I have explored Napa County over the years, but until recently, the pandemic put Sonoma on hold. I was eager to explore this rich farming area where the cash crops are wine grapes planted on 60,000 acres in 18 distinct wine growing regions, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). According to the Sonoma County Wine Growers’ Association, there are now 1,800 wine grape growers, many from multi-generation families who have been farming the land for centuries. Here you can sip award-winning chardonnay, cabernet, pinot noir, zinfandel, and more.My husband and I booked a four-day visit to Healdsburg in Sonoma County’s heart about two hours by car from San Francisco Airport. (To avoid crowds and traffic, fly direct from San Diego to the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa.) As we entered Sonoma County, we passed row upon row of grapevines stretching across rolling hillsides. We checked into Montage Healdsburg, a sprawling 258-acre resort which opened to the public in early 2021. The property has 15.5 acres of private vineyards and 130 bungalow-style guest rooms designed to blend into their surroundings amid thousands of oak trees and manzanita. In fact, the exteriors match the bark of mature oaks. Rustically modern rooms with organic touches open onto terraces with outdoor furniture and firepits, a peaceful spot to sip a local cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay from nearby vineyards. Bathrooms also include private outdoor showers, another way to bring nature in.
We took a shortcut through vineyards to the main building which houses the lobby, bar, restaurant, and meeting rooms, sampling sweet grapes as we passed. While most of the vines are still quite young, the resort will eventually harvest and produce its own wine. The Scout Field Bar is smartly furnished with modern furniture in earthy tones including leather chairs, sofas, and tables of wood and stone. Guests can sample local wines, creative cocktails, and appetizers indoors or outside on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. Chef de Cuisine Jason Pringle helms Hazel Hill, the resort’s signature restaurant, highlighting “the bounty of the seasons” with a menu of California-focused, French-inspired dishes. We sampled fish, steak, and fresh-picked salads and sipped wine, some from vineyards just a few miles away. Hudson Springs Bar & Grill offers casual, poolside dining with a Mediterranean menu that includes Sonoma lamb gyros and skewers.
For recreation and relaxation, the resort has a family pool and an adults-only zero-edge pool, a state-of-the-art fitness center, Spa Montage, and a salon, as well as opportunities to practice yoga on the vineyard lawn, play pickleball or bocce ball, try your hand at archery, or take a spin on an electric bike through picturesque wine country. Montage Healdsburg will arrange a “Sip and Cycle” e-bike tour, pack a gourmet picnic basket to enjoy among the vines, and arrange special tastings and tours at local wineries. The Paintbox engages children ages five to 12 with pool side games, arts and crafts, movies, and of course, s’mores.
We especially enjoyed meeting Candice Koseba, an apiarist, beekeeper, herbalist, and owner of Sonoma County Bee Company. Once fearful of bees as a child, the insects are now her passion and purpose. Concerned about bees’ loss of habitat, Koseba works with Montage Healdsburg to preserve and monitor log nests and hives that dot the property. Koseba offers a fascinating look into the lives of bees, their importance to society, and the threats they face.
Off property, we toured Jordan Vineyard and Winery, a beautiful ivy-covered chateau on a 1,200-acre estate which has long specialized in cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Besides grapes, there are also olive groves and acres of heirloom tomatoes, pumpkins, and other crops, chickens who live in what guide Jason Marsh calls the “Ritz Carlton of Hen Houses,” and two mini donkeys, named Maverick and Goose by owner John Jordan, a pilot and former Navy intelligence officer. Jordan bought the property from his late parents Tom and Sally Jordan, a geologist and schoolteacher, respectively, who had traveled widely and were so inspired by the exceptional wine estates of France that they set about creating their own estate in Sonoma County, acquiring the property in 1972.
We toured the winery’s grounds and barrel room with towering 6,000-gallon tanks, sipped chardonnay in the lovely library, and then, through a secret passageway, entered a private dining room where we sampled Pacific halibut ceviche, duck prosciutto, local cheeses, and two vintages of cabernet. Our “spirited” group, hailing from the Midwest, California, and Chile, toasted our guide for a fun and informative day. Be sure to reserve in advance for tours and tastings.
At Alexander Valley Vineyards, about 15 minutes from Healdsburg, Shasta, a golden lab and Hattie, an Aussie doodle, greeted us as we headed for the tasting room where Tim Yeakel was our guide. Yeakel led us along us along rows of grapes, explaining various varietals as we sipped corresponding wines. Later, we entered the 25,000-square-foot cave carved into the hillside where barrels of wine are aged at cool, constant temperatures. Yeakel is a walking encyclopedia not only of wine, but the area’s history where Cyrus Alexander built a homestead in the 19th century.
In 1962, Maggie and Harry Wetzel purchased a sizable portion of the homestead, “over too many martinis,” their daughter Katie Wetzel Murphy told me with a smile. “My parents were interested in preserving the history and the buildings.” At first, the couple raised livestock, planted gardens, and restored Alexander’s original home. Later, the Wetzels were among the first families in the area to plant premium grape varieties and build a small winery. Their eldest son, Hank, produced Alexander Valley Vineyard’s first wine in 1975. Now the third generation of the Wetzel family is producing award-winning wines with winemaker Kevin Hall that include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and merlot along with zinfandel, pinot noir, sangiovese, cabernet franc, and syrah. This year marks the Wetzel family’s 60th anniversary on the property. “Our family makes wines of distinction for everyone,” says Murphy who is proud that the winery offers complimentary tastings for groups of six or less.
