Mouth Watering Food, Delicious Wine and Pure Romance in Sonoma
Sonoma is a magical place dotted with quaint towns, each with its own unique flavor. I recommend Healdsburg as a home base for 1-2 days and then spend a day further south in Sonoma. Healdsburg has a lively downtown area, yet you can get away from it during the day by driving or cycling through wine country. If you’re a foodie, you’ll be excited to hear that a bumper crop of award-winning restaurants have popped up, further elevating Sonoma’s reputation as a culinary epicenter. Other things not to miss are mingling with locavores at the Healdsburg Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday from May through November from 9 a.m.-12 p.m., one block west of the town square.
Our first stop brought us to the Honor Mansion Inn in Healdsburg. This place is PURE romance! Located in a historic Healdsburg bed and breakfast mansion, you’ll find luxurious rooms and modern cottages spread over a four-acre property. Each day begins with a full gourmet buffet breakfast in the dining room and after a day of exploring the
wineries, guests come back to the Mansion to enjoy wine and appetizers in the early evening. If you’re into activities, the Honor Mansion offers a lap pool, competition croquet, PGA putting green, tennis, basketball and bocce ball courts, and a state of the art spa.
We stayed in one of the vineyard suites, “Dono del Cielo” which translates to “gift from heaven” and that it was! This elegant Venetian suite, decorated in soft shades of lavender and cream, allows you to ascend to a blissful state of relaxation. The king size bed was incredibly comfortable and the bathroom is tiled in travertine quartzite and features a large bathing tub and a view of the fireplace. There is also a separate walk-in dual-headed shower. But the best part…beyond your slider doors, unwind on the private enclosed patio while soaking in your spa tub for two, or bask in the sun with a glass of wine and your favorite book on the chaise lounge chairs.
The next night we stayed at the Case Ranch Inn located on the quiet side of Healdsburg. The Inn is a peaceful respite in a country location where you can relax and enjoy the renowned Russian River Valley wine country and all its many beautiful attractions. Case Ranch Inn is a Registered National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat and the 2-acre setting includes the main house with 2 guest rooms and a cottage, a wrap-around porch, lush gardens, gazebo, pond and fountain.
Built around 1894 by Joseph Walker, the Case Ranch was purchased by
James L. Case in 1910 when it consisted of a Victorian farmhouse on 50 acres
in the rolling hills of the Russian River Valley. Years later, the Valley
now boasts the finest of wines rather than apples, and the
Case Ranch now sits on two acres on a quiet, country road with many remaining
fruit trees. Case Ranch Inn is now owned by Barbara Wolf. Barbara became
interested in bed and breakfasts after traveling extensively with her daughters
in Europe staying at a wide variety of charming bed and breakfast lodgings
from the British Isles to Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and Italy.
Case Ranch Inn received the Bay Area Green Business certificate for conserving resources and protecting the environment. You can enjoy antique shopping in Sebastopol and Healdsburg, hiking in beautiful Armstrong Woods State Park in Guerneville, tasting award-winning wines at hundreds of Sonoma County’s nearby wineries, and visit the magnificent California coastline where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. If you’re in the Sonoma Wine Country to relax and unwind, there’s always ambitious porch sitting or deck napping! Your stay includes a FREE Wine Tasting Passport for tastings at premium Russian River Valley wineries.
Our third night brought us to an enchanted forest and the Fern Grove Cottages, located in Guerneville, California. The cottages date back to the 1920s, some have whirlpools tubs, others have wood-burning or gas fire places and pet-friendly cottages are available as well. The 20 craftsman-style cottages and the lodge are situated among beautiful vintage gardens and redwoods. With a long and historic history of a more rural time, Fern Grove’s gardens continue to be filled with many varieties of ferns, fabulous roses, flowering shrubs and bountiful fruit trees. Their popular saline pool is open between May 1st and September 30th.
Now let’s get to the food! My favorites in downtown Healdsburg are Barndiva (http://www.barndiva.com) and Chalkboard (http://chalkboardhealdsburg.com). With a tagline like “Eat the View,” you know Barndiva is going to be fresh, local and seasonal! Innovative cuisine and delicious cocktails are served in an impossibly hip setting: a renovated barn with a sleek but unstuffy design, which consistently draws a big crowd. We had the king salmon & potato croquette with heirloom beet salad, shaved radish, belgian endive, kumquat and the banh mi house ground pork loin with shaved cucumber, cilantro, pickled chili salad, aioli, toasted brioche. Both were amazing – keep in mind though that they are VERY seasonal, so these options may not always be on the menu.
