Long considered Napa Valley’s sleepy cousin, Sonoma is ripe with vineyards and rugged valleys that are now just tame enough to conquer.
AUTHOR SARAH HORNE
WANDER THE STREETS OF AFFLUENT HEALDSBURG, the symbolic heart of Northern California’s Sonoma County, and there’s little doubt that these valleys and rolling green hills—once unkown—are now a world-class destination for oenophiles and food lovers. Among the winemakers and rugged fourth-generation locals, there are more and more glitzy types clad in linen or draped in cashmere, and they feel right at home. Sonoma has arrived.
To its detractors, hippie-dippy Sonoma is a cultural no-man’s land where oddball characters cavort in the hills. Of course, that’s exactly how the locals like it. After all, only the scrappiest of pioneers made their way to this stretch of the remote West, digging in and adapting to its dramatically varied microclimates. In the generations that followed, hardworking farmers, largely Italian-American immigrants, worked the land for lumber and produce. Importing their family winemaking traditions from the old country, they discovered something vital: The local wine was pretty darn good. Visitors soon began to understand all the fuss over the region’s soil and air, and all the care that’s put into everything produced here, from lettuce to cheese and wine.
Though Sonoma is quickly becoming the next big thing, it still contains many hidden corners you’ll feel as if you discovered on your own. And the locals, finding you off the beaten path, will welcome you with a wink, and let you imagine that you have.
Hotel HealdsburgPull the dark wooden shutters wide and step out onto the balcony of your understatedly chic room at the Hotel Healdsburg 1.A trace of early morning fog envelopes the swank town’s plaza and its thick canopy of ancient redwoods. Soon, the mist dissipates, and the green of the trees deepens. Below you, farm trucks purr along West Street, bound for the vineyards of the Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley.
Descend to the hotel’s loftlike lobby and begin the day with a fitting breakfast of fresh granola and fruit. Out on Matheson Street, half a dozen spandex-clad athletes are preening themselves like baby-boomer birds of paradise, stretching for a day of biking on the winding roads of wine country. Before you embark on anything quite so ambitious, set out on foot and get your bearings in what’s now known as “Beverly Healdsburg.”
Stop in at Copperfield’s Books 2, an uncommonly good bookstore, which will reassure you that for all Sonoma County’s beguiling beauty, the place has brains as well. Pick up a copy of Steve Heimoff ’s A Wine Journey along the Russian River and thumb through it for background on the local soil. Go on to ponder the bountiful Californian lifestyle at Plaza Gourmet 3, where you run your hands longingly over copper cookware and cheese boards repurposed from retired wine barrels.
Jimtown StoreGetting further into the foodie frame of mind (this is what people live and breathe in Sonoma), you saunter off the main square to peruse the pickle bar at Love Farms 4 organic market on North Street, where the heirloom tomatoes on display are worthy of a photograph.
Arm yourself with a trusty Wine Road map and set off by car—in this case, a sleek Mercedes SLK 55 convertible—toward Highway 128, wending your way into the Alexander Valley to stop for lunch at the Jimtown Store 5, a cheerful clapboard shop that first opened its doors in 1895 and is now refreshed and stocked with local wines. Order the house specialty, a Brie-and-chopped-olive sandwich on a baguette, to go.
Picnic supplies in hand, make your way to the eco-friendly, ultramodern Ridge Vineyards 6 on Lytton Springs Road. Take a seat at one of the teak tables out back, surrounded by oak barrel planters overflowing with fresh rosemary and wildflowers, the rolling vineyards just a few feet away. Request a flight of wines (a.k.a., a tasting selection) to accompany lunch, and dig in. (If you prefer to actually drink than to taste, you can always arrange for a bus tour through www.sonomawinetours.net.)
Plaza GourmetAfterward, head to the Michel-Schlumberger Winery 7 in nearby Dry Creek Valley, and join the 2 p.m. tour, during which you’ll walk among the vines and ponder the meaning of terroir (or, heck, just enjoy the views from this quiet corner of the county). After a taste of their Deux Terres Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s back over the charming Lambert Bridge and home to Healdsburg.
Sequester yourself in the hotel’s hidden hot tub or indulge in a quick nap on your crisp Frette linens in preparation for an epic meal at the town’s finest dining establishment, the decadent Cyrus 8. With chef Douglas Keane, an alum of New York’s Lespinasse, helming the kitchen, reservations are a must. However, if you haven’t planned ahead (or aren’t game for Keane’s five-course culinary extravaganza), step up to the elegant bar and order a succulent porcini pot pie.
Take a postprandial stroll around the plaza before sinking into your plush bed and dreaming of repentance with plenty of aerobics…as soon as you get home, that is.