Paradise Grows in Healdsburg
A trip to verdant California wine country
A jug of wine and a loaf of bread may have been plenty for Persian author Omar Khayyam as accompaniment to poetry and good company, but that verse from the Rubaiyat was written more than 900 years ago – today’s travelers expect more. The good news is that they’ll find much more, as I did, in the verdant valley town of Healdsburg, California.
A Jug of Wine Just a little way up the 101 from Santa Rosa and situated at the meeting of three major wine regions (the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley), Healdsburg gives its guests easy access to more than 250 wineries. Oenophiles speak of the terroir of wine – the combination of soil, climate and human influence – and Sonoma County, home to Healdsburg, is known for its diversity of soil with 118 different classes of loam identified. Needless to say, tasters must be choosers because trying all the available wines would be a life’s work.
Lambert Bridge Winery, a small, family-owned operation, is known for its Bordeaux-style reds. In addition to the traditional tastings, Lambert Bridge organizes regular food and wine pairings with noted local chef Bruce Reizenman.
For one whose knowledge was previously limited to “red with steak, white with fish,” the collaboration between Reizenman and winemaker Jennifer Higgins was like a Go Fish enthusiast watching master-level Bridge. The flavor profile of a wine is changed when combined with food. This was my first experience with combinations that truly enhanced both elements.
We began with a butternut squash soup finished with crème fraiche and Tuscan olive oil paired with a 2011 Sonoma County Chardonnay. Bruce explained, “This wine has pear, apple and citrus notes with a bit of butter and vanilla. The local butternut squash and crème fraiche balance the acidity in the wine.”
A Japanese eggplant and olive salad drizzled with Hojicha-infused (that’s a variety of green tea), 25-year-old balsamic was paired with a 2009 Cabernet Franc with subtle black cherry and herb flavors. And so it went through the second courses, the cheese course and the dessert, a bittersweet chocolate disc with chocolate-covered hazelnuts on dried Montmorency cherries served with a 2009 Petit Verdot. I went away awed and impressed, realizing there was a lot more to appreciating wine than I had ever imagined.
A Loaf of Bread For bread, baked treats, breakfast and lunch, Costeaux French Bakery is a must-stop. In business since 1923, Costeaux has been named the National Retail Bakery of the Year by Modern Baking magazine. Breakfast is served all day with sandwiches, salads, soups and charcuterie added for lunch.
Just be sure to save room for dessert.
As you might expect, Healdsburg has a healthy helping of fine restaurants dedicated to locally sourced, sustainable cuisine. Chef Louis Maldonado at Spoonbar treated our group to a tasting menu that included a variety of vegetables – kale, broccolini, sunchokes, tomatillo, seaweed and the elusive, fractal-looking romanesco. We sampled Kanpachi sashimi, big fin squid and shellfish porridge made with local rye, sea urchin and miso. Not a chicken-fried steak in sight. But, for the less adventuresome, entrees included roasted chicken roulade and ocean trout cooked on a plank. Chef Maldonado’s innovative – and tasty – dishes earned him a top four finish on season 11 of Top Chef.
Since I visited chef/owner Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, the then-executive chef, Dustin Valette, has left – opening his own restaurant, Valette. Current executive chef Andrew Wilson has worked in some of the nation’s top restaurants and is bringing his own flair to Dry Creek Kitchen.
For something different, try Mateo’s Cocina Latina. The base cuisine comes from chef Mateo Granados’ native Yucatan combined with French techniques – but you’ll find touches of other cultures, too. There in early spring, we tried his seasonal Margarita made with #2 Reposado tequila, blood orange, bergamot, lime juice, agave nectar and pomegranate pearls – a beautiful and refreshing cocktail. I loved the olive oil guacamole served in a crispy corn tortilla cone and topped with a pomegranate seed.
DIYers will enjoy a class or culinary tour with Relish Culinary Adventures. My group participated in a session with mushroom expert Elissa Rubin-Mahon, who identified a number of different mushrooms, demonstrated proper cleaning then assigned us stations to prepare some of the tasty fungi. Best part: we ate our homework. The most unusual dish – dessert – consisted of candy cap mushrooms and dried cherry bread pudding with maple whipped cream. It was delicious … who would have thought?
Bed, Breakfast and More The Haydon Street Inn, a century-old Victorian with a wrap-around porch, was my home away from home. Massive camellia bushes graced the front yard, and bright yellow fruits on the lemon tree added sunny color to the landscaping. My residence, the Rose Room, had its own fireplace, a chaise longue, Jacuzzi and rainfall shower.
John Harasty and Keren Colsten have owned the inn since 2006. John, formerly the executive chef at Churchill Downs in Louisville, turns out a creative three-course breakfast every morning. Among the treats I enjoyed were homemade mango scones, bourbon-fried apples topped with deep-fried tortilla chips tossed in cinnamon sugar, brown berry waffles topped with wild berries and homemade apple sausage. Add to that orange juice squeezed from fruit picked right before breakfast. What a way to start a day.
Fortunately for my figure, we did a lot of walking. One morning we enjoyed a historic Healdsburg walking tour through beautiful old neighborhoods, but overall my favorite walk was in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Coastal redwoods are the tallest living things on earth. The Parson Jones tree in this park is 310 feet tall – taller than a football field is long. In the Burbank Circle, a natural clearing, benches allow guests to lie back for a great view of these giants towering overhead.
And then there’s shopping. The stores around the plaza in Healdsburg offer something for everyone: clothing boutiques are joined by Plaza Gourmet, where you can buy onion goggles, a garlic zoom chopper or a chef’s toque. Two independent bookstores, Levin & Co. and Copperfield Books, have lots of local lore plus best-sellers. The cards at Mr. Moon’s (which also carries gifts, jewelry, soaps and more) will keep you laughing. Add a couple of wineries and art galleries and you could spend a couple of days just window-shopping.
In short, Healdsburg is perfect for a weekend getaway. But honestly, you’d be cheating yourself if that were all you experienced. It’s definitely worth a longer stay.