I traveled to Healdsburg, California, to discover why it’s called the Hospitality Heart of Sonoma County Wine Country and an Epicurean Eden.
Healdsburg has an enviable location, along the Russian River, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, surrounded by several wine regions. The town is a convenient base to explore vineyards and wineries in Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley.
Sonoma County prides itself on being the most diverse premium winegrape growing region in the United States, with 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations) producing more than 60 varieties of wine grapes.
The region is best known for six varieties that comprise nearly 94 percent of Sonoma County wines, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. These food wines foster a culinary concentration of talent in Healdsburg, a popular destination for foodie-wine aficionados. The town attracts world-class chefs and Michelin-star restaurants drawn to the region’s bounty of ingredients cultivated on local farms and gardens and foraged from the redwood forests.
Here, I met artisans, makers, chefs, farmers, winemakers, and growers who share a common trait: respect for the land, passion, and purpose. Healdsburg retains its small-town charm with a population of approximately 12 thousand and wine roots that sustain and inspire creatives who share an earth-friendly ethos.
The social scene revolves around a charming town plaza lined with artisan shops, restaurants, tasting rooms, galleries, and bars.
For foodies, I suggest a visit to Journeyman Meat Co. to sample salumi by proprietor Pete Seghesio, who cures meats using old-world techniques he learned as an apprentice in Italy.
Pete creates his heritage breed, salumi ( the plural of Salami), from pork raised without antibiotics or hormones, fermenting and aging the salumi at a lower temperature for a longer time to reduce acidity.
Pete is also an acclaimed winemaker and third-generation owner of the San Lorenzo vineyard with 120-year-old grapes dating back to 1896. His great-great-grandfather purchased the vineyard with ten gold coins he earned as a cook in California gold mines.
Healdsburg is home to culinary trendsetters cooking farm-to-table dishes with locally grown ingredients. The town’s reputation as a foodie destination makes it an ideal hub to explore California’s wine country.
I dined at Valette, a popular downtown Healdsburg restaurant just a block from my hotel. Brothers Dustin Valette, a chef, and Aaron Garzini, a sommelier, opened Valette as a culinary showcase for Sonoma County farmers, winemakers, and artisans.
Wine Enthusiast magazine named Valette one of the top 100 wine restaurants in the United States.
In winemaking, there is a term called Angel’s Share, which refers to the amount of wine that evaporates as it ages in barrels. That poetic expression manifests in Sonoma County wine country as sustainable practices where nothing goes to waste.
The surrounding wine-producing regions take pride in organic farming practices. I spent time with several notable winemakers to learn more about their sustainable vineyards and winemaking techniques.
My first stop is the Mazzocco Winery, located in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley region and producers more than two dozen Zinfandels. Mazzocco’s vineyard includes old vines dating back more than 100 years.
Mazzocco specializes in Single-vineyard designate Zinfandels from Dry Creek and hosts garden tastings overlooking the property’s stunning vistas.
Next, I head to Quivira Vineyards, which gets its name from old maps with the location “Quivera” on the California Coast. The winemaker has built a reputation for producing award-winning Zinfandels and earned a sustainability certification for its holistic and bio-diverse practices.
The property’s organic garden, farm, apiary, and livestock add to its biodiversity. Quivira planted 59 acres of vines at the confluence of Wine Creek and Dry Creek.
The winery produces Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Rhône varieties that draw the flavor profiles from the vineyard’s gravelly soil and sandy loam.
From Dry Creek Valley, I head to Alexander Valley, the home of Silver Oak Winery and Vineyards, just ten miles outside Healdsburg. There, a modern glass barn greets me as panoramic views open up the surrounding 113-acre estate, planted with 75 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Silver Oak is the only winery in southern California that exclusively ages its wine in American Oak barrels. Silver Oak is keeping the art of wine barrel-making alive as one of the few remaining barrel-making facilities known as cooperages. The Duncan family, which owns Silver Oak, bought the cooperage to preserve the craft of handmade barrels, producing approximately 20 barrels daily.
Barrel makers toast the wood by hand using several different toasting techniques. Silver Oak ages its California Cabs for two years in barrels, releasing them at four to four and half years of age. I end my tour at the Silver Oak library, a round room anchored by a nine-ton basalt rock table with walls lined with Silver Oak bottles of various vintages.
Jordan Vineyard and Winery resides five miles north of Healdsburg and resembles a French estate with a stately chateau overlooking 1200 acres of vineyards, rolling hills, olive trees, cattle pastures, farms, gardens, and an apiary.
Tom and Sally Jordan founded the winery in 1972, focusing on Bordeaux-style wines and a European winemaking style.
The winery ages its wines exclusively in French Oak barrels for a greater array of complex tannins and greater porosity, producing a softer, richer taste with a long finish.
While visiting Healdsburg, I stayed at Hotel Les Mars, a 16-room luxury hotel resembling a French Chateau with antiques and tapestries.
The hotel’s hospitality was evident when I checked in and received a complimentary glass of champagne.
Once in my room, a complimentary bottle of Roth Estate Pinot Noir and a handwritten welcome note from the hotel general manager greeted me.
Each evening, the hotel hosts a complimentary wine and cheese reception in the lobby introducing guests to boutique wineries in the area.
The hotel’s convenient location, one block from Healdsburg’s historic district, put me within walking distance of most of the town’s restaurants, shops, galleries, and tasting rooms.
Healdsburg is the hospitality heart of Sonoma County wine country and an ideal base to explore the region’s vineyards while satisfying your palette with world-class cuisine, art, and culture.
What to know if you go:
Sonoma County has 66 wine varietals, 18 growing regions and over 425 wineries, all just 45 minutes north of San Francisco.
The Sonoma County Tourism website is an ideal place to start planning your trip.
To learn more about Sonoma County Vintners, check out Sonoma County Vintners Foundation.
To discover more about Healdsburg and tour several Sonoma County vineyards, watch this episode of The Design Tourist.