Northern California. What a wonderful place to visit. Food, wine, outdoors, and all within fair and easy reach from San Francisco. California wine country is vast and diverse. You have the most famous one, Napa Valley, its more quaint but equally great neighbor, Sonoma, and the many other dotting the entire state like Paso Robles in the Central Valley area.
I ventured to Healdsburg in November 2021 as I managed to snag a reservation at none other than SingleThread Farm and Restaurant. While that was certainly the main event, I came to discover Healdsburg and all it had to offer, and I must say, I am a fan.
Healdsburg is part of Sonoma County, and it is further north of downtown Sonoma/Santa Rosa. It is supposedly the new/next up and coming part of the greater Napa/ Sonoma wine country. And I can certainly see why. The tasting rooms/wineries/labels here are mostly all phenomenal and are for the most part small scale boutique wineries. One of the best parts? The wines and tastings are but a fraction of Napa’s astronomical prices, and you’re getting equally good wines, many of which are grown on similar if not the same vineyards as some big names over on the other side of the mountain. It is also home to a distillery, so if you get sick of wines, go on and sample whiskeys and gin and apple brandy. The town is quaint but vibrant. And it is one heck of a foodie mecca. It is home to SingleThread Restaurant, which I believe has helped put Healdsburg in the spotlight. But there are plenty of other delicious restaurants, cafes, bakeries and bars here. Furthermore, the weekend farmer’s market also offered up some great local eats. There is also a wide range of accommodation options here, most bed and breakfasts housed in 19th century homes. A handful of boutique hotels dot the downtown area, and for the biggest splurge available, the Montage Healdsburg resort.
Getting here is fairly simple. You can rent a car from any airport in the bay area and drive about 1.5-2 hours up from San Francisco International/ Oakland airport or a bit longer from San Jose. You can also fly into Santa Rosa Airport which lands you a quick 15 minute drive to Healdsburg. The other easy option if flying into San Francisco International is to book the Sonoma County Airport Express bus, the fare from SFO to Santa Rosa Airport is $39, free and reliable WiFi available onboard, and a restroom too. The journey, including all stops is around 2-2.5 hours. From there its an easy cab or Uber ride into Healdsburg.
Beverages: Wineries and Tasting Rooms
There are a lot of wineries north of Healdsburg. Many are well known such as Ridge, Jordan or Silver Oak. However, one of the neat things about Healdsburg are the many tasting rooms within downtown. Its great as you can just walk and drink your way through downtown without having to worry about driving or parking. Further most of the tasting rooms belong to boutique/small scale labels that work directly with farmers/vineyards, farm to bottle so to speak. There are a lot to choose from, and the list keeps growing as more open. Below are the ones I visited, some from reading multiple online lists, and some just wandering in for a walk-in.
Marine Layer Wines
Reservations highly recommended, I stumbled on this one as they had just recently opened during COVID and it was near their closing time but they were very accommodating to me as a solo traveler and let me do a tasting at the bar. This tasting room and label located in the heart of downtown is amazing. Not only is the tasting room very beautifully designed, the wines are very good and are a great value. They are truly a farm to bottle boutique winery as they work with a variety of vineyards and every release is different depending on which vineyard they worked with that year. $35 tasting gets you 5 pours, you can also book a charcuterie board. The staff here are friendly, as is everywhere in Healdsburg, and passionate and knowledgable. All around a fantastic tasting room. The chardonnays and Pinot Noirs produced here rival those of old-world classics from France’s Burgundy.
How about a tasting room inside an art gallery? Well that is what Grapeseed Wines is. Reservations recommended. A great experience. You are welcomed in with a glass of rose and are encouraged to start off by enjoying the gallery and its art work before being guided to your seat, or if like me you are there early enough you can choose, for the full tasting. I came just after they opened the new Moss Gallery tasting veranda, a beautiful space. The wines here are more of Italian varietals and winemaking methods. I would say the reds were the winners from this tasting room, and were very good, but not quite as good as Marine Layer, in my opinion. Highly recommend for not only good wine, but an enjoyable tasting experience in a not so conventional tasting setting.
Located just 5 minutes south of downtown Healdsburg is Aperture Cellars. One of the labels by winemaker Jesse Katz. If anything, come here for the beautiful architecture and incredible setting amongst the vineyards. But thankfully the wines are equally spectacular. Reservations required. The team here is also very fun and friendly and knowledgable. You really cannot go wrong with Jesse’s wines. Between the wines and the atmosphere, this would be my favorite one. Not a single wine is disappointing.
