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San Clemente Journal

Where the Hell is Healdsburg?

Apr 29, 2007 10:04PM ● By Don Kindred
story and photos by Don Kindred

The Historic Calderwood Inn.

The title was the response of the first person I mentioned my travel plans to. The second two answered with a different question; “Why?” Like I must have lost a bet. 

Perhaps, if I had mentioned the Sonoma Valley or even nearby Santa Rosa they would have responded differently. When I did mention there were 130 wineries within a 30-minute drive, their responses were obvious, but at least I had a title. I also had a camera, four days and a couple thousand words with which to answer the questions.

This historic community lies 65 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, 15 miles northwest of the county seat of Sonoma and 45 minutes away from the California Coast. Though the county is one of the oldest grape growing regions in the United States, the town of Healdsburg is only now becoming a popular tourist destination … both for its charm and centralized access to the Sonoma County wines, hosting vineyards that have won more awards that any other wine-growing region in the United States.

The “Getting There” part was made much easier this last March when Horizon Air (operated by Alaska Airlines) started flying directly from Los Angeles to Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. The new route takes a couple of hours off the commute from the San Francisco or Oakland Airports, and seven or eight hours off the driving time from San Clemente.

A patchwork view in Dry Creek Valley.When you land at the Charles Schultz Regional Airport, (which was aptly named for the man who created the “Peanuts” cartoon strip) you depart the plane from a stairway on the tarmac, where your luggage will be handed over on a rack just outside the terminal. The entire terminal, by the way, is smaller than the Starbucks at LAX. Three one-man rental car agencies, one ticket counter and a small waiting room with vending machines comprise the inside. Most days it handles only 3 commercial flights, so it is small, uncrowded and refreshingly efficient.

From there, it is only an eight-mile drive to the central exit of Healdsburg. The scenic cruise up 101 is just long enough to take a deep breath and prepare yourself for a visit to small-town America. The countryside along the highway is a rolling valley floor painted into geometric patterns of planted vineyards, parallel rows sporadically broken up with farm buildings and small lakes. The rural roads are canopied with oak and maple trees and the valley is surrounded by green hills and decorated with red barns and Victorian Estates. In April, fragrant wisteria bloomed from fences and trellises, looking like an artist rendering of hand-painted clusters of bright lavender grapes. 

This town is home to 11,000 citizens, with a year ‘round influx of visitors making it a healthy market for higher end goods and services. The small town feel has been embellished with an increasingly sophisticated selection of upscale boutiques, restaurants, spas and art galleries. Its downtown is focused around Healdsburg Plaza, the historic square block that is still the center of town. 

Like all of California, it is a history of displaced Indians, Spanish land grants and American settlers seeking land of their own. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill brought hundreds of thousands of fortune-seekers to the state, changing San Francisco from the small fishing village it was in 1849 into the most populated city in the west a year later. Soon, the bustling population overflowed into what is now the Sonoma Valley. Itinerants, squatters and failed miners moved from the gold fields to the fertile soils along the Russian River, seeking their fortunes in the more familiar trade of farming. By 1857, enough squatters had moved to the area to cause an actual land battle, and one of the winners was a man named Harmon Heald. 

Downtown Healdsburg.Heald was an Ohio entrepreneur who played the Ole Hanson character in the town’s history. He built a store and a post office, then laid out an entire town grid around a Spanish-style Plaza, selling lots for $15. The town prospered, officially incorporating in 1867. It built itself a City Hall, bridges and water supplies, even a beautiful library, that now holds the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. Today, it stands as one of California’s finest examples of early town planning.

The historic mansions in and around Healdsburg are mostly Queen Anne Victorian architecture, with a craftsman influence that came to town at the turn of the century. One such mansion, originally built in 1902, has been beautifully restored into a bed and breakfast known as the Calderwood Inn. Located just three blocks from the downtown plaza, the antique-filled inn has six beautifully decorated guestrooms, up-dated with Jacuzzi tubs and televisions. The grounds were originally designed and planted by none other than Sonoma native and famed botanist Luther Burbank. The owner/innkeeper Susan Moreno, a gourmet cook, provides not only a full and elegant breakfast but a wine and light hors d’oeuvres hour in the afternoon as well as a dessert and port spread in the evenings. She will also prepare a gourmet picnic for two ($35) for your travels to the wineries, and chocolate covered strawberries ($15) or other treats that can be left in room should you wish them for after dinner. In-room spa treatments ($100-120) are easily arranged.

