If you travel the tangle of country roads outside Healdsburg, Calif., in the fall, you will pass through valley floors and softly undulating hills carpeted with grapevines dangling gold, bronze, and copper leaves. The cottonwood and maple trees will also be changing color, flaunting their spectacular foliage. You'll likely find yourself moving slowly—stuck behind a truck pulling a gondola piled with grapes ready for the crush. The ripe smell of the harvest will permeate the air. If you're lucky, the aroma will be carried by a warm breeze, Indian summer wrapping around you like a cashmere blanket.
Forty-five minutes to the southwest, the Napa Valley offers similar sensory experiences at this time of year, but there you're likely to encounter high tasting fees at corporate wineries. In Healdsburg, intimate, family-owned wineries still survive. "Healdsburg is like what Napa was 15 years ago," says Peter Seghesio, one of eight family members who help run Seghesio Family Vineyards. "We are all still farmers out here. Napa is really a millionaires' playground."
Seghesio adds that many vintners in Healdsburg are directly involved in the winemaking process and interact with visitors in their tasting rooms. "On any given day, we almost always have at least one family member in the tasting room," he says.
The rich soil of Healdsburg's winegrowing region—the Russian River, Alexander, and Dry Creek valleys—has long offered up its nutrients to vintners. In 1846, Cyrus Alexander, one of the region's original settlers, planted the first vineyards. But in the early days, grapes weren't the agricultural stars of the area. Farmers tended walnut trees, hops, and prunes—so many prunes in fact that locals called the town the "Buckle of the Prune Belt."
Downtown, situated where the three winegrowing valleys meet, has grown up since its prune-picking days. The town's collection of restored buildings has gone upscale, now housing trendy boutiques and restaurants. Many are located on the historic plaza, a grassy square that's shaded by redwood, palm, and fruit trees—the perfect spot to enjoy homemade pumpkin ice cream from the Downtown Bakery & Creamery. On weekends, you're likely to stumble upon a free concert, an art show, a farmers' market—or local fire captain Teale Love, who gives tours of historic neighborhoods in his horse-drawn carriage. Teale's trusty steed, Dusty, trots through the neighborhoods and passes by the Italianate mansions, Queen Anne cottages, Craftsman bungalows, and Gothic Revival homes lining the streets. All the while Teale tells stories about the houses—like how the rosy pink Camellia Inn was once a hospital. Along the way, he waves back to kids and calls out to fellow townsfolk. "It's pretty friendly and old-fashioned around here," Teale says. "Everybody seems to know everybody by name."
Back at the plaza, antique collectives overflow with gorgeous clutter. Mill Street Antiques, which includes more than 40 dealers, is the largest collective and offers everything from restored 1950s motor scooters to Arts and Crafts furniture. You'll also find linens, pine furniture, and Flow Blue china at the Irish Cottage; Depression glass and ornate furniture at Moonshadow's; and shabby-chic furniture and Maxfield Parrish prints at Antique Harvest. The plaza itself turns into an antique hunter's dream at the end of every summer (this year, September 3), when dealers peddle their treasures at the Antique Fair.
A few winetasting rooms also sit on the square, but the best way to experience the sights and smells of the harvest is to take a wine tour through the country by car or, even better, by bicycle. Spoke Folk Cyclery offers bike rentals and provides maps. At the Oakville Grocery, assemble a picnic of grilled vegetables, crusty artisan bread, smoked turkey, and Redwood Hill handmade chèvre.
A 12- to 30-mile loop (depending on how many side trips you take) on West Dry Creek and Dry Creek roads takes you through a pastoral landscape you'd expect to find in southern France. En route, you can stop at several wineries, including Preston, where owner Lou Preston bakes homemade bread in a wood-burning oven; Dry Creek, producer of a popular fumé blanc; and Ferrari-Carano, one of the few glitzy wineries in the area. During the harvest, Ferrari-Carano offers one-hour tours that explain its winemaking process. To reserve a spot, you need to call two weeks in advance.
You also need to make a reservation (one day in advance) to join Michel-Schlumberger winery's daily 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. tour, which addresses sustainable agriculture. Don't leave without tasting the European-style cabernet sauvignon.
