Out of Town - Wine Touring in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa

Competition in wine tourism has increased dramatically in recent years, throughout not just North America but a number of destinations around the world. Sunny and sublimely beautiful Sonoma County, however, continues to hold its own. What has changed a bit in this expansive county is the skyrocketing popularity of Healdsburg, a charming little town that’s cultivated an influx of high-quality wineries, country inns, and sophisticated restaurants in the past decade. Just to the south, the county’s largest city, Santa Rosa, is also enjoying renewed interest these days. Together, these two gay-friendly communities, about 75 miles north of San Francisco, make for a wonderful Wine Country getaway.

Activity in Healdsburg revolves around a vibrant, Spanish-influenced town plaza, which is shaded with an incongruous mix of palm and redwood trees. Healdsburg has a discernable gay and lesbian following - although the scene is less visible than in the Russian River resort of Guerneville, which lies just 20 miles southwest (convenient should you wish to hang out in a gay bar or stay at a predominantly gay resort).

Healdsburg invites a good walk along its dapper streets and past its enchanting boutiques. Because the town hasn’t become completely overrun by visitors (although it can get crowded on summer and fall weekends), most shopkeepers and restaurateurs are willing to spend a little more time chatting with visitors here than in more touristy parts of California. For a cultural break, visit the Healdsburg Museum, which contains local historical artifacts - including 8,000 original photographs - and is housed inside an imposing 1910 former library.

The small but lovely city of Santa Rosa anchors Sonoma County and is midway between Guerneville and the Napa Valley. Although low-keyed, it does offer a bit to see and do, and it also claims a visible GLBT community. Shoppers should investigate the city’s Historic Railroad Square, and garden gurus can check out the verdant Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, the fascinating estate of the renowned horticulturist.

Of course, wine-touring is a major reason to come here - some 80 local vineyards are open to the public. With so many wineries to choose from, it’s prudent to concentrate on one specific area each day, and limit tasting and touring to between three and five wineries.

In the greater Healdsburg area, there are several distinct winemaking areas, the most popular being Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Road, and Alexander Valley. In the latter area, one of the region’s star winemakers, Margaret Davenport (who’s also openly gay) oversees production at Passalacqua Vineyard & Winery, a comparatively small vineyard that makes highly sought Zinfandels, Chardonnays, and Cabernet Sauvignons. Seghesio Family Vineyards also produces superb Zinfandels, which have earned considerable acclaim - this respected yet very friendly operation has been producing wine in the northern Alexander Valley for more than a century.

Heading toward Guerneville and the Russian River, you’ll find several excellent wineries along Westside Road. Best bets include Gary Farrell, Porter Creek (amazing Pinot Noirs), and Hop Kiln Winery, which occupies a distinctive 19th-century ranch building. Other worthy wineries in the vicinity include Rodney Strong, popular for its Meritage, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals; and Dry Creek Vineyard, which is as known for its magnolia- and redwood-studded grounds as for its award-winning Fume Blanc. Mauritson Wines is another star of Dry Creek Valley, producing excellent Zinfandels, Petite Syrahs, and Malbecs.

Alternatively, explore the wine-growing region south of the Russian River, just a short drive from Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Fine vineyards in the towns of Forestville, Graton, and Windsor include Joseph Swan, La Crema, DeLoach, and Hanna. In Guerneville itself you can tour Korbel Champagne Cellars, which is headquartered in a century-old, creeper-covered brick building. An adjoining deli and microbrewery serves excellent salads and sandwiches (try the one with salami, Brie, tapenade, roasted peppers, and greens) on a tree-shaded deck.

One of the more distinctive ways to wine-hop in the area is on one of the biking tours offered by Getaway Adventures, which offers several itineraries in Sonoma and Napa, including a popular Healdsburg Sip ‘N Cycle ride that covers about 20 miles; the company also offers kayaking tours along the Russian River.

As is often the case in winemaking towns, Healdsburg is blessed with commendable restaurants, and meals generally cost a bit less than you might pay in San Francisco for comparable food. The slick Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar earns the devotion of foodies with tasty fare like Zinfandel-glazed beef short ribs with horseradish-mashed potatoes. An oasis of tasty and creative comfort food, Ravenous lives up to its mouthwatering name with robust burgers, tempting grills, and innovative veggie delights like roasted poblano pepper with potatoes, greens, and hominy and served with grilled-corn salsa.

Cyrus serves splendidly good French fare and might just be the most romantic dining room in town, while Bovolo, which is tucked into the back of Copperfield’s Bookstore, turns out stellar thin-crust pizzas with such inventive toppings as roasted squash, bacon, sage, and ricotta salata. You can enjoy a delicious meal at Costeaux French Bakery, from French toast with fresh raspberries and blueberries at breakfast to lunch specialties like seared ahi salad and Monte Cristo sandwiches. The major draw here are the exquisite desserts, such as dark-chocolate tortes and pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust. For planning the perfect picnic, head to Oakville Grocery, which stocks everything from gourmet sandwiches to a fine selection of cheeses and charcuterie.

