When it comes to wine country towns, California has the proverbial embarrassment of riches. There was a time when “wine country” always meant Napa, but these days there are many options offering outstanding wine country experiences in the Golden State.
Lately I have Sonoma County’s Healdsburg on my mind…mainly because it seems to be everywhere I look. This spring, Fodor’s Travel named Healdsburg to its list of “The Best Small Towns in America,” and just a few weeks later, Travel & Leisure put the Healdsburg Plaza on its roster of “America’s Most Beautiful Town Squares.” Restaurants here are always in the foodie press, and the surrounding vineyards are on the radar of the most respected wine writers. If you’re paying any attention at all, it’s impossible to not hear about Healdsburg.
Perhaps the most meaningful accolade for Healdsburg is that it’s a real town. Yes, it draws upscale visitors. But local residents love their pretty little city, and they also browse the galleries, shop the boutiques, dine at the innovative restaurants, see films at the Raven Theater, fill canvas bags with local produce at the Farmer’s Market and enjoy live music on Tuesday evenings in the Plaza.
The Plaza is Healdsburg’s heart, the place to start when visiting. The idea is to park your car, and then forget about it; you can step out of the Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza and walk just about anywhere you want to go in town. I love to poke around antiques shops, and there are plenty in the immediate neighborhood to occupy a morning, but all of the retail here is eye-catching and (dangerously) irresistible. Case in point: elegant Fideaux is the place to go if you have a spoiled dog, as I do.
Wine gets a lot of attention, but craft beers are big in Sonoma County, too. One of my favorite lunch spots is the Bear Republic Brewpub just off the Plaza. Bear Republic’s popular Racer 5 IPA is brewed right here; you can tour the brewery on Saturday mornings (it’s just steps from the Farmer’s Market). The outdoor patio is a great place to enjoy one of their decadent sandwiches (crab!) along with the local suds.
The Russian River wraps neatly around Healdsburg, and river activities are a big draw in warm weather. Rent a canoe from River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe on Healdsburg Ave., across from Veterans Memorial Beach Park, then enjoy a scenic and leisurely afternoon cruise. Watch for otters who are used to sharing the river and will come quite close to your boat! We stocked the canoe with gourmet picnic supplies from Costeaux French Bakery near the Plaza; there are plenty of spots to stop along the river to dine al fresco and view wildlife.
Nearly 200 wineries call Sonoma County home, and many of them are a very short drive from Healdsburg. You can tour and taste within a few miles of town at J Winery, Seghesio Family Winery, Simi Winery and many more. But if you want to continue to ditch the car, there are 20+ tasting rooms scattered in the blocks around the Plaza. The Murphy-Goode tasting room on Matheson Street is hard to beat, with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and well-informed staff. Murphy-Goode offers daily cheese and wine pairings, and you can download a complimentary tasting pass from their website before visiting.
Finish your Healdsburg day with dinner at any of the excellent eateries in town. It’s hard to go wrong; chefs here take food seriously. I’m partial to Zin Restaurant – they bake all their own breads, and their Meyer lemon chicken lures me back every time. After dinner, walk a couple laps around the plaza to work off the calories and enjoy the twinkling lights in the gazebo by the fountain. At this point, you’re immediately across the street from Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza and a good night’s sleep.