Healdsburg offers a luxurious fall escape

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday August 28, 2019
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Harvest season in Healdsburg brings vibrant fall colors. Photo: Courtesy Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau/Barbara Bourne
Harvest season in Healdsburg brings vibrant fall colors. Photo: Courtesy Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau/Barbara Bourne

Sonoma is one of my favorite getaways anytime of the year, but in the fall, wine country truly comes alive with the harvest and crush season.

The vines neatly lining the rolling hills between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east — that divide Sonoma and Napa valleys — are quite picturesque and awash with green, gold, and burnt red.

The landscape, with plump clusters of burgundy grapes peeking out from beneath the shade of the autumn leaves, charms, seduces, and takes your breath away. Even locals born and raised in the region, and long used to the pastoral setting, fall for Sonoma's natural beauty year after year.

Gay residents of Healdsburg gushed about the beauty of the wine town and Sonoma County.

A favorite thing for couples to do is simply go on a drive, or, if they are lucky enough to have a view of the vineyards from their backyard, sit and soak in the scenery.

"It's the prettiest time of the year," said Osvaldo "Ozzy" Jimenez, 32, a gay man who was born and raised in Santa Rosa, south of Healdsburg.

Jimenez co-owns Mustache Baked Goods (https://moustachebakedgoods.com) and Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar (https://thenoblefolk.com) with his business and life partner, Christian Sullberg, 31, who was born and raised in Healdsburg.

"Growing up here, my favorite time is just going out and checking out vineyards," said Jimenez. "You can just literally go on a drive in Dry Creek Valley and just see like rows and rows of peaceful autumn vineyards. It's just a really great time of the year."

Chris Kren-Mora said the countryside is beautiful.

"You can drive up and down from the north side to the south side and it's gorgeous," said Kren-Mora, 44, a gay Sonoma County native who's director of marketing and technology for Sonoma County LGBTQI Pride (www.sonomacountypride.org) and the Pinot on the River festival (http://pinotfestival.com).

Eric Hall, founder of Pinot on the River, said, "Sometimes, when I get back from out of town ... I don't know why I go anywhere."

Hall, a 58-year-old gay man, is owner and winemaker of Roadhouse Winery (www.roadhousewinery.com). He likes to simply sit outside his house overlooking his vineyards and the Dry Creek Valley.

"It's glorious," he said.

If beauty isn't enough to entice you to visit Healdsburg and Sonoma County, there are also an increasing number of LGBT people and queer-owned businesses located in towns throughout wine country.

Gary Saperstein, owner of Out in the Vineyard (http://www.outinthevineyard.com), said he believes Sonoma's LGBT community "is just blossoming."

"I see more and more LGBT people moving up to Sonoma County," said the 59-year-old gay man who is originally from New York but has claimed Sonoma as his home for 24 years. "I think it's really amazing."

These are all good reasons to head to Healdsburg, the heart of Sonoma's wine region. Hall calls Dry Creek Valley "Rodeo Drive," as it has nearly 50 of some of the best wineries to visit, including his own and its newly opened tasting room.

Another wine tasting route near Healdsburg is the Alexander Valley, which offers 30 wineries to explore, according to Wine Road (http://www.wineroad.com), the area's wine association.

An emerging destination is Westside Road, with nearly 20 wineries listed on the Westside Road Wineries Association's website. (http://www.westsideroadwineries.com)

Saperstein said that taking a casual road trip is the best way to enjoy the scenery and discover a variety of wineries.

"You can just go driving along these one-lane roads and there are all these small little wineries that most people have never even heard of and I love that. I absolutely love that," he said.

Overall, Sonoma boasts of 254 wineries derived from 17 designated American Viniculture Areas, the latest being the Fountaingrove District named earlier this year.

The region continues to recover from the wildfires during the past two years that have caused a drop in visitors, Hall noted, but wine country is rebounding.

It doesn't take much to convince my girlfriend and I to pack up the car and escape Silicon Valley and head north on Highway 101, which we do several times a year.

"Every region in Sonoma County has something to offer that's different than the other [regions]," said Saperstein. However, Healdsburg, he added, "stands out."

"Healdsburg definitely has that upscale luxury or hip kind of vibe to it than other communities here in Sonoma County," he said.

There are also a growing number of gay-owned businesses around the square in town, including the gay-owned Kobler Estate Winery (https://koblerestatewinery.com) and the aforementioned Roadhouse Winery, Mustache, and Noble Folk.

Jimenez and Sullberg recently expanded Noble Folk, opening a store on the square in Santa Rosa. They are proud of the fact that their team is made up of talented mostly queer and nonbinary-identified people, Jimenez said.

For the first time this year, their Healdsburg businesses raised rainbow flags for Pride Month in June and haven't taken them down.

"We've never really flown a Pride flag outside of our business, but we did this year and they are staying up," said Jimenez, who added that when he and his partner were growing up, they did not see positively reaffirming LGBTQ imagery in the area.

I definitely see the change. Not that LGBT people haven't been welcomed and embraced in Sonoma, as Saperstein pointed out to me, but community members are welcomed everywhere in wine country. Healdsburg is a great destination for queer travelers.

Earlier this year, I ventured out on a solo journey to Healdsburg to discover what was new in the wine town.

Roadhouse Winery owner and Pinot on the River founder Eric Hall examines clusters of pinot grapes to be crafted into fine wine. Photo: Courtesy Roadhouse Winery/Brian Watson  

Where to eat and sip
Food is the perfect pairing with wine. Healdsburg's wine scene has been stellar for quite some time and, now, the foodie scene is heating up, too.

"They have a great culinary scene going on up there, no doubt about that, they really do," Saperstein told me. "Their dining scene is really just phenomenal."

