Healdsburg: the Heart of California’s Wine Country

Tasting wine with friends at Mendoza Wine Connection.
Healdsburg, California — A Wine Heaven

By Jacqui Currie

healdsburgSurrounded by three of Sonoma’s best-known wine counties Healdsburg is the perfect base to chill, unwind and savor the best of California.

Two hours drive north of San Francisco, just off Highway 101, lies the small town of Healdsburg. The secret to its growing popularity is its charm and location. With Alexander Valley to the north, Dry Creek Valley to the west and Russian River Valley to the south you are within a short driving distance of over 80 wineries set amongst stunning countryside.

The town is small, tiny by American standards with a slight old western feel to it but instead of spit and sawdust Healdsburg has class and sophistication. Almost hidden from the street by large leafy trees is the town’s heart.

Designed like a Spanish plaza, paths lead from all sides and corners to a small fountain. Palm trees set amongst redwood trees continues the Mediterranean theme and it is the perfect place for an afternoon siesta. As the park takes minutes to walk through it’s worth sitting on one of the many benches and enjoy the comings and goings of life in rural America.

Lots of Harleys

The only noise that intrudes on the town’s tranquillity are the frequent Harley Davidson motorcycles that drive through causing heads to turn in curiosity or perhaps envy.

Overlooking the plaza are picturesque boutiques, bookshops, art galleries and restaurants located in quaint 18th-century buildings. The town’s population doubles in size at the weekends and on Saturdays you can mingle with the locals at the Farmer’s Market as they buy fresh flowers, honey, vegetables, and cheese.

Downtown Healdsburg.
Downtown Healdsburg.

A few streets out of Healdsburg in any direction and you are in the country. The roads twist and turn, up and down, throughout the three valleys taking you past field upon field of vines. Some vines are old and gnarled and look like miniature trees and others are newly planted organic vines.

Redwood and the occasional palm trees break the consistency of the perfectly planted rows and occasionally you catch a glimpse of the river. Wildflowers border the roadside and equally colorful metal mailboxes mark the end of single-track roads leading off through the fields to invisible homes.

Familiar Names

Names from your local wine shop jump out at you around every corner – Gallo of Sonoma, Kendall-Jackson, Ledson and Rodney Strong. Every junction has top-heavy signposts with the names of the wineries located in each direction. This isn’t how one imagines driving in California. This is polite and considerate countryside driving where the speed limit rarely exceeds 30 miles an hour.

The scenery has a calming effect. The air is clean and floral and hummingbirds and hawks lure your eyes away from the fields to the clear blue skies. Your only decision is which winery to stop at. Russian River Wine Road produces a free map available at most of the wineries. It details all the wine estates and lodgings that follow the Russian River through the three valleys with useful information like opening and closing times.

The majority of wineries have tasting rooms with friendly staff that helps you work through their tasting list. Normally there are six wines to try ranging from refreshing Sauvignon Blancs, “not too oaked” Chardonnays, fabulous Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, “Cabs” and Merlots.

The wines vary from estate to estate and you will find it impossible to dislike any. The tasting rooms double as shops selling everything from ceramics, tapenades and olive oils to local gift cards and are set amongst beautifully manicured gardens full of color.

The wineries ship to some states but not others, and not to the UK, but that shouldn’t stop you purchasing a bottle to enjoy with a picnic lunch, in your room or even to take home. Picnics at the wineries are widely encouraged and some cater for impromptu feasts with fridges offering meats, salamis, cheeses and of course their own whites perfectly chilled which they open for you.

It is expected that you ask permission to have lunch at their picnic tables and of course, it is imperative that you only drink their wines.

Some of the best picnic lunch venues are Lambert Bridge, Pezzi King, Lake Sonoma and Preston of Dry Creek make their own delicious bread and also produce a beautiful Viognier. Another good lunch destination is at the Korbel Champagne cellars as they have a well-stocked delicatessen selling salads and freshly made sandwiches as well as indoor and outdoor seating.

Chocolates for Sale

An experience not to be missed is the chocolates on sale at the Armida winery. Milk and dark chocolates filled with Pinot Noir are sold individually and devouring them while you sample their Pinot Noir is an experience to die for. Armida has a fabulous deck area overlooking a pond and surrounding vineyards – the perfect place to share a bottle of wine (and a box of chocolates) on a sunny afternoon.

Although all the wineries are commercial, in as much as they have created the perfect environment for you to taste their wines, the majority don’t charge for the pleasure. Some larger estates like Ferrari-Carano do charge $3 to taste three non-reserve wines and $10 to taste three reserve vintages.

This estate is worth a visit if only to admire the beautiful setting, picturesque gardens, large gift shop and serene cellars. Another grand venue, in an incredible setting, is Chateau Souverain and their café is a great place for a more formal lunch.

To prevent arguments about who will drive why not hire a bicycle. Roads and drivers are bike-friendly and it is a great way to see the countryside up close. You can hire locally in Healdsburg or try Getaway Adventures who do a one-day “sip and cycle” tour departing from the town and visiting three or four wineries. At the second or third stop, while you sample the wines, lunch is prepared and beautifully presented outside on picnic tables.

With a guide to lead the way, the reassurance of a support van behind, no maps or agonizing where to stop – this is cycling at its best. Finally, there is the added advantage of transporting your purchases in the minibus or if required yourself if you are tired or have enjoyed too much wine.

The perfect end to an afternoon is to browse around Healdsburg’s shops, a nap by the pool or a spa treatment. The Hotel Healdsburg is a contemporary luxury hotel located along the top edge of the town’s plaza and despite its modern appearance does not look out of place in this chic little town. The mixture of glass and metal combined with hardwood floors and Tibetan rugs gives the hotel a warm and airy feel and they also have the most comfortable beds in the world.

Soak up the Sun by the Pool

The hotel’s 60 ft swimming pool with private cabanas allows you to soak up the Californian sun in style and the tranquil spa uses natural products from around Sonoma. Its 55 spacious guestrooms overlook the gardens and pool or bustling square and the lobby bar is perfect for pre-dinner cocktails. This is the top end of accommodation in town but there are several hotels and B&B’s that will suit all budgets.

The view from one of Healdsburg's many wineries.
The view from one of Healdsburg’s many wineries.

Healdsburg has an abundance of restaurants and two have a reputation reaching beyond San Francisco making reservations essential. The Hotel Healdsburg’s own restaurant – Dry Creek Kitchen – was run by one of America’s best chefs, the late Charlie Palmer.

Across the road, Ralph’s Bistro has featured in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurants list. Wine purchased from the surrounding area can be taken to the Dry Creek kitchen and you won’t be charged corkage for the first two bottles opened.

The majority of people come to Healdsburg for the wine but there are numerous other activities in the area – beautiful redwood forests, hot air ballooning, golfing, hiking and kayaking to name a few. There is an annual jazz festival at the beginning of June and live music can be found around town every weekend during the summer.

Healdsburg is a well-kept secret amongst wine loving Americans. Whether your stay is action packed or relaxing is up to you but one thing is definite – a great glass of wine will never be too far away.

Jacquie Currie is a freelance travel writer based in Edinburgh.

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