Pezzi King's picnic ground, which tumbles down a mountainside overlooking the Dry Creek Valley, is the perfect spot for a rest. Borrow glasses from the tasting room and buy a bottle of their chardonnay. If time permits, ride down Westside Road and visit Hop Kiln Winery, housed in a historic facility once used for drying hops, and Rabbit Ridge, where the helpful staff welcomes winetasting novices.
The wineries close shop by 5 p.m., the time to start thinking about dinner. Dining out does require planning in this foodie haven; you need a reservation, especially in the fall. In Healdsburg, the harvest is as important to restaurateurs as it is to vintners. It's when Jeff Mall, the chef at Zin, bakes his mom's apple pie recipe using Sebastopol Gravenstein apples, and when Joyanne Pezzolo, the chef at Ravenous, roasts chanterelles. It's also when Acre Cafe co-owner Marci Ellison's garden is full of ripe vegetables. Elli-son says that many of Acre's fall specials revolve around her garden; this year, she's growing 25 varieties of tomatoes. "People often say they don't understand this obsession with tomatoes," Ellison says. "But when you buy your tomatoes from the grocery store and they're not even ripe, you don't know what a tomato tastes like. Here, we pick them the day we serve them."
After dinner, retire to one of Healdsburg's many bed-and-breakfasts, such as The Honor Mansion, where you'll slip under a fluffy down comforter. And if you do as the locals do, you'll say a little prayer of thanks to the harvest gods.
P L A N N I N G Y O U R T R I P
For information, contact the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, 217 Healdsburg Ave., (800) 648-9922, www.healdsburg.org. All phone numbers are in area code 707 unless noted.
WHERE TO STAY
AAA's California/Nevada TourBook offers more lodging options.
The Honor Mansion, 14891 Grove St., (800) 554-4667. Rooms $140-$300. A luxurious inn, housed in an Italianate Victorian, with a lap pool, koi pond, feather beds, and sumptuous breakfasts.
Camellia Inn, 211 North St., (800) 727-8182. Rooms $89-$179. Villa-style pool and more than 100 varieties of camellias.
WHERE TO EAT
Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar, 344 Center St., 473-0946. A wine list with more than 70 California zinfandels and an all-American menu with stylized blue plate specials, such as meatloaf doused in a wild mushroom gravy.
Acre Cafe & Lounge, 420 Center St., 431-1302. Chef and co-owner Britt Galler likes to use local products, such as Niman Ranch free-range chickens.
Oakville Grocery, 124 Matheson St., 433-3200. The place to assemble a gourmet picnic.
Ravenous Cafe, 117 North St., 431-1770. With eight tables and a menu that changes daily, this restaurant offers an experience you'd expect to have in a chef's home.
Downtown Bakery & Creamery, 308A Center St., 431-2719. Almond pecan twists and homemade ice cream—come here hungry.
WHAT TO DO
Healdsburg Carriage Company (Teale Love), 838-3927.
Spoke Folk Cyclery, 201 Center St., 433-7171. Rentals start at $25.
Seghesio Family Vineyards, 14730 Grove St., 433-3579.
Michel-Schlumberger, 4155 Wine Creek Rd., (800) 447-3060.
Dry Creek Vineyard, 3770 Lambert Bridge Rd., (800) 864-9463.
Ferrari-Carano, 8761 Dry Creek Rd., 433-6700.
Preston, 9282 W. Dry Creek Rd., (800) 305-9707.
Pezzi King, 3805 Lambert Bridge Rd., (800) 411-4758.
Hop Kiln Winery, 6050 Westside Rd., 433-6491.
Rabbit Ridge, 3291 Westside Rd., 431-7128.
Mill Street Antiques, 44 Mill St., 433-8409.
Irish Cottage Antiques, 112 Matheson St., 433-4850.
Moonshadow's, 44 Mill St., 433-4107.
Antique Harvest, 225 Healdsburg Ave., 433-0223.
Photography by Markham Johnson, Anthony Falzone, and Morton Beebe
This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.