Rediscovering Healdsburg

It took some convincing to get me to California last spring – specifically to Healdsburg, the anchor town of Sonoma County – because I had been there 20 years ago and didn’t think it rated a return trip. I was wrong.

Healdsburg has morphed from a lackluster whistle-stop with gas stations bordering the town square, to the sparkling hub of Sonoma wine country. Art galleries, antique shops, gourmet restaurants and boutiques now rim the plaza, and – the best part – I found nearly 40 wine bars and tasting rooms within a two-block radius.

Dozens of vineyards and wineries dot the outskirts, surrounded by three renowned AVAs: Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley. I was there to cover the wine scene, so I knew I would be drinking world-class wines. What I didn’t expect to encounter was a 430-year-old mystery at my first winery stop.

The myth of Virginia Dare persists on both coasts: born in 1587 on Roanoke Island (now part of the Outer Banks), Virginia – the first English child birthed in the Americas – was part of the “Lost Colony” that disappeared several years later without a trace. According to legend, the settlers were massacred by the Croatoan tribe, but their chief, Manteo – reportedly the first Native American baptized into Christianity – rescued the baby.

Today, movie mogul Francis Ford Coppola celebrates the legend on the West Coast at his rustic Virginia Dare Winery in Geyserville, just outside of Healdsburg. His wines include a Syrah blend named after Manteo; “The Lost Colony” blend of Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Franc; and “Virginia Dare” Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

From there the tone changed with a library tasting at the more formal Jordan Vineyard & Winery. One of Healdsburg’s larger wineries (100,000 cases), Jordan produces only two varietals – Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. But, says Lisa Mattson, marketing director, “We don’t try to make new wines – we’re just always trying to make ours better.”

We found an entirely different experience at DaVero Farms & Winery, a compound that produces not only certified Biodynamic® and organic grapes, it’s also home to olive groves, fruit trees and produce, chickens, sheep and pigs. After a stroll through the gardens to visit the animals, you can sample wines made from grapes actually stomped by foot. Their olive trees adapted beautifully to the region’s Mediterranean climate; I tasted some oils and found them rich and far more flavorful than supermarket olive oils.

Our last winery stop was SIMI Winery, Healdsburg’s oldest continuously operating winery, founded in 1876. SIMI produces the wines we associate with California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as sparkling wines. Our guide told us great stories about the founder’s feisty daughter, Isabelle, who famously said: “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree.” No doubt that attitude was behind SIMI’s prosperity during Prohibition, when most wineries were forced to shut down.

SIMI not only owns five estate vineyards in Alexander and Russian River Valley, it sits adjacent to a redwood grove. Our guide explained why redwood isn’t a good choice for wine barrels: it’s too dense to allow the evaporation we see in oak barrels – a gallon or more per barrel – which concentrates the wine’s flavors. Oak also lets in a smidgen of oxygen as the wine ages, softening the tannins.

We also wanted to explore downtown Healdsburg during our stay, and joined Wine Country Walking Tours to learn more about the town’s transformation. “It wasn’t cute [back then],” owner Kirsten Wurzbach-Jones told us, “but it’s a family-friendly place now. Boutiques have replaced the biker bars.” Our tour took us to Spoonbar, where I tasted my first fat-infused bourbon, and Erickson Fine Art Gallery, among other stops.

There was no way I could visit all 40 tasting rooms downtown, but I did find two favorites: one was Banshee Wines, a relaxed, bohemian-like winery whose logo sign was scrounged from a flea market. But there’s nothing casual about their wines; the best is their elegant Pinot Noir blend.

The other notable tasting room was Portalupi. Their Italian blend, Vaso di Marina, is sold in milk jugs – a tribute to their nonni, Marina, who bottled her vino di tavola (table wine) in jugs, back in her Italian village. I recommend their bold, smoky Dolcetto which, not surprisingly, pairs superbly with Italian food.

Healdsburg’s new identity is that of a tourism-focused town, so it’s only natural that it enjoys an abundance of restaurants. One of the finest is Valette, a chic, minimalist-décor restaurant founded by two brothers, one a former executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. For a great sandwich at lunchtime, try Costeaux French Bakery, known for its award-winning sourdough.

For a unique Healdsburg experience, you’ll want to visit SHED, a café, market and gathering place that celebrates the connection between farming, food and community. Winner of the 2014 James Beard Award for restaurant design, SHED also offers a fermentation bar – possibly the only one in the country – where you can order a house-made kombucha, shrub, or locally produced wine, beer, mead or cider. And in keeping with Healdsburg’s small-town character, you’ll find that most lodging is in inns and historic boutique hotels, rather than national chains.

One last note: if you’re considering a trip to wine country, don’t be deterred by news of the fires that swept through Sonoma and Napa last fall. Healdsburg was spared; although some 6,600 structures were destroyed across Sonoma County, almost all of those were homes and outbuildings. Relatively few wineries in the area were damaged – and the spirit of wine country wasn’t harmed a bit. The California wine industry wants you to know: Sonoma is open for business.

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