In The Heart of NoCal Wine Country: Sonoma’s Healdsburg Welcomes You #WorldWineTravel

a mural just off the plaza on Plaza Street in Healdsburg

“I am in Healdsburg a few short blocks to the plaza and wineries,” my friend Sandy writes, saying she needs a cat sitter while she’s out of town. “It’s a one bedroom, a duplex in a house from 1895. I have a nice covered porch surrounded by trees and wonderful neighbors. I know you like to travel and do wine things in different areas. All the restaurants seem to be open. I see wine tastings on the sidewalk.”

When a friend asked if I wanted to come to Healdsburg to take care of her kitties when she was out of town, I jumped at the opportunity, COVID or no, fires or no. My son could ZOOM for school from there as well as anywhere else, and we could check out Sonoma State as a possible college for him. I’d only been in Healdsburg briefly, and that was nine years ago.

I had no idea that I would fall in love with this sweet little town with its gracious mature trees, shady plaza, bookstores, bakeries, restaurants, wineries, and friendly people.

I love how walkable and bike-able Healdsburg is. I had appointments at three wineries and I could easily walk to all of them.

Even during days with almost 100 degree heat!

We drove up after school on a Tuesday, stopping briefly at Doc Burnstein’s in Arroyo Grande for massive ice cream cones which doubled for dinner.

On Wednesday, we settled in, got some work done, and then ventured into town where the heat wave was mitigated by the large shady trees. We were searching for Jim Morris, VP of Hospitality at Napa’s  Charles Krug. He was working remotely at his wife Donna’s shop, Relish Culinary School, which due to COVID was closed for her regular cooking classes, but still in use by local culinary forces including the best sausage man around.

Relish Culinary School’s “food truck”

It was great to see Jim, even wearing our masks; his smiling eyes made me happy.

I knew talking with him should be the first stop for knowing where to go and what to do in Healdsburg: He’s Mr Sonoma Wine Guy after all. Seriously: that’s his twitter and Instagram handle! We’d met at the 2008 Wine Bloggers Conference when he was working for biodynamic Truett-Hurst, then I got to know him a bit more in 2009 when I joined him and fellow bloggers for a hike and tasting at Michel-Schlumberger, which at the time was biodynamic.  But how we really connected was through our mutual passion: attending Burning Man where we celebrated Cabernet Day together in 20011 and 2014.

Single Thread’s Healdsburg kitchen with baby eggplant getting ready to be roasted

“It’s insane,” said Jim, about the first place I should definitely know about, the Three Michelin starred restaurant Single Thread. “Every plate is a work of art.”

In the Before Time, Single Thread featured 15 course meals with microclimate menus. Right now in the During Time, they are serving at Kistler and only offer a lighter menu on their rooftop. When we stopped by a few days later, they weren’t thrilled to serve my teen or even let him in, plus they were fully booked so I only got a quick peep in the kitchen.

Another restaurant Jim suggested was Campo Fina, where in the Before Times he was on a Bocce Ball Team; he and I tried to eat there that night but it was PACKED — even with a bocce court full of tables!

With Campo Fina full,  we went around the block to Pizzando. Our leftovers definitely got the approval from my teenager who remarked that it was some of the best pizza he’d ever had — cheesy but not greasy! And he was amazed by how good the sausage was as a late night snack and for breakfast the next morning.

Pizzando pizza box; the pizza wasn’t greasy but some still got on the box!

In our wanders, my son and I never found the highly recommended Mustache Baby, but Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie always had a line it seemed. Jim also suggested Oakville Grocery, which we found and made us drool trying to decide what to get until I realized I’d left my money back at the house! No food from there for us!

The Healdsburg Plaza also features two bookstores, and we stumbled on the first one right away because Copperfield’s had lots of books on the street, including a large number of regional and wine oriented ones. We were looking for an assigned reading The Kite Runner, and while they didn’t have it, they called across the plaza to the other book store which did. “We work closely together,” said the friendly, helpful clerk. I did buy a book of poetry, a 75th anniversary edition of The Little Prince, a couple of cards, a tea towel gift, and she gave my son a book that interested him.

Noble Folk

As a wine writer, I wanted to get some recommendations from Jim of where I should go in my limited time there. I could use Pam Strayer’s Organic Sonoma website, of course, but I was curious about Jim’s suggestions.

Longboard Vineyards,” was his immediate reply. He raved about owner/winemaker Oded Shakked, who, like Jim and I, goes to Burning Man and has a gracious and creative spirit. He really thought we’d hit it off, and I was excited to hear this since Longboard was on my radar too: Longboard is participating in #MerlotMe this month but I didn’t get any of his samples.

Along those lines, I asked Jim about Susie Selby; I wrote about her Selby Merlot earlier this month, and he said she and Oded are good friends.

Another Burner he suggested I connect with was Sara Kelly, who is associated with Da Vero, a scenic and biodynamic farm and vineyard very close to town.

With my interest in the arts and photography, he suggested Jesse Katz’s Aperture which is photo-oriented, and which I had heard good things about  also.

Finally, he suggested Cartograph which was the one winery I visited back in 2011 when they had their grand opening.

I decided a great way to look around Healdsburg would be to walk to Longboard to set up an appointment with Oded.