Willi’s Seafood and Wine Bar serves tapas-size portions of such tasty fresh-fish fare as hamachi ceviche and clam-garlic flatbread topped with bacon and scallions. It’s part of the Stark restaurant group, which also includes the snazzy Stark’s Steakhouse in Santa Rosa’s lively Old Railroad Square - this is a fine spot to sample double-cut Colorado lamb chops with pomegranate glaze, or a dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye steak weighing in at 20 ounces. Around the corner, the natty Syrah Bistro serves well-crafted, inventive Wine Country victuals, such as tasso-ham-and-onion-stuffed quail with a black-eyed-pea and tomato ragout. For a light snack, drop by Flying Goat Coffee, which brews high-quality java - the kinds of rarified beans that elevate coffee-sipping to wine-tasting among connoisseurs.

After dinner, your options for nightlife are quite limited in these parts, although you can always make the 30-minute drive to Guerneville and check out the popular gay bars there, such as the rollicking Rainbow Cattle Company and the slick, pansexual Club Yamagata. Black Cat Bar & Grill, which is a 20-minute drive south of Santa Rosa, is interior Sonoma County’s closest thing to a gay bar. It’s lesbian-owned but popular with all kinds, and there’s live music most nights. The crowd is a mixed bag of ages and styles.

Healdsburg has several gay-friendly inns, including the luxurious Madrona Manor. With its striking mansard roof, pointed dormer windows, and sweeping wraparound porch, this imposing three-story 1881 mansion looks like the ideal setting for a Gothic horror movie. Many of the antiques that fill Madrona Manor’s 21 rooms are original to the house. One of the Wine Country’s finest Italianate Victorian houses, Camellia Inn is a first-rate small hotel. The inn and its two outbuildings are filled with Oriental rugs and eclectic antiques. More than 50 varieties of picture-perfect camellias lace the premises.

Arguably the most romantic place to stay in town, the Honor Mansion rolls out the red carpet to wine-loving gourmands with its truly magnificent suites and rooms. You might book the Tower Suite, fashioned out of a historic water tower and with a loft sitting area with a fireplace and a wet bar, or one of the four capacious Vineyard Suites, all with private patios that hold spa tubs for two. Lavish breakfasts, which you can enjoy on a picturesque sun deck in warm weather, complete the experience.

Technically in Guerneville but very close to the wineries on Westside Road, you’ll find the elegant, gay-owned, and reasonably priced Sonoma Orchid inn, which is set on a shaded hillside in the Russian River valley. You can choose from cozier, more affordable rooms in the 1906 original inn, or larger and more private suites in separate cottages. Breakfasts - which feature eggs laid by the inn’s own organically raised chickens – are the perfect start to your day in this region known for its acclaimed wineries, funky shopping, and scenic hikes beneath towering redwoods.
The Little Black Book:
Black Cat Bar & Grill 707-793-9480, blackcatbar.com
Bovolo 707-431-2962, bovolorestaurant.com
Camellia Inn 800-727-8182, camelliainn.com
Club Yamagata 707-824-1671, clubyamagata.com
Costeaux French Bakery 707-433-1913, costeaux.com
Cyrus 707-433-3311, cyrusrestaurant.com
Dry Creek Vineyard 800-864-WINE, drycreekvineyard.com
Flying Goat Coffee 707-575-1202, www.flyinggoatcoffee.com
Gary Farrell 707-473-2900, garyfarrellwines.com
Gay Russian River web page gayrussianriver.com
Getaway Adventures 800-499-2453, getawayadventures.com
Healdsburg Area Chamber of Commerce 707-433-6935, healdsburg.org
Honor Mansion 707-433-4277, honormansion.com
Hop Kiln 707-433-6491, hopkilnwinery.com
Joseph Swan Vineyards 707-573-3747, swanwinery.com
Korbel Champagne Cellars 707-887-2294, korbel.com
Madrona Manor 800-258-4003, madronamanor.com
Mauritson Vineyards 707-431-0804, mauritsonwines.com
Oakville Grocery 707-433-3200, oakvillegrocery.com
Passalacqua Vineyard & Winery 877-825-5547, passalacquawinery.com
Porter Creek Vineyards 707-433-6321, portercreekvineyards.com
Rainbow Cattle Company 707-869-0206, queersteer.com
Ravenous 707-431-1770
Rodney Strong Vineyards 707-431-1533, rodneystrong.com
Russian River Chamber of Commerce 707-869-9000, russianriver.com
Seghesio Family Vineyards 707-433-3579, seghesio.com
Sonoma County Tourism Bureau 800-576-6662, sonomacounty.com
Sonoma Orchid Inn 888-877-4466, sonomaorchidinn.com
Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau 866-996-1090, sonomavalley.com
Stark’s Steakhouse 707-546-5100, starkssteakhouse.com
Syrah Bistro 707-568-4002, syrahbistro.com
Willi’s Seafood and Wine Bar 707-433-9191, williswinebar.net
Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar 707-473-0946, zinrestaurant.com

Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

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