healdsburg Harvest Century Bicycle Tour
This marks the 28th year of the “moderately challenging” ride through the wine valleys .
October 3-5
Sonoma County Harvest Fair
A farm-to-table wine and dine fête. harvestfair.org