Healdsburg – a sip, a tour and maybe another sip

By | Category: Travel destinations
In the wine area of Healdsburg

Irene – starting as she means to continue!

I’m no wine connoisseur. I have enjoyed many a $10 (say £6) bottle without wishing it was a $100 bottle. Yet, I recently found myself beaming with a wide smile while visiting wineries in the brochure-pretty Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

Not only was I partaking of sublime Sauvignon Blanc’s and Zinfandel’s in one of their best growing regions, with distinct microclimates ideal for wine grapes, but I was doing it via Segway. Three valleys in this northern Sonoma area, nicknamed “Winery Central,” spread out from Healdsburg, also aptly called “a town for all seasons.” (I must add, however, that the wine harvest season in early autumn is especially spectacular, albeit crowded with tourists.)

Yes, standing up on a Segway made the already sublime pastime of wine tasting fun and novel.  Healdsburg is home to three Segway companies, but I chose Segway of Healdsburg on a recent January trip. The company offers tours of the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Armstrong Redwoods Preserve.

segway riders

Can you be drunk in charge of a segway?

I had never ridden a Segway, and had only seen them in my kids’ high school, where the security guards ride them up and down the corridors. Segways, also known as Human Transporters, were first made available in 2001, and are the first self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machines, using five gyroscopes and a built-in computer to stay upright. Besides high schools, over 600 tours worldwide use Segways as a sightseeing method.

During the 20-minute intro given to me by friendly Josh, a staffer of Segway of Healdsburg, I was equipped with a helmet and quickly lost my initial trepidation, smoothly doing figure 8’s around the parking lot on my “trusty steed,” named “Chardonnay.” We were individually coached on do’s and don’t’s, and with maximum speed of just 12.5 MPH, I felt safe, even visiting wineries. “NO taking pictures, no texting, no drinking water, and no overindulging!” Josh admonished me. He packed my camera and water bottle in the Segway’s strapped on bag, and advised me that we would be taking regular stops on the two hour tour to take photos.

Single file, feeling a bit like robots, we eased onto a country lane, passing vineyards and pretty farmhouses, with warm breezes on our faces and golden and olive green hills in the distance. “Lean forward a bit,” Josh called out, as we eased up the hill to Viszlay Vineyards,  a small father-and-daughter owned boutique operation, where we celebrated our arrival with a fine sparkling Prosecco (the only one in Sonoma County) and moved on to a Pinot Noir and a Zinfandel. Onward, we then Segwayed on to Limerick Lane to Christopher Creek Winery, just five minutes away, where we revelled in the gorgeous views of the Russian River Valley from the outdoor patio tasting area. Christopher Creek specializes in Rhone style wines produced from old vines, and we sipped on excellent Syrah, Petite Sirah, and my favourite, a sublime Port. After the two tastings, it was time to turn in the Segways, so I mounted “Chardonnay” and followed the group back to the parking lot where we did our last 360’s and figure 8’s.

vineyard dinner

a dinner at the Lambert vineyard

Healdsburg’s lush valleys are surrounded by Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, several of Northern California’s finest regional wine appellations. The Alexander Valley alone boasts over 13,000 acres of vineyards, 30 grape varieties, 28 wineries and over 200 independent farmers. Healdsburg’s area wineries focus on premium wines made from locally grown grapes. The centrally-located town, with just 11,000 or so residents, offers over 100 world class wineries and tasting rooms – many within walking distance of each other, as well as a dizzying array of fine dining choices. Bring clothing with some ‘give’ to it – you’ll need it here!

The next day, I decided to try a bicycle winery tour, with Wine Country Bikes. The company, which operates in both Sonoma and Napa Counties, features a variety of tour routes ranging from a few hours to full weeks, like new cycles, and very knowledgeable guides. This beautiful region was named one of the “Seven Greatest Rides on Earth” by Bicycling Magazine in 2013. On a sunny, crisp morning, we cycled on a quiet country road past an unlikely mix of eucalyptus, Madrona, Douglas fir, redwood and palm trees, as well as huge, lush camellia bushes and orange and Meyer lemon trees, bearing fruit. I was shocked to see a towering redwood nestling onto its neighboring palm tree – in this unique microclimate, there are many incongruities.

Our cycling group toured the biodynamic, organic Quivira Vineyard and Winery, tasting a sublime local smoked goat cheddar cheese accompanied by a hearty Zinfandel and a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, while touring the organic farm and perusing the heirloom chicken pens. A quick downhill sprint took us to Lambert Bridge Winery, a small, family-owned and operated winery with all grapepicking still done by hand (no waste, no brusing, they explained), Lambert Bridge’s female winemaker, Jennifer Higgins, showed her passion for her craft when describing her choices for our delectable wine-paired lunch. Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Lambert Bridge offers seated pairings replete with exquisite crystal goblets and sparkling china in its beautiful, majestic redwood barrel room, with several times available, by appointment. If you are lucky, (as I was) you might be offered the 2011 Chardonnay matched with butternut squash soup, swirled with crème fraiche and Tuscan olive oil. And that is just the first course!

more winetastings

and then some more winetasting…

There’s no end to the wineries and restaurants in Healdsburg, but I wanted to explore the town itself, with its many art galleries, upscale boutiques and jewelry stores, and lovingly restored homes on tree-lined streets. Here, I saw more of those towering palms, olive trees, orange and lemon trees and redwoods, flowers blooming and hummingbirds everywhere, along with strolling folks looking like they had not a care in the world – a rare sight these days. In Healdsburg’s plaza, reminiscent of times gone by, I saw people sitting on benches, just sitting, and gazing, and resting – and nary a cellphone in sight.

That afternoon, we visited Relish Culinary Adventures, which thrives in this ‘foodie’ area. Indeed, some say the “farm-to-table” movement was born in this northern California gastronomic paradise. Donna del Rey, owner of Relish, says the mushroom classes at this cooking school “always sell out,” and indeed, our class was full that day, with some 25 of us sorting, washing, trimming, sautéing, and finally, indulging in four types of mushrooms at a fabulous lunch spread, with even the dessert bread pudding made of maple-like Candy Cap mushrooms. Tragically, the typical mushroom foraging in the area has been curtailed by the current drought, which has plagued much of the entire state of California for several years. Thus, Relish had to purchase the mushrooms we used from another area, and while we were dismayed by the cancelled foraging, our taste buds still delighted in the feast.

wine at dinner

…and the day winds down with more wine!

If you hadn’t heard of Healdsburg before reading this, good for you – it’s still uncrowded and somewhat undiscovered. Beat the crowds in Napa and Mendocino, and head for this little small town. Whether by Segway, bicycle, on foot or by car, this is a vacation respite I want to visit again and again.

And by the way, despite the press reports you might have seen about the recent earthquake in the Sonoma region, everyone is open for business and awaiting your visit.

For more information about Healdsburg, click here



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