The Setting Wines
This tasting room opened after I had visited, located in the Bacchus Landing, a mall of tasting rooms so to speak, also 5 minutes drive outside of downtown. But I have had their wines and continue to order some. They also have the Setting Inn in Napa Valley. This is also a Jesse Katz label. Just like Aperture, you cannot go wrong with the wines here.
Alley 6 Distillery
While not wine, it still deserves mention as the liquors produced by Alley 6 are distilled from local wines and fruit (though the whiskey does not use local wheat). It is a small distillery run by a small team but they produce big stuff. Its on the northern end of downtown in the more industrial part of town, but easily walkable to or drivable. Walk-ins and reservations welcome. They produce gin (from local white wine), Whiskeys, and Pear or Apple Brandy (from local apples and pears). My favorite is their Apple brandy. I am just sad they arent allowed to ship outside of California.
This tasting room has great staff and wonderful backstory and a relaxed tasting room. Reservations are recommended as well. Their labels are also very cool in depicting the timeline of the grapes from planting to harvest to bottling. However, none of the wines I tasted were good in my opinion. But that could just be me, you might really like it!
Just off the main square is Burdock Bar. A fantastic spot for a meal with great cocktails, a nightcap or 2 or pre-dinner libations.
Food: Where and What to Eat
Food is equally a tough decision here in Healdsburg as you have so many options and there are plenty of lists out there. You have world class Michelin establishments, you have farmer’s markets, cafes, bakeries, grocery stores and more. Its hard to squeeze it all in, literally. I had a tough time deciding where to eat. But here is where I ended up. While I didnt get to go, I have read and heard that The Matheson as well as the Michelin starred Barndiva are both phenomenal restaurants to try.
Healdsburg Farmer’s Market
On Saturday morning I wandered through the Healdsburg farmer’s market. There are a few stalls selling ready to eat foods/ freshly made foods. I ended up going to one of the many baked goods stall for an Apple Danish that was wonderful. I also decided to have a house cured lox and everything bagel from Healdsburg Bagel Company, it was some fantastic lox. The farmer’s market is not big and is easy to walk through. There are a lot of local produce, cheese, chocolates, oils and more.
Quail & Condor bakery
Just at the fringes of downtown proper is Quail & Condor bakery. Come early or be prepared to wait in a relatively fast moving line. There are lot of pastries, sweet and savory, and cakes to choose from. I ended up going for Pumpkin Miso Muffin (amazing), pistachio croissant (just ok), mushroom danish (just ok). There is seating in their parking lot, or along the side of the shop as well as toilets for the public to use. Definitely worth checking out for those pumpkin miso muffins alone (likely a fall seasonal item).
Located across the street from SingleThread is Valette Restaurant. It is a rustic-chic restaurant serving up some delicious French inspired dishes from locally sourced Californian ingredients. And it has a incredible wine program as well. The menu is a la carte, but if you cannot decide, there is also a Chef’s “Trust Me” tasting menu, in which the chef will select at minimum 5 dishes from the menu and create it in a half portion size for you. Very smart move, and that is of course what I went with, it is $18/course. They also have wine pairing to go with it as their wine list is mind-boggling.
Warm bread and peppered butter
Tune poke with Kombu emulsion, and aged soy
Sweet corn, poblano pepper and prawn soup, this dish was impeccable. So refreshing and yet rich at the same time, but not salty and no one ingredient was overpowering at all.
Scallops, puff pastry, onions, caviar. Incredible dish as well. Albeit a tad salty, but still just so good.
The duck, which to be honest was mediocre at best
Amazing oreo “cookies and cream”
The wines of the night:
Where to Stay
As mentioned there are quite a few options in Healdsburg. Despite it over all being more affordable than Napa, the hotels here are mostly quite expensive. I would opt for AirBnB or the main bed and breakfasts in the historic 19th century homes. Apparently I visited during a wedding weekend so it was nearly impossible to find a room, but I managed to get one at the Calderwood Inn. It is nice, homey, housed in a 19th Century Victorian home. Tasty and filling breakfast. And nice public areas to lounge, read a book or have a glass of wine.
Well, there you have my quick guide, basically what I did, to Healdsburg. While most places are reservation recommended, they can on occasion still accommodate walk-ins, especially the tasting rooms. I cannot wait to return to Healdsburg to try more wines and taste more food.