What’s north of San Francisco?
Ask many out-of-state visitors, and the only answer you’ll hear is “Napa Valley.” Yes, Napa is gorgeous, studded with wineries and laced with roads winding through the oak-covered hillsides. But Northern California is home to other enticing spots—such as Sonoma County.
Sonoma County, as big as the state of Rhode Island, spans the Pacific coastline on the west to Lake and Napa counties on the east. (Mendocino and Marin counties respectively form the north and south borders.) The county has some 250 wineries (with 13 appelations), 18 golf courses, over 8,000 hotel rooms, and who-know how many boutiques. The county seat and biggest city is Santa Rosa. I’ll focus on the county’s central wine-growing region, including Dry Creek Valley, Anderson Valley, and the towns of Healdsburg and Geyserville.
Healdsburg is a little city of about 12,000 and what can seem like an equal number of restaurants, wineries, boutiques, and B&Bs, both simple and posh. An easy 65 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the town is built around a large, shady plaza, where jazz concerts and a farmers market are held in the summers.
The Plaza was donated to the town in the 1850s by Harmon Heald, an entrepreneur from Ohio who had bought and subdivided property in the area and opened a general store, and for whom the town is named. The town’s beginnings followed the height of the Gold Rush, and Healdsburg was on a major north-south thoroughfare. Though there was no gold in the county, there was rich farmland, and wine-making was introduced in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, the father of modern viticulture in California. In addition, settlers grew hops and prunes: at one time, Healdsburg was known as “the buckle of the prune belt,” and tourists traveled there in the spring to see the prune blossoms.
In 1857, Healdsburg’s population was 300; by 1880 it had exploded to 2,000, and the citizens liked to think of the town as “the San Francisco of the north.” They built an impressive city hall (long since demolished and replaced), but the world failed to beat a path to the town’s doorstep.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, fire seemed like the major threat to Healdsburg’s buildings, and so people built in brick. As a result, when the 1906 earthquake hit, the buildings tumbled like toy blocks. Healdsburg rebuilt, only to be hit hard economically by Prohibition. Even now, old illegal stills sometimes show up during remodeling projects.
Healdsburg’s history, back to the days when the Pomo Indians lived on the land and created their exquisite baskets, is illustrated in the Healdsburg Museum, just a couple of blocks off the Plaza in a 1911 Carnegie Library building, now a National Historic Landmark. Its interior pillars and moldings, made of Douglas fir, echo the classical exterior and lend a dignified air.
Back at the Plaza, shops line the streets—an independent bookstore (Copperfield’s), two fine bakeries (Costeau French Bakery and Café, and Downtown Bakery and Creamery), a shop selling hand-made articles from developing nations (Baksheesh)—plus the usual clothing boutiques, kitchen shops, and home furnishing shops. This being California wine country, there are several shops where you can both taste and buy wine. Within the large, grassy plaza itself, shaded by enormous trees, people stake out their spots for the evening’s jazz concert by leaving a blanket or folding chair. Nobody walks off with them.
Just off the Plaza is one of the tiniest and most unusual museums anywhere: the one-room Hand Fan Museum, the only one of its kind in the country. With a collection of some 3,000 fans, the museum’s exhibits, changing every three to four months, illustrate the history, manufacture, and art of the hand fan, an implement used by every society in history, as the museum’s brochure states. A little leaflet available at the museum—a copy of one printed heaven-knows-when by a fan maker on London’s Regent Street, describes “The Language of the Fan.” Just so you’ll know how to interpret a lady’s drawing her fan across her cheek (it means “I love you”).
Of course you’ll want to visit at least a couple of wineries while you’re in Sonoma County. Unlike their Napa Valley counterparts, many of Sonoma’s wineries are small, family-run affairs. One such is Seghesio Winery, conveniently located almost in downtown Healdsburg.