Which we did — and along the way, we ran into Susie Selby so I set up an appointment with her for the next day which I’ll be writing about in length soon. On the subject of why Healdsburg, she told me

“I love it. I fell in love with this town. It’s the best town in Wine Country.”

She appreciates that it’s easy to walk around and that it’s very European like: “In Europe, people have always done things outside. Restaurants are open outside even in the winter months.”

As a winemaker, the area around Healdsburg has a lot to offer her as well: “What I like best is the diversity and the quality of the fruit.” From that diverse fruit, she makes fifteen different wines most years. There’s a diversity of fruit because of the diversity of soils and micro-climates, she explained.

the one and only Oded, owner and winemaker at Longboard

I also asked Oded about why Healdsburg. He came here for a job, and, he says,

“I felt roots growing out of the bottom of my feet.”

While it’s changed significantly from when he first got here and it was easier to find a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate than an espresso coffee, it was a great place to raise his family; his two boys were born here. He’s an “open space kind of guy,” Oded says, who appreciates being 90 minutes away by car from the culture and the concerts of the city, and with a good surf break not too far away. More about Longboard and the rest of my interview with Oded soon!

With my appointment set for the following morning at Longboard and Selby,  we walked back to where we were staying then drove south to Sonoma State which is not in the town of Sonoma or even in Santa Rosa like you might expect, but in the quiet bedroom community of Rohnert Park. In the Before Times, the college had an excellent Shakespearan theater program. On the day of our visit, it was a ghost town which made parking easy but getting information about the college and its programs more challenging; we were guided to go to the website.

The Redwood Grove that’s a Memorial for Veterans feels very special.

During our brief visit, we found the Veterans Grove, a circle of redwood trees that feels as holy as any church. I was sure my son was pranking me when he started talking about how good the grove made him feel. We discovered one important thing: my son really wants to go to school where there are redwood trees, and as a UC Santa Cruz graduate myself, I can’t blame him: the redwood trees there were my salvation. I even lived in the trailer park deep in the redwood forest.

Sonoma state artwork

The campus has several artworks prominently displayed as well, and a Trader Joe’s is not too far away where we picked up some snacks and food.

And this was all on our first day!

On our second day, I completed my interviews with Oded and Susie (which I will link to when there are up), then we packed a picnic and drove through the scorched landscape as most of the land along the drive has burned in fires since 2017. Our destination? Napa’s Charles Krug arriving just in time to catch MusiKaravan’s Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim in a Zoom performance with the NYC office of TikTok.

Read more about my visit to Charles Krug here including our picnic and wines, and our pairing of music with wine in the library pictured below.

On Friday, while my son was ZOOMing for school, I went in search of a bakery downtown, and wow, was I in luck with Downtown Bakery & Creamery (308a Center St, Healdsburg). No photos to speak of. Just two words: donut muffins. And two more: warm croissants. I actually spent a small fortune on  goodies, bread, and breakfast goods.

And do it: just wait in line. It’s worth it.

I also stood in line for coffee at Flying Goat. Also worth it.

Friday afternoon I left my son to his homework and I ventured out for an appointment with Andrew at biodynamic Da Vero which started out as an olive oil venture by the entrepreneur who founded Quick Books. He would have just rested on his laurels (or olive trees!) except he tasted an outstanding Italian wine, a Sagrantino, and decide to plant a vineyard also of this grape. Only later did he realize that Italy and California have more in common than California and Bordeaux or Burgundy (see the map below).

Certified in 2011/2012, Da Vero Farms and Estates have nearly 100 acres. The topography is varied and includes Dry Creek and Winter Creek. Founders Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn ventured down the path  to biodynamics by wanting to set their olive oil apart from the rest. Once certified organic, they learned about biodynamics and committed to developing an interdependent ecosystem.

These days, Ridgely Evers is all about sequestering carbon– and the dedication to this goal goes far beyond their nearly 100 acres to partnering with others and mentoring them along the way as well as purchasing their grapes.

In addition to their commitment to biodynamic farming, their Italian varietal wines are produced “naturally” — unfined, unfiltered, native yeasts, and neutral oak.

During my visit, I tasted three wines, the Allegro Bianco, a white blend with a fair amount of vermentino, the Alto Basso which blends Sangiovese and Barbara, and the 2013 Sagrantino which has been open for four hours, had three years in barrel and three years in bottle and could lay down for many more years.

At the conclusion of tasting wine, I tasted the two olive oils: WOW. I could see why it was named best Italian olive oil — until they figured out it wasn’t from Italy and they lost the title almost immediately after winning it!

Hopefully, I’ll get sent some samples to review and pair along with more photos and video of the cute baby pigs!!

There is much to see and do in Healdsburg, and if you visit in the During or the After Times, you’ll see why Healdsburg is the heart of northern California’s Wine Country.

PS Note the hashtag #WorldWineTravel? Yep, it’s a new group that launched at the beginning of the month, and I figured I’d hop on board. Starting in 2021, members will be posting on the Fourth or the final weekend of the month with announced monthly themes; earlier this month was Moldova. I’d planned to publish this on Saturday or Sunday but the weekend got away from me and so did Monday! This also means I’m not going to achieve my goal of writing every day for Blogtober; at this point I’ve missed six days I think, which also means I won’t hit 1000 posts on my bloggoversary next week.

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