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Healdsburg, Calif.: Wine & Art

The Russian River embraces it. Vineyards orbit it. Wander on foot downtown for galleries and tasting rooms or cruise its lush countryside.

Healdsburg's Garden of the Senses
Photo caption
The nose knows at Belvedere's aromatic Garden of the Senses.

Since it became a legitimate rival to the great growing regions of France, Northern California’s wine country has not always resisted the impulse to take itself too seriously. In established destinations such as Napa Valley, it is possible to pay $25 for admittance to a tasting room; for dinner reservations, the wait is sometimes more than a month. But Healdsburg—which lies in the enfolding pleats of the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander valleys, just 70 miles north of San Francisco—remains isolated from the glamour-grape world, in both topography and temperament. Its historic Plaza Park is surrounded by about a dozen winetasting rooms, seven art galleries, and various restaurants. Few wineries charge a fee for tasting. This spirit of generosity thrives all around the downtown, where 10 new tasting rooms have opened since 2004, making Healdsburg a sort of walkable wine mall. Oeno-philes love the convenience of being able to amble about the streets sampling popular labels including Kendall-Jackson and La Crema or sipping the offerings of small producers such as Chateau Felice and Selby Winery.

In a place where artisan wines aren’t merely blended, but "sculpted," art and wine frequently overlap. Scott Lindstrom-Dake, who had studied fine arts, began making wine as a hobby in 1995. Before giving his vintages to friends, he in-scribed personal messages on the bare bottles (known as shiners) with a gold pen. Once he grabbed a bottle on which the ink was still wet, leaving a gold thumbprint. Now when you buy a bottle from his Thumbprint Cellars, you can drink it, mount it on your wall, or conduct a background check on the winemaker. His fingerprints are all over the microwinery’s tasting lounge just off the plaza square. Not surprisingly, it doubles as an art gallery.

But not everyone has been pleased to have so much vino sloshing around the downtown area, particularly longtime residents who want visitors to experience the rural vineyards. "Going to a winery has a different kind of mystique, a romanticism," says Pedro Rusk, manager of the Wine Shop. "When you go to the wineries, you see the people who make the wine, you see their dogs running around the barrels, you see some old grandpa who has a reserve block named after him. That’s cool. In the tasting rooms you don’t get the same feel."

A short drive northwest of town a hidden treasure, Preston of Dry Creek, proves Rusk’s point. Already known for its sauvignon blancs and zinfandels, Preston began producing certified organic wines in 2005. Twice a week, owner Lou Preston bakes crusty hearth breads in a brick oven and serves them with organic olive oil. The place is a picnic waiting to happen.

When the temperature outside rockets toward 100 degrees in Sonoma County’s late summer afternoons, you might want a spot to cool down. You’ll find the perfect setting for that a little farther up the valley. Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves has its tasting room in the same cool, dark cave where its wines age.

A different kind of cool can be found at Roshambo Winery, an assertively postmodern punk rock vineyard, where 33-year-old owner Naomi Brilliant presides over the steel-and-glass tasting room. Brilliant hasn’t forgotten her own roots: She maintains a display of the orthodontic devices her grandfather invented to create the family fortune. She also curates provocative rotating art exhibitions. The word roshambo is slang for the game of rock, paper, scissors. The winery has hosted the game’s U.S. Western regional championship every June for the last three years. Recruits to its wine club, the Party Army, adhere to the credo "Fighting for fun in a winey world."

After you’ve gotten your freak on, get your olfactory on at nearby Belvedere Vineyards & Winery, where the aroma garden overflows with licorice basil, vanilla grass, lemon verbena, and hundreds of other culinary and medicinal plants. The berries, flowers, and herbs mirror the flavors and aromas found in wine. Even if your palate can’t distinguish between a chardonnay with a hint of pear and 40-weight motor oil from a screwtop bottle, you can savor live jazz on the outdoor deck at Belvedere Saturday afternoons from July to September.

Music also accompanies the farmers’ market that fills the plaza on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings during summer. On Tuesdays, shop for honey from locally pollinating bees while you sway to a mariachi band. Residents lay out their blankets in the afternoon to reserve spaces near the bandstand and return a few hours later after buying zucchini and sunflowers that were in the ground that morning. Then, as dusk falls, everyone dances.

When you’re ready for fine cuisine, you might still get a seat on short notice at Cyrus, the town’s recently opened destination restaurant, but that won’t last long as comparisons to Yountville’s famous French Laundry spread. Just off the square, tucked into the elegant Les Mars Hotel, Cyrus offers a sumptuous but never snooty experience; as you enter the dining room, the hostess lifts a French-style telephone and announces your arrival to the chef, who immediately dispatches canapés to your table, along with a champagne and caviar cart, followed by an amuse-bouche. "Nobody was doing this," says co-owner and maître d’ Nick Peyton, who has helped plant Sonoma County’s flag on the gastronomic map.

Man cannot live by amuse-bouche alone, however, and Healdsburg provides an impressive array of dining options: the hip and tasty Barndiva; the tiny Ravenous Cafe; the more casual Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar (try the scallops wrapped in bacon); and the Bear Republic Brewing Co., with its nonfizzy cask beers.

"We’re surrounded by great restaurants," says Pedro Rusk, "and if you walk into one that’s full, you can walk around the corner to another one." As long as you’re on foot, saunter into the stylish Dry Creek Kitchen on the plaza.

Healdsburg has entire walking tours devoted to vintage homes and the spectacular trees in the area around the plaza, plus some for chocolate and burritos. For local food and wine artisans, drop into the town’s one-year-old market hall, Plaza Farms. Sample Bellwether Farms cheeses, Della Fattoria’s Meyer lemon bread with rosemary, and chocolate from Scharffen Berger that’s so dark and complex it tastes like fine wine. For one of the best breakfasts in town, check out Bovolo, a restaurant started by co-owners Duskie Estes and John Stewart of Zazu in Santa Rosa. Stewart cures the meats himself, and, for lunch, the black pig salumi sandwich is a little slice of hog heaven.

When you’re surrounded by so much handcrafted food and wine, it’s easy to get caught up in the impulse to participate. Few places are better for this than Relish Culinary School, a cooking organization that rotates through the local wineries, putting on fondue fiestas in barrel rooms and bread and flat bread workshops in outdoor kitchens that overlook the valley vineyards. "We don’t take ourselves too seriously," says Relish owner Donna del Rey. "It just has to be entertaining and a lot of fun."

Fun and food remain some of Healdsburg's most compelling works of art.

Photography by Mario Alberico

This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.