Founded by the current owners’ great-grandfather in 1895 and currently operated by eight family members, Seghesio is best known for its rich Sonoma Zinfandels. A winery tour includes a peek at the enormous redwood tanks holding 4,734 gallons each but no longer in use. The wood from some of these was used for the winery show room’s interior in a 1997 remodel. (707.433.7764; http://www.seghesio.com/)
Another winery, a short drive out of town in the Dry Creek Valley, is Passalaqua Winery, also owned by a family rich in wine-making tradition. The production of wines is small, and they’re available only at the winery. You can savor them on the large, airy deck overlooking the vineyards and gardens. (707.433.5550; http://www.passalaquawinery.com/)
A short drive further along peaceful, scenic Dry Creek Road brings you to the Lake Sonoma Recreation Area (you’ll pass dozens more wineries en route). The lake, a vaguely S-shaped, 2,700-acre reservoir, offers a marina, boat rentals, and boat launching ramps as well as miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. The area is also a restorative place to breathe the clean, dry air and contemplate the grasses, trees, and large expanse of water before returning to the minimal hustle and bustle of downtown Healdsburg.
Farther north a bit, in the as-yet ungentrified little town of Geyserville is Locals Tasting Room, where you can taste varietal flights of wines (e.g., three chardonnays, three syrahs, etc.), most of them from ten local wineries, and all priced under $40. Unlike many other tasting rooms, Locals doesn’t charge for tasting. (707.857.4900; http://www.tastelocalwines.com/)
Heading southeast from Geyserville on highway 128, you’ll come to Hawkes Winery & Tasting Room in the Alexander Valley, where the Hawkes family has been growing grapes for over 30 years. The winery produces cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay. The tasting room features a rotating collection of rare teapots spanning four centuries and several continents, from the family’s collection. (707.433.4295; http://www.hawkeswine.com/)
Right next door is the Jimtown store, a quirky mix of antiques, old-fashioned-style toys, soaps, gourmet food items, and other things too various to describe. The store also serves lunches, of which more later.
IF YOU GO
Among the area’s hostelries is Healdsburg’s four-diamond Honor Mansion, which features enormous grounds including a lap pool, tennis court, putting green, half-size basketball court, two bocce ball courts, regulation croquet lawn (all with borrowable equipment), rose garden, and a small vineyard in addition to its 13 rooms and suites. Phone 1-800-554-4667, or visit http://www.honormansion.com/.
More modest but equally quiet and pleasant is the Irish Rose Bed and Breakfast about 3 miles out of Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road. Two airy rooms with large bathrooms are located upstairs in the old farmhouse; a little cottage and a two-bedroom, two bath vacation rental are on the grounds, as are horses, pigs, dogs, and cats. (707.431.2801; http://www.theirishroseinn.com/)
If you’re farther north, in Geyserville, you could stay at Hope-Bosworth Bed & Breakfast Inn (or its sister inn, Hope-Merrill, across the street). Hope-Bosworth, a historical landmarked 1870 mansion, has eight rooms and suites, a sun room, vineyards, and a pool. All of the inn’s wallpapers are made by Bradbury and Bradbury, a firm that specializes in period reproductions. Some of the papers are copies of William Morris designs. (800. 825.4233; http://www.hope-inns.com/)
If you’re driving from the south and don’t want to go farther than Santa Rosa, the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa. Never mind the conference stuff; the hotel has 170 spacious, reasonably-priced remodeled rooms, many of them facing on the enormous pool (not heated in winter). There’s also a 25-meter heated lap pool, as well as live music in the lounge every night. The Flamingo, which opened in 1957, was built as an exact reproduction of the Las Vegas original and has an identical tower sporting its name. (800.848.8300; http://www.flamingoresort.com/)
(Santa Rosa has other attractions, such as the Luther Burbank Home and Garden—Burbank was the horticulturalist who developed the Santa Rosa plum and the Russet potato, among many others; and the Charles M. Schulz Museum, devoted to the work of the creator of Peanuts. Both are well worth visiting—but that’s another article.)
You’re unlikely to starve in northern Sonoma County. Healdsburg and its environs are home to several renowned restaurants, including Zin (don’t miss the Beer Battered Green Bean appetizer) (707.473.0946; www.zinrestaurant.com.), and the Cuban-accented Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar (try their mojitos) (707.433.9191; http://www.williswinebar.net/). Excellent pasta and other Italian dishes can be had at Cena Luna Ristorante (707.433.6000; www.cenaluna.com)
Then there’s the Jimtown Store, which serves delicious lunches (sandwiches, salads, etc.). In good weather, you can eat outdoors under a grape arbor. (707.433.1212; (http://www.jimtown.com/.)