Located just off the square in downtown Healdsburg, Chalkboard is casual and contemporary. Executive Chef Shane McAnelly’s menu of small plates is inspired by produce from a dedicated three-acre garden, paired with local wine flights and inventive cocktails. Chalkboard’s daily-changing menu is defined by ingredients sourced from local purveyors and farms, highlighting crudos, just-picked salads, handmade pastas, roasted and grilled meats, seafood, and a selection of playful dessert offerings. They also do a rotating happy hour based on different cities. We sat at the lively bar and had the short rib sliders with marmalade, blue cheese and bacon aioli and the roasted butternut squash with brown butter, sage, kale and garlic. Delicious!
One of California’s premier wine regions, Sonoma County is a hidden gem. It’s just a short drive, but worlds away from the sometimes pretentious and always expensive Napa tasting rooms. You’ll rarely have to wait in line or make a reservation for a tasting, and most tasting fees range from $5-15. This area is known for some amazing zinfandels, pinot noir and chardonnay. Here is my not to be missed list:
Chalk Hill Vineyard (www.chalkhill.com)
Chalk Hill produces one of my all-time favorite Chardonnays. And I love their commitment to sustainable farming which ensures that the land will remain healthy for generations and wines will accurately reflect their origins in the hills of eastern Sonoma County.
Stuhlmuller Vineyard (www.stuhlmullervineyards.com)
This is the place to go for Pinot Noir. I’m not a huge fan of Pinot, but these wines are rich and meatier than your average Pinot. Also fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot poured in an unassuming, cozy tasting room.
Ridge Vineyard (www.ridgewine.com)
This is the place to go to see some really old vines. Surrounded by beautiful 115-year-old vines, this eco-sustainable winery stands as one of the most unique sites in all of Sonoma County’s wine country. The facility is built of straw bales and vineyard clay, and primarily solar-powered and produces exceptional single-vineyard wines.
Preston Vineyard and Winery (www.prestonvineyards.com)
This will be an experience that is unlike your typical wine tasting. In addition to estate-grown, organic wines, you’ll find many farm-fresh products like organic vegetables, fruits and nuts, you-pick strawberries, estate-laid eggs, sauerkraut, salami and a selection of local, artisanal cheeses that are grown and produced in small batches by the Preston family. Sample Lou’s bread, estate-grown and pressed olive oil, and cured olives in the tasting room. Enjoy this fresh food and wine in the picnic area and when you’re done, you can stroll through the organic gardens.
Hartford Family Winery (www.hartfordwines.com)
This Pinot Noir is amazing. Small and low-yielding vineyards deliver meager amounts of expressive and personality-rich wine. The single-vineyard Hartford Court Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays total as few as 93 cases up to about 800 cases. Make sure you get your hands on some.
Dutton-Goldfield Winery (www.duttongoldfield.com)
A laid-back, cool vibe atmosphere in the tasting room with amazing Chardonnays and a Pinot Blanc. Pinot Blanc is a white skinned mutation of Pinot Noir, prized for its fresh stone fruit flavors and cleansing mouthfeel.
If you feel the need to work off all this amazing food and wine, then saddle up for a two-wheeled excursion through the gorgeous countryside of Dry Creek Valley, where farms co-mingle with some of Sonoma’s top wineries. Pick up your bike at Healdsburg’s Wine Country Bikes, which supplies rentals, helmets, maps, and bike-mounted wine bottle carriers for your bounty. Newbies should consider a guided tour, but experienced riders can venture out on their own. An excellent, not-too-ambitious route is north along West Dry Creek Road, which has less traffic than Dry Creek Road.
Your first stop: Procuring a picnic lunch at the inimitable, circa-1880s Dry Creek General Store. You’ll beat lunchtime crowds at this wooden-floored general store, whose gargantuan made-to-order sandwiches and artisan snacks never miss. Though it might be too early to start drinking (or not), be sure to check out the historic bar, full of decades-old memorabilia, where both beer on-draft and live bait are sold.
While wine drinking has become much less elitist in recent years, knowing a few industry terms always comes in handy. One that’s especially useful in tasting rooms: Ask to “revisit” a certain offering if you like it or are considering buying a bottle. Most tasting rooms will waive tasting fees with a pur-chase, and you should also consider sharing a tasting if you’re planning on hitting several wineries in one day.
For you beer aficionados, you’ll definitely want to check out Bear Republic and Russian River Brewing Company. For sure you’ve heard of Pliny the Elder – and this might be the only place you can get it if you’re from the East Coast.