The wine starts flowing the moment you arrive.
Take a look at the California wine country map and you’ll notice that Napa and Sonoma County aren’t all that far apart. But geography can be misleading: These two regions, though both home to world-class tourism and countless award-winning wines, have a tendency to feel rather different. All you have to do is watch a handful of wine country movies—or, even better, visit personally—to see the divergence in aesthetic. What they share, however, is a focus on the kind of hospitality and warmth that make everyone, from passionate oenophiles to casual wine drinkers, feel thoroughly at home. The only problem, really, with a Sonoma County wine country California vacation package, or just a self-styled stay of a few days, is that you may never want to leave.
During a recent trip to Sonoma County, we decided to start our wine-focused activities right away…even before we got to wine country. Our flight from the East Coast landed in San Francisco around 7:30 in the evening, and rather than make the slightly less than two-hour drive from the airport to Healdsburg, we checked into the Palace Hotel downtown before dinner at Zuni Cafe, which recently celebrated its 40th birthday. (Order the roast chicken—it’s miraculous!) Good thing we did: The old-school glamour of the iconic hotel—it dates back to 1909, and the Prohibition-era artifacts on display downstairs are fascinating—dovetails brilliantly with its stunning 2015 renovation. The sprawling, elegant suite 738 was exactly what we needed after the cross-country flight, and dungeness crab eggs benedict the next morning fortified us for the day of tasting ahead. The Palace Hotel was a pitch-perfect introduction to the kind of hospitality that California wine country is famous for…even before we got there.
Once we did, we were, as always, absolutely won over by the infinite variety of wine experiences that the region has to offer. Set up an appointment to visit Jamie Kutch in Sonoma, where his range of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays have earned cult status—they are, in my opinion, some of the best around, and his winery offers an intimate look at how meticulously sourced fruit can be transformed into wine that will lodge itself in your memory for a long time to come. Or simply drive along Westside Road and stop into whichever of the wineries are open that day to the public without prior reservations.
The Duchamp Healdsburg (421 Foss St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-1300): Unlike many wine-country properties, The Duchamp is located in town—in this case, a mere two blocks from the town plaza in Healdsburg. The advantages are clear: All of the town’s great restaurants are within walking distance—cocktails and a wine-soaked dinner, for example, takes on a whole new meaning when you can simply walk back to your accommodations—but heading out of town for a day of tasting is easy. The Duchamp also offers several other suites around town, including the 1,100 square foot, arch-ceilinged Urban Luxe Loft above the Paul Mahder Gallery. It’s a totally unique way to experience Sonoma.
Farmhouse Inn (7871 River Rd., Forestville, CA 95436; (707) 887-3300): Food is such an integral part of the Farmhouse Inn experience that it even forms the basis of their spa treatments: Produce from the grounds are utilized in inventive ways at what the team here calls its “farm-to-table spa.” Happily, there’s also plenty of opportunity to actually eat some of those magnificent ingredients: The restaurant, overseen by Chef Steve Litke, has a Michelin star and a menu whose global influences can be seen in such dishes as grilled octopus with red quinoa and an ‘nduja vinaigrette, and kombu-cured ahi tuna. The wine program, while Sonoma-centric, is just as worldly.
Hotel Healdsburg (25 Matheson St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-2800): Just to the west of the town plaza in downtown Healdsburg is the Hotel Healdsburg, a visitors’ favorite since 2001. Like so many of the best places to stay in Sonoma, this one also takes a deep sense of pride in incorporating the work of local artists and artisans into the overall decor. Paintings, bed frames, and ceramics are all produced by locals, rooms and suites come with Frette bathrobes, and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen is located within the hotel.
Hotel Les Mars (27 North St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 433-4211): This Relais & Chateau property offers up a phenomenal range of wine-focused activities for guests. Because of their relationships with a number of local wineries, visitors staying at the hotel receive complimentary tastings and other goodies at Chalk Hill, Kuleto, Sebastiani, and more. While not galavanting around Sonoma, it may be difficult to leave whichever of the 16 rooms you’re staying in: With a cozy Parisian aesthetic and antique touches throughout, this is an Old World classic right in the heart of the New World’s wine country.