A second recommendation is located right downtown. Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza was also originally built at the turn of the century. The 12 rooms feature high ceilings, fireplaces, telephones and television with some offering antique, claw-footed tubs. Breakfast is also superb, served buffet-style in a small dining area overlooking the plaza. Wine and hors d’oeuvres are set up in the evening as well. While there are 15 wineries or tasting locations within a 10-minute walk, the Healdsburg Inn also tenders a couple of new bicycles free to check out for sight-seeing or exercise.
Hotel Healdsburg, a modern and upscale hotel is also available. Its rooms can be a little pricier, if that’s your taste, and the 45-room hotel (also next to the Plaza) has already attracted its share of celebrities. The property has a spa on-site and it’s own high-end restaurant called the Dry Creek Inn.

The Vineyards
Yes, they have a golf course, but my guess is most people will come out here to taste a little wine. The Northern end of the Sonoma Valley is one of the most picturesque wine growing regions in California and is considered to be one of the premium growing regions of the world. Home to over 130 wineries, that vary in style from Italian Villas and French Chateau, and in size to the vast estates of large producers to the small plots of family wineries. Maps and literature abound in the area, so you can plot out the places you specifically want to visit via limo, bus, bike, an open cable car shuttle that runs on the weekends, or you can take off and drive on your own, stopping when you feel like it.

Reserve one day for Dry Creek Valley. We drove to Lake Sonoma, an idyllic recreation area at the northern end of the valley, to begin our wine-tasting education on the way back. 

The original library is now the Healdsburg Museum.I have just enough expertise to tell white wine from red with my eyes open, but I certainly can’t tell the scent of French Oak from No. 2 pencil shavings. Fortunately I found the hosts patient, and happy to explain the differences in their offerings, the process of checking color, why you swirl it around and stick your nose in it, or whatever other questions you might have. The tasting rooms were varied in size and most offered four tastings for $5 or $10. Many offered food pairings. 

You have to stop at the Dry Creek General Store. Operating since 1881, it is the only place, along the road for fresh sandwiches and picnic supplies (beer). There are no franchise eateries out there, or anywhere among the vineyard roads, which keeps the experience authentic. Most of the wineries have a picnic area  for tasters, as long as you buy a bottle from your host, and only the vineyard’s brand can be legally consumed on their property.

I’m not big on tours, but we did take one at Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate. Our innkeeper had made a reservation and we were fortunate to be the only two people on the tour. This winery takes the process, from choosing which grapes to grow to picking, crushing, storing and bottling, all at on site. It helped to give the whole process a little perspective.

Another day can be spent exploring the Alexander Valley, a bit to the north and east of the river from Healdsburg. Home to Clois du Bois and Jordan labels, there is also a new casino overlooking the valley called River Rock, belonging to the native Pomo Indian tribe.

Save your sunniest day for the Russian River Valley. The appellation begins on Westside Road close to the Belvedere Winery and follows the river toward the ocean. Near the end is the Korbel Champagne Cellars, one of the oldest vintners in the region (dating to the 1820s) They also have a delicatessen for lunch or picking up something for later. 

Three or four miles down from Korbel is the Armstrong Woods National Park. If you haven’t experienced the feeling of being dwarfed by thousands of thousand-year-old trees that seem a thousand feet high, you should pay the $6 and drive, hike (or rent a horse) traveling through until you find some secluded spot to enjoy your lunch and sample that new pinot.

Bends in the river have formed little beach communities in Guernsville and Monte Rio, and canoe rentals are popular. From there, you can go back a different route, where well- known labels like Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, and Rodney Strong lie east of the river. There’s a balloon ride that starts at the airport and lands to a waiting lunch at the Kendal-Jackson Winery. That looked promising. Maybe for another day.

Lake SonomaDining
Food is taken seriously up there. It is a land of plenty. One of gourmet breakfasts and designer picnics, but make no mistake, dinner is the main event. I now know what good wine costs, and I can see why they don’t waste it on average food. I’ve listed the restaurants we visited, but rest assured, you could go out every night, walking if you wish, for two weeks and eat a different meal at a different place. I was surprised at the amount of establishments, and the quality and uniqueness of their menus. 

Cyrus, is one you can dress up for, but most are casual. Zin seems to be a local’s favorite. Of course, If you should happen to tire of the routine, take lunch at Bistro Ralphs, known for its Caesar Salad (and well-poured Martinis.).

Healdsburg is an enchanted place, a throwback to a simpler time. Every recreational amenity is found within a short ride, often within walking distance. The community is surrounded by vineyards and full of good food. The hour and 20 minute flight makes it an excellent get-away, but you need at least three or four days to feel like you’ve been there. b

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