Friday, September 17, 2010

Sonoma County Travel - Healdsburg

Fall is one of the times of year when last minute travelers want to plan a quick getaway to wine country. The kids are back in school, the weather’s still decent, and you have a few vacation days burning a hole in your pocket. A long weekend might provide just the breather from the frenetic pace of your summer. But with limited time and a world of possibilities, how can you keep it simple? Equally as important, how can you make it memorable?

While certainly not the be-all and end-all (this is merely one of the many great options) this is the area we’ve most gravitated to in the past. Read on for a guide on making the most of a quick trip to Healdsburg…

“Napa", they say, "We want to go to Napa".

When friends, family, and readers ask for trip planning advice I start them off with some basic questions to help narrow down that world of possibilities. By the time they're done answering, they're often saying, "Healdsburg? We're going to Healdsburg?”

Yes, Healdsburg. Napa is indeed spectacular – as is much of Sonoma, but those looking for a more personal, authentic experience in wine country, northern Sonoma county offers a terrific alternative to the hustle and glitz of its neighbor to the southwest.

An easy drive north of the Bay Area on 101, Healdsburg is a terrific town to use as a base of operations. Sitting more or less at the intersection of the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys, it’s got everything a wine-trpper needs: great lodging, terrific food, and incredible accessibility to some of California’s most heralded – and underdiscovered – wineries. But it’s got real character, too. Once a sleepy farming town, Healdsburg has undergone years of gentrification and while the quaint and quirky shops and cafes have been largely replaced by boutiques, galleries, and tasting rooms, it has managed to retain its soul which can still be enjoyed in the relaxed pace of local life here.

-Sample Weekend Itinerary-

Getting there: Regardless of where you are traveling from, plan your drive to Healdsburg at off peak times. If you’re coming from San Francisco or Oakland, keep in mind that Bay Area traffic can be daunting - stressed-out is no way to start your getaway. If you are traveling from other US time zones, consider staying on your local time. An early start can help you get more out of your visit without making it seem too busy or structured.

SATURDAY 6AM: Get up early, don your sweats, and drive west along Westside Rd to Armstrong Woods State Park. The road takes you through vineyards and along the Russian River. Often foggy in the morning, it’s a sight at every turn. The scenic ride and serene setting are transformative. Home to a grove of calming giant redwoods, Armstrong has trails for every exercise appetite. A quiet walk, brisk hike, or vigorous run among the ancient trees will melt away even the most entrenched mind chatter. Besides starting your day in incredible beauty, the idea here is also to offset the debauchery that will fill the balance of your day.

9AM: Get back to town for breakfast, shower and shopping for lunch provisions. Always a good base for your days of sin, a hearty meal is a smart precursor to wine tasting. Grab a leisurely breakfast (see recommendations below) and stroll around the square with a steaming mug of coffee. Shower up and get dressed for a day of touring. Before heading out, grab some sundries before you head off to the tasting rooms (see the eating section). Buy enough bottled water for a trip across the Mojave.

11AM: Wineries open around 11 (but hey, that's already 2:00 back east, so get to it!). Hit one or two tasting rooms (ideas follow) and make your way up to Ridge. Ridge’s Lytton Springs facility is a fascinating space set on the Lytton Springs Vineyard. See if they’ll let you taste any of the ATP wines.  Spring for the Montebello tasting.  At $20, it's a unique opportunity to try one of America's most iconic wines. Have lunch here - especially with a bottle of their Chard (they'll lend you some crystal glasses). Sit outside and soak up the sun. Stroll through the gnarly, stumpy vines and think about this: they were planted back in the 1870’s. I don’t know what your definition of heaven is, but has got to be pretty close.

2PM: After lunch maybe hit a couple more tasting rooms. By the time you hit your 3rd or 4th winery, you'll be ready ditch the car (see note on driving below). Head back to town, nap if you feel like it, and then explore Healdsburg by foot. Shopping here is fantastic – especially after all that wine loosens your inhibitions. There are also some terrific in-town tasting rooms worth popping in to. Then, if you didn't before, collapse for a California siesta before dinner.

7PM: Enjoy dinner someplace in town. Plenty of options as indicated below. There is such a thing as too much wine and rich food, so consider giving your taste buds a refreshing break and go with a beer and burger type meal instead.

SUNDAY – Same format as Saturday, only different places.  Drive up to Lake Sonoma and check out the view from this vista site. Give your legs a stretch and explore this incredible feat of engineering (that hill you climbed up at the end of Dry Creek Rd is a dam.) There are trails here as well.

After returning from Lake Sonoma, grab breakfast, a shower and hearty lunch meats and cheeses from Big John’s. Skip the bread. Again, buy plenty of bottled water and start drinking it pronto.

Make Quivira your first stop. Enjoy a self-guided tour of the organic vegetable gardens and biodynamic vineyard. Do not miss the Grenache or Petite Sirah here. Continue up the road to Preston. Do the tasting, pick up some of their home made bread, and do not miss the jug wine. Claim a table under the trees next to the baci courts and grab some jug wine to enjoy with your lunch and fresh bread. Ask if they have some baci balls you can borrow. Linger.