Madrona Manor (1001 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 433-4231): The manor itself has been in this location since 1881, and a hundred years later, The Mansion, as it’s known, began welcoming guests. Since then, the eight-acre property—including its eponymous one-Michelin-star restaurant, which leverages produce from the gardens on-site—has become a go-to for quintessentially Sonoma relaxation. Rooms and suites are divided among several buildings, including the historic mansion, the carriage house, the suites in the converted 1920s school house, and more. For a totally unexpected treat, make sure to stay on a Wednesday night, when Chef Jesse Mallgren offers a three-course fried-chicken dinner for just $29 per person.
Barndiva (231 Center St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-0100): There’s a range of experiences you can have at Barndiva, from cocktail-centered to wine bar to the kind of restaurant whose dishes lodge in the memory with their creativity and exuberance. Roasted cauliflower soup is accompanied by fried capers, poached apricot, and sage; duck leg confit is complicated by apple marmalade, heirloom beans, and smoked bacon. You can also eat in Studio Barndiva, which changes up its usual menu on Sundays for The Gallery Country Supper prix fixe menu ($39, with the wine pairing an additional $35).
Jordan (1474 Alexander Valley Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (800) 654-1213): This Alexander Valley favorite has been making benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay since their first vintage in 1976. The wine is as elegant and age-worthy as ever, and the range of options that visitors have (by appointment only) is among the best in all of wine country. In addition to a classic and thorough winery tour and tasting offered year-round, as well as a library tasting with pairings, the popular “Estate Tour & Tasting” takes guests on a culinary excursion across their sprawling 1,200-acre property, with four stops along the way, all ending with a grand finale food pairing offered on plates crafted by NBC Pottery of Napa Valley from the winery's own garden soils. (May to October, Thursday to Monday, $125 per person.) Starting weekends in June, the “Chateau Block Vineyard Tasting” will take guests on a guided outdoor tasting in the newly planted six-acre vineyard next to the chateau. It will include a Chardonnay, three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, and charcuterie by neighboring Journeyman Meat Co., the flavors of which were the result of a collaboration between Jordan’s Chef Todd Knoll and Journeyman’s proprietor Pete Seghesio. ($75 per person; reservations accepted in April.) For a more restaurant-like experience in the just-remodeled dining room, private tables for food-and-wine pairings can be booked as part of Jordan’s rewards program, and reservations are open to the public for the annual seven-course winemakers dinner in May. ($295 per person; tickets go on sale April 2.)
Single Thread (131 North St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 723-4646): The awards only tell part of the story. Three Michelin stars, “one to watch” according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, four stars in the San Francisco Chronicle…all of those accolades only partially convey the depth of what Chef Kyle Connaughton is doing. The lavish platings are enough to make you want to return, but it’s the flavors, many of them built on ingredients grown by his wife, Katina, that will likely stay with you.
Spoonbar (219 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 433-7222): The food at this Healdsburg hotspot is generating some solid buzz, but it’s the cocktails that might be most necessary after a day of wine-tasting. What could be better after parsing the fine-point differences between Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs than a cocktail like ‘Bedposts’ (Michter’s whiskey, orange liqueur, and smoked black tea) or the rejuvenating properties of the ‘Tall, Dark & Handsome’ (Nikka Coffey Grain whiskey, espresso liqueur, amaretto, and club soda)? Whatever you order here, chances are you’ll end up staying a lot longer than you initially expected.
Valette (344 Center St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 473-0946): The first time I ate dinner at Valette, the father of Chef Dustin Valette and General Manager Aaron Garzini—the two brothers who co-own the restaurant—was working the dining room, charming everyone with stories of his life. Valette is that kind of place: Intimate and warm, always comfortable…and underpinned by a laser-like focus on coaxing the best from the stellar ingredients they work with. The deep creativity here is built on a scaffolding of impeccable technique, and the results are phenomenal. From the cocktails and the wine list to the menu itself—just go with the ‘Trust Me’ Tasting Menu; it’s $15 per course with a minimum of five courses—you’ll leave deeply satisfied in every sense of the word. And whatever you do, make sure to order the scallops en croute, preferably with a glass of Champagne. (Note: They also recently purchased a building down the street that, in the next two years, will be turned into another restaurant, The Matheson; this is clearly a team with big plans, and the skills and vision to pull them off.)