A few miles away, we enjoyed an end-of-summer concert in the historic plaza at Healdsburg, founded in 1857 by Harmon Heald who had journeyed from Ohio in search of gold. Close by are shops, restaurants, tasting rooms, and hotels including the plaza’s cozy Healdsburg Inn, Hotel Healdsburg with a spa and garden swimming pool, the chic and eco-friendly h2hotel, and the 16-room Les Mars, an elegant Relaix & Chateaux property decorated with antiques. We checked into The Cottages at Healdsburg, cozy, contemporary bungalows shaded by olive trees, each with a front porch and private entrance, furnished balconies or patios, and a shared outdoor swimming pool. Each unit has snowy white linens and duvets, and ensuite baths. Our cottage also had a living room with a fireplace and kitchen.
The nearby Oakville Grocery offers gourmet items, wine, sandwiches, pizza, and pastries. Other local favorites include Black Oak Coffee Roasters which has won awards for its espresso. I especially liked the signature Lavender Latte and the Mayan Mocha, along with the avo toast with shaved radish, za’atar, mustard frill, and toasted seeds. The rustic Costeaux French Bakery, a Healdsburg tradition since 1923, has won dozens of awards for its artisan bread and pastries This is a favorite locals’ spot for breakfast and brunch, or a boxed lunch for a wine country picnic.
For dinner and drinks, the three-level Matheson’s is a must for modern, farm-to-table wine country cuisine, with Chef Dustin Valette and Craig Ramsey at the helm. Huge murals depicting wine country scenes by artist Jay Mercado decorate the striking dining room and bar on the first floor. Wine barrel staves inspired the ceiling.A wine wall offers true “flights of fancy,” featuring 88 wines on tap, giving customers the chance to sample small pours of a variety of wines without committing to a whole glass or bottle. We dined on Sonoma County duck and then went upstairs to check out Roof 106, the buzzy open-air cocktail lounge and restaurant high above Healdsburg Plaza, which pays tribute to worker bees who not only pollinate the fields but serve customers at The Matheson. The restaurant serves “adventurous” cocktails, seasonal snacks, wood-fired pizzas, small plates, and sweets. Guests can relax near fire pits, belly up to the “drink rail,” or have a seat at the bar. Also recommended: Chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, Single Thread, Barndiva, Valette, and The Madrona about a mile from town, housed in a newly renovated 24-room historic inn dating to 1881 offering outdoor dining on the lovely Palm Terrace where Executive Chef Jesse Mallgren offers estate-grown vegetables, fish, and meat.
There are dozens of tasting rooms in Healdsburg. We especially liked Marine Layer Wines on Center Street, a chic contemporary space with a marble bar, banquette, and couches where you can sip small-batch wines made with grapes grown in the cooler, windier climate along the Sonoma Coast. Taylor Brunson, our knowledgeable server, poured flights of chardonnay and pinot noir complemented by savory snacks from the “farm forward” Little Saint restaurant, including cashew cheese dip with chili oil, pickled string beans, and mashed chickpeas with pumpkins seeds.
We also enjoyed art and wine at the Harris Gallery founded by M.C. Harris and his son, Alex (known as A3L3XZAND3R). The Harrises are accomplished artists who have also partnered with local winemakers on limited edition wines featuring their art on the labels. They are also wonderful raconteurs, talking about their art, the county’s history, and “must visit” places in town. Browse their expansive gallery in a 1908 building while sipping wine or relax outside in the gallery’s sidewalk lounge.
Back in San Diego, I realized four days was not nearly enough to explore Healdsburg, and to sample and sip all that the community has to offer. I can’t wait to return. For help planning your own trip, visit the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District at stayhealdsburg.com and Sonoma County Winegrowers at sonomawinegrape.org.
Fall Happenings in Sonona County
- The 24th annual Wine & Food Affair returns on Saturday, November 5 and Sunday, November 6, for a weekend of wine and food tasting experiences along the Wine Road in Northern Sonoma County. Sonoma’s premier tasting event features more than 40 participating wineries stretching across Sonoma County’s Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys. From exclusive vineyard tours to intimate meet-and-greets with winemakers and chefs – there is something for everyone. Tickets, on sale now, are $125 for both Saturday and Sunday, $95 for Sunday only, and $25 for designated drivers.
- Explore the beauty of the harvest season on an electric bike tour through the scenic Russian River and Dry Creek wine valleys. From now through November 22, guests of Hotel Healdsburg can book the Guided E-Bike Tour with naturalist, Bruce Kramer while communicating via Bluetooth intercom helmets. Afterward, enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch from Dry Creek Kitchen.
- Test your senses at Hotel Healdsburg’s Black Glass Challenge led by wine educator Sandi Lucchesi every Friday through October 14. Complimentary to all hotel guests, participants can smell, swirl and sip a series of hidden wines and try to guess the varietal.