13 Insider, Must-Visit Gems in Northern California’s Wine Country
January is officially “Me” month. With all of the holiday hustle and bustle (a more polite phrase for “hell”) behind us, now we can focus on ourselves...and all of those New Year’s resolutions that we will actually stick to this year. What better way to spoil yourself than with a fast wine and dine getaway?
California boasts many wineries and has even defined its own cuisine (“California Cuisine”) that makes for a memorable meal, along with many paring choices. I recently visited Healdsburg, Calif., often dwarfed by Napa and other Northern California wine regions. It’s a small town nestled between four regional wine appellations: The Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Chalk Hill. With over 100 wineries, tasting rooms, boutiques, and restaurants in a concentrated area, you could easily spend months here. I loved how small and personal most of the wineries were. These wines were not designed to be mass produced, so their unique business model is based solely on their wine club members and very rarely on retail. That means you probably have not heard of any of these wines - which is why I’m so excited to share them with you and inspire you to come and discover what makes this place so special.
You will find some gems that are off the beaten path. Often times, the road less traveled yields the best new discoveries.
Below are 13 must-visit wineries and other indulging stops that make Healdsburg worth the trip. This itinerary is aggressive with many wineries, so I suggest that you have a designated driver so that you can partake and be the designated drinker! I solemnly swear to never take you down the path of a bad meal, a wrong turn, a boring time, or a bum winery.
1) The quaint bed and breakfast, the Haydon Street Inn, is a charming & historic Victorian style home over 100 years old. It has 9 rooms each with private baths, plus a private guesthouse. King rooms have a Jacuzzi tub and fireplace. John Harasty (former chef of Churchill Downs) & Keren Colsten have been the proprietors for 7 years. John’s cooking skills are legendary, so I was excited to try his creations. They truly put the ‘bed and breakfast’ into bed and breakfast with the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in lately (I even stripped the sheets to see the label on the mattress and pillows).
Haydon Street Inn, Healdsburg, Calif.
2) My next stop was West Wines. My new BFF is the 2005 WEST Cabernet Reserve -selected as the first American wine ever to be served at the 2010 Noble Peace Prize awards banquet in Stockholm to 1,200 people. That means it’s guaranteed to make you smarter!
3) The next stop was Kachina Vineyards. They served an amazing Tuscan lunch with charcuterie, impeccably paired with the 2011 Chardonnay - Russian River Valley. Greg & Nancy are the owners & winemakers; they do all the work themselves. They are off the grid with 55 acres and are 100% solar powered. They have a small production of only 1,000 wines, so every bottle is a rare treat. They are also the only winery in Sonoma County that produces Charbono - which also came home with me. I stopped off for a short respite at the elegant private cottage, which is a great cure for writer’s block. No distractions... unless you count goats or grapes! They offer a free 2-night stay for all club members.
4) Next up, I was lucky to hop on a touring cart and take a driving tour of Michel-Schlumberger Winery. Our guide was knowledgeable, innovative, and passionate about Pinot! He's like the Indiana Jones of grapes! They also offer the only Pinot in the Valley. The winery has equally intoxicating views! With our wine pairings, they served Le Flirt Rose of Merlot with scallops market catch, black olive, sun-dried tomato relish and sauce rouille. 2012 La Bise Pinot Blanc with bellwether jersey milk ricotta, peas & hazelnuts.
Michel-Schlumberger Winery tasting offerings
5) The next stop was Williamson Wines. I have never joined a wine club, but they have an incredible offer! They pair with a spice club from Australia and an imported French cheese club shipped quarterly with recipes for your home dinner parties. The only way to get this wine is through the wine club. Owners Bill & Dawn host multiple special events every year, including a trip to Australia. Special reserves are also available! They offer incredible wines, great imported cheeses, and private label spice pairings that match with the wine like this one here: 2009 Elate Grange cuvée with Elate balsamic garlic & herb jam. I am sold on this! Love it!!
6) The next stop was Jordan Winery. They offer a progressive wine tour with wine and food at each stop along the sprawling property aboard a Lexus luxury shuttle. Don’t just drink the wines – walk the vines. Learn about the science of winemaking and even pluck the grapes direct from their source. My favorite stop was #4, which included Gravenstein apple vinaigrette with sushi rice and preserves, impeccably paired with the 2010 Chardonnay, which truly compares to a white burgundy as a structural depiction. This is a very tasty ensemble from chef Todd Knoll! I think I'm in love...
Samplings From Jordan Wines, including the 2010 Chardonnay
7) Next up was Medlock Ames wines and a bold 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. They have 4 different gardens with comparable pairings for each; they also sell their wine at the farmer's market & the tasting room. We tasted fresh blackberries, raspberries and blueberries from the vine. They offer 7 different wines in pairing samples, including the 2011 Chardonnay, which is 100% chardonnay. 2012 Rose is cool and smooth - just like the owner. It’s produced from a French oak barrel. The Cabernet & Merlot blend is equally amazing! They say wines often wines take on the same personality of the winemakers. Ames is soft, authentic (100% with no blends) and that is exactly what his wines are. So for the wines that have a ‘big nose’ or ‘nice legs’, well…look at the owners!
8) It was time for dinner and sustenance from Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria with charcuterie, grilled breads, and cheeses that pair well with 2011 Nalle Dry Creek Zin. They have many original items on the menu that were a hit with the entire table, including; grilled Mediterranean Octopus, fried Monterey Bay Sardines, Pork Belly with watermelon, and Italian pizzas.
(Have I lost anyone yet? I know this is a grueling pace, but worth every step and every sip).
9) I started my day at Costeaux French Bakery with a cafe mocha & croissant breakfast sandwich melted together with apple wood smoked bacon, avocado, egg & cheddar cheese.
10) The next stop was at Merriam Vineyards with their award-winning 2011 Pinot Reserve. Sample all of their best Reserves with food pairings. The truffle sausage, French cheese, and dried cherries blend perfectly with the Reserve. He only produces 3,000 cases per year. They should also get a prize for the best views from the bathroom!
11) Next I enjoyed a rare lunch on the veranda and private tour with master winemaker & mentor Lynn Fritz of Lynmar Estate Wines. With over 78 varietals, I can't pick my favorite either ... but it's fun to try. You can't go wrong here! My favorite quote of the day came from Lynn: “Wine is a primordial and an aggregate to conversation and community with people.”
Tuscan lunch at Kachina
12) The next stop was Iron Horse Vineyards, notable for their champagne. Iron Horse 2008 Blanc de Blancs Champagne is celebrating the 125th birthday of National Geographic Magazine with a special reserve partnership; $4 from every bottle is donated to support the mission of clean oceans and a better planet. What better way to honor that mission, than with champagne and oysters!
13) Spaaahhhh!! I indulged in a much-needed lavender peppermint restorative massage at Hotel Healdsburg! It was the perfect relaxing activity after two long days of wine tasting!
So many vines…and so little time! Cheers!
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