Talking Travel Rediscovering America Kay Harwell Fernandez California Wine Country Healdsburg

Photo courtesy of the Healdsburg Visitors Bureau


California Wine Country: Healdsburg, the Heart of Sonoma
by Kay Harwell Fernandez

In rural America, you generally don’t come across barrels and barrels of wine. But, here in Sonoma County, California, it’s classic wine country and has been for more than 200 years.


Healdsburg Visitors Bureau

Honor Mansion, Healdsburg, CA

Healdsburg Visitors Bureau

For More Information:

You can arrange for a shuttle or rent a car at either the San Francisco or Oakland airport. Healdsburg is about 70 miles north of San Francisco off US Hwy. 101.

Sonoma County Visitors Bureau
(800) 576-6662

Healdsburg Visitors Bureau
(800) 648-9922

Russian River Wine Road
(800) 723-6336

The Honor Mansion
(800) 554-4667
(707) 433-4277

Seghesio Family Vineyards
(866) 734-4374
(707) 433-3579

Armida Winery
(707) 433-2222

Ferrari-Carano Winery & Gardens
(707) 433-6700

Alderbrook Vineyards & Winery
(707) 433-5987

Sonoma Valley Film Festival


Less commercial than its Napa Valley cousin, Sonoma’s recipe for bucolic charm includes a bit of the bohemian, a dash of quirkiness, and a genuine “Hi neighbor!” feel. With 200 wineries countywide added to the mix, it makes for an accessible and pleasurable getaway, especially for oenophiles.

Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards, the county, which begins 35 miles north of San Francisco, is dotted with sleepy villages and two-lane roads. In the heart of Sonoma, you’ll find historic Healdsburg with a population of about 10,000. According to archaeologists, the town sits atop a site that’s nearly 12,000 years old. Some of the first inhabitants were the Pomo Indians.

A wave of explorers hit the area more than 150 years ago, and the earliest settlers were likely failed gold miners. Most came to farm the rich agricultural land along the Russian River and its tributary Dry Creek; others became businessmen. Among them was entrepreneur Harmon Heald, for whom the town earned its name in 1857.

Heald laid out the town grid, and today’s square, or The Plaza as the locals call it, gives Healdsburg the nod as a quintessential small town. Shaded by palm trees, The Plaza serves as the center of the community, hosting special events throughout the year such as the Zucchini Festival and Guitar Festival in August. Summertime brings outdoor concerts of jazz, big band, R&B, Cajun and Latin music. It’s also the ideal spot for cookouts and picnics.

Around The Plaza and off its side streets, you’ll find an eclectic grouping of organic food places, cafes, bookstores, quaint shops, and antique and fine art galleries. Don’t be surprised when merchants standing in their doorways give a friendly wave or a welcoming hello. They’re not soliciting business, but are just being small-town genial.

Walk a couple of blocks to the Healdsburg History Museum, now housed in the former Carnegie Library, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, you can trace the town’s history from its Native American heritage to today’s wine growers who still find the climate ideal for producing grapes.

Healdburg’s Regional Library shares space with the Sonoma County Wine Library. Everything you ever wanted to know about local wines, including the people who grow the grapes, can be found here. It’s free and open to the public.

Visiting the lush vineyards and wineries enhances the Healdsburg experience. Harvest time between August and October brings the crowds. Some wineries encourage you to picnic on their grounds or browse through their shops for wine-related or gourmet items. Most either offer free tastings or charge a nominal fee, and a few of them give tours. No one rushes you out. Just like the rest of the county, the pace is relaxed and inviting. Whether you are a novice or a connoisseur, you’ll have ample time to learn about each wine and the grape varietals. Winemakers, often coming from generations of growers, enthusiastically share their knowledge.

Take your pick from the larger, decades-old wineries to the smaller Mom and Pop operations. Here’s a sampling:

The Seghesio family planted their first zinfandel vineyard in 1895; today, they boast 400 acres of vineyards with eight third and fourth generation Seghesios managing the operation. A recent vintage produced 70,000 cases of eight different wines.

Alderbrook Vineyards & Winery grows its varietals on 65 acres, producing a wide variety of wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Port. During the last three years, Alderbrook has been honored with more than 200 medals. Here, guests are welcome to bring their lunch baskets—and hopefully a bottle of wine—onto the verandah that overlooks the vineyards.

The newer and modest Armida Winery had its first crush in the fall of 1990, but it has been racking up gold, silver, and bronze medals ever since. Three years ago, the winery had its first harvest of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards.

A look at the palatial estate and gardens of Ferrari-Carano is worth the stop itself. But the wine label is renown around the globe with consistent Wine Spectator ratings of 90 and above. From outward appearances, you’d think this is a generations-old vineyard and winery. However, Nevada hoteliers Don and Rhonda Carano founded it in 1981. As second-generation Italian-Americans, they appreciated the pastoral beauty of Sonoma County and its resemblance to Tuscany.

Their vision carried through with Villa Fiore (house of flowers), which celebrated its formal opening in 1997. It lives up to its name with five acres of sculptured gardens, replete with fountains, gazebos, pathways to meander and a rainbow of roses, tulips, daffodils, camellias, dogwood and flowering plum trees. One half of the Villa features a wine shop and tasting room, and a vaulted, temperature-controlled room to showcase Ferrari-Carano specialty wines. The other part is for private use. An outdoor kitchen is the focal point of the winery’s classic chef series. Today, the Caranos own more than 2500 acres in Sonoma, nearly half of which are planted in 17 different vineyards.

Although it’s easier to go winery hopping by car, you can safely bike throughout the picturesque countryside just as the locals do. Bicycle rentals are readily available, as are biking tours. Remember that Sonoma County stretches to the scenic and rugged Pacific coastline, and offers an abundance of nature-appreciating activities.

If you want to see a panoramic view of the vineyards, take flight in a hot air balloon that gently glides over the county.

True to Sonoma’s agricultural roots, you will see — whether by car, balloon or bike — pastureland for cows and sheep, and orchards and gardens chock full of produce that’s often organic. These fresh fruits and vegetables make their way to the numerous exceptional dining establishments found in Healdsburg and throughout Sonoma County. (Wine and fine dining are synonymous.)

Springtime in Sonomais lovely, and an excellent time to visit is during the 10th Annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival April 11-15, 2007. Screening some 75 new independent films, this cinemafest blends seminars, film showings at different venues and winery tours. It was named one of America’s Top Ten Best Vacation Film Festivals. The film celebration even boasts an official sommelier, Christopher Sawyer, who pairs top local wines with each movie’s genre, such as comedy, drama, or suspense.

If you are seeking a romantic or serene getaway, choose one of the B&Bs, such as the historic Honor Mansion. Built in 1883 in the Italianate Victorian style, this luxury inn has been named one of the Top Ten Romantic Inns by American Historic Inns. In the comfort and intimacy of its 13 rooms and suites, you can take advantage of amenities that you would find in a much larger wine country resort but in a much more personalized environment. You’ll enjoy being pampered with yummy gourmet breakfasts, feather beds, private Jacuzzis, tennis and basketball courts, full croquet lawn, a classical rose garden, outdoor spa pavilions, delicious homemade cookies and, of course, local wines. All this in an establishment that is quite authentic and unpretentious.

And for teetotalers, Sonoma County offers something for everyone. You too will enjoy America’s Tuscany.