Consider a post-lunch jaunt up to Chateau Souverain. This behemoth is the antithesis of the small family winery - it’s huge, has a tchotchke-cluttered tasting room, and feels more like a country club you don’t belong to. But. Their wines are not only consistently good, but represent a refreshing return to value much of the surrounding wineries long since abandoned. They also have older vintages and cool, unique wines to taste you aren’t going to find back home.

Back in town, explore the stores, but also wander back into the surrounding neighborhoods. Cozy bungalows and beautifully landscaped yards make this modest residential community proud.

Before leaving town, consider having your loot shipped home. Fitch Mountain Packaging on Center St is not only is it a great convenience (and not much more expensive than the airlines will charge you), but try explaining to the TSA about those vine clippings you’re bringing home to use on your grill.

Sleeping
From the Best Western one exit north of town to the fancy-pants Les Mars Hotel (for the Titanium Card set who wear freshly pressed clothing on the weekends), Healdsburg has a broad range of options. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of hotel and villa options, but consider that location is as important a factor as any in selecting your hotel. Hotel Healdsburg on the square is a hip and trendy-posh spot where frequenters of W Hotels will feel right at home. The Healdburg Inn, also right on the square, combines old western character with reasonable rates, modern cleanliness and amenities, and has been home base for several trips. If you’re going with another couple or want lodging with some space of your own, check out Healdsburg Modern Cottages.

Eating
Many hotels include breakfast with your room. Take advantage. Otherwise, there are two great spots on the east side of the square. Center Street Deli and the Flying Goat are winners. Both are local hangouts and easy to find. Center Street is more of a diner and Flying Goat is a coffee shop with great pastries – and great local art, too.

For lunch, maximize fun and minimize hassle by picnicking. You’re in one of the most picturesque places in the world and there are few things more relaxing and enjoyable than a casual outdoor meal. The Oakville Grocery on the square is lovely – you wouldn’t be surprised to find Martha Stewart browsing the cheese case there - and makes high art of prepared foods, though is expensive. The smoked trout pate is worth every penny, as is the Humboldt Fog cheese. For a more down to earth and wallet-friendly alternative go to Big John's Market a mile north of town on Healdsburg Ave. They have much of what Oakville does at half the price – and it’s on the way out to Dry Creek Rd .

At dinner time, walk around town and survey your menu options. When something strikes your fancy, grab a table. This small town does not lack for sophisticated dining options, but is also not the kind of place where reservations are required. Cyrus, Zin, and Dry Creek Kitchen (among others) offer swank dining at swank prices. However, if you find that you’ve had enough wine at the end of the day and just want to kick back in your jeans, consider the highly respected Bear Republic Brewing Company off the northwest corner of the square. Bear Republic is a nationally respected brewer – and deservedly so. The food is standard bar fare done right, but the beer is as good as the wine made in the surrounding valleys. For the ultimate in casual, El Sombrero is a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint on Center St. one block south of the squar
e – the antidote to hautiness – and killer food to boot.

Wineries
Several well-known and reputable wineries have chosen Healdsburg Plaza to locate tasting rooms. And why not? This is one of the loveliest spots in California wine country. Ranging from gin juice giants to ultra boutique producers, there are a handful of tasting rooms right in town. These are fine for stumbling in and out of after you’ve called it a day on the roads, but there are dozens of wineries in the surrounding valleys that should be your priorities.

Generally speaking (very generally), Russian River Valley is known for Pinot, Dry Creek is known for Zin and Petite Sirah, and Alexander Valley for its Cabs. Good Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blancs can be found everywhere.
A few words of advice on visiting tasting rooms: go for quality, not quantity. Take your time, relax, talk, learn. Enjoy. There’s no rush. Also, use your gut. Regrettably, while staffing in tasting rooms can make your whole trip, it can just as easily lie somewhere between apathetic and pushy. You’ll usually be able to tell what’s what within the first 30 seconds. If it doesn’t feel right, boogie. A moment of awkwardness as you turn on your heels beats the hell out of sitting through a long, monotone script recitation followed by a hard sales pitch for overpriced wine you don’t care for.

Grab a winery map from your hotel and ask for help. There are new wineries opening every month, so if you’re in to a particular varietal or want to experience a smaller winery, don’t be shy - ask. This is a small town and most people know each other. Give your hotel a couple of parameters and they’ll be happy to make some suggestions. Also give some serious though to hiring a driver (see below).

Do not drink and drive. Your getaway weekend spent in the clink, hospital, or worse is a fate so easily avoided, you’d be a jackass not to. Take turns being designated drivers or, better yet, hire someone to drive your car. Denise Andersen of Da Vine Wine Tours will drive your car wherever you want to go for $35 an hour – a steal considering alternative options and what you get in return. Denise is also a resident of the area and a frequent visitor to small, family-owned wineries that offer a more personal experience, so she’s got the connections and down-low on lesser known spots that capitalize on fun atmosphere and quality wines.

Also, drink a lot of water all day long. Constipated (or worse) is no way to spend your vacation.

Cheers!