The plaza in Healdsburg offers travelers a sampling of what they can find venturing out along the wine country roads, with about 20 wine tasting rooms. Another 11 new wine tasting rooms are located not far from the town's center at the Old Roma Station and are within walking distance of each other.

More than 30 restaurants also line the square and surrounding streets.

Earlier this year, Healdsburg got its first Michelin 3-star restaurant, SingleThread Farm Restaurant and Inn (http://www.singlethreadfarms.com), which I noted to check out with my girlfriend on another trip.

For a long time the Michelin honor was held by the Madrona Manor (www.madronamanor.com/healdsburg-restaurant), which consistently received a 1-star rating from 2008 to 2017.

Two restaurants have received Michelin Bib Gourmand stars: Bravas Bar de Tapas (https://starkrestaurants.com/stark-restaurant/bravas-bar-de-tapas), which I've visited, and Chalkboard (www.chalkboardhealdsburg.com), which I haven't tried yet.

Bib Gourmand stars are reserved for smaller, local favorite eateries that offer a good value.

Michelin rated or not, overall, Healdsburg and Sonoma are a foodies' paradise.

To get a sampling of Healdsburg's gastronomical scene, I joined Savor Healdsburg Food Tours (https://savorhealdsburgfoodtours.com) as a guest for a morning of restaurant hopping. The tour stopped in some of my favorite dining spots around the square, but I was also introduced to some new places, such as Journeyman Meat Company. (https://journeymanmeat.com)

The meat company was founded by members of the Seghesio Family Vineyards (http://www.seghesio.com), which has been rooted in Healdsburg since 1886. The technique of curing the fine artesian salumi, sausages, and cured meat sold at the shop was learned from the masters in Italy and brought back to California. The meats are incredibly delicious, especially when paired with a new line of wines that have the Seghesio signature craftsmanship.

I also enjoyed the chef specialty, Dungeness crab cioppino, which was messy deliciousness with fat, sweet crab and other seafood, as a guest of Spoonbar (https://spoonbar.com) at the trendy h2 hotel (https://h2hotel.com) on the plaza.

On the other side of the square, I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out a highly unique Japanese tea house, the Taste of Tea (http://thetasteoftea.com). The tea lounge offers guests unique teas from Japan, China, and Taiwan and tea therapy in its intimate spa. There is also a Japanese menu that includes a variety of gourmet ramen and a selection of sake and sake cocktails.

What to do
Certainly, eating and drinking around the plaza offers plenty to do during a weekend getaway to Healdsburg, but Sonoma County offers a wide variety of events year-round, especially during harvest season.

In the fall, pinot lovers gather for the Pinot on the River festival, now in its 16th year and at a new location.

More than 1,000 pinot noir lovers and their friends come out annually to the one-day event to taste and enjoy more than 50 wineries celebrating the grape varietal, along with a variety of food vendors, said Hall.

This year the event is Saturday, October 5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square.

The spacious new location will allow for more people, including children and pets, than its previous location, he said. Hall hopes that the easy access to the event, the larger venue, and making Sonoma County LGBTQI Pride the main beneficiary organization will inspire more people to come and experience the wine tasting event.

"It's like a big block party really ... where you get a chance to try a lot of very fine wine and there are a lot of food options there too, so it's a very pleasant day," said Hall, a fan of pinot noir long before the movie "Sideways" popularized the grape 15 years ago.

The cherished varietal and the movie inspired not only his winery after he escaped the hustle and bustle of San Francisco's dot-com boom in 2000, but to launch Pinot on the River.

"This is a nice way to shake it up a little bit and expose some new people to our beautiful area and the wines we make up here," Hall said. "Pinot remains popular."

The move from Healdsburg to Santa Rosa has received a positive response, said Kren-Mora, who has worked with Roadhouse Winery sponsoring smaller events for Pride.

Early bird tickets to the event are $50 per person (https://bit.ly/2Hk642Y) and on sale until September 15.

Gay cowboy David Lawson races around barrels at the Best Buck in the Bay rodeo. Photo: Courtesy Bay Area Rodeo/Lisa Gray  

Gay rodeo, Women's Weekend
Wine is a big draw for LGBT oenophiles and their families, but there's also the Best Buck in the Bay gay rodeo, happening September 13-15 at Duncans Mills in the Russian River Valley.
The all-volunteer three-day rodeo, now in its 28th year, is an all-inclusive event produced by the Bay Area Rodeo (http://bayarearodeo.com), one of two chapters in California's Golden State Gay Rodeo Association.

Up to 850 spectators typically come out to watch dozens of contestants demonstrate their skills with lassos, riding horses, "tackling bulls," and other traditional animal-friendly rodeo events on Saturday and Sunday, said Bruce "Grumpy" Roby, rodeo director of the Bay Area chapter of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. It costs about $60,000 to produce the event, which raises money for charity.

This year's community organization hasn't been selected yet, he said.

"The rodeo is very family-friendly," said Roby, adding that the full rodeo happens on both days so you won't miss anything if you decide to go wine tasting on one of the days. "It is really a great time for the weekend. It's a beautiful part of the country."

The 59-year old gay man, who has been a part of the rodeo for 22 years, added that there's also a country western dance party under the stars Saturday night.

This year's event will be unique because contestants from across the United States will be competing for prize money and buckles due to several states not hosting rodeos this year, said Roby. Even the judges are coming from as far away as Washington, D.C. and other states to score and award the prizes to rodeo winners, he explained.

"It's going to be quite a great experience," he said, listing states where contestants will be traveling from, such as Illinois and Texas, to compete.

"There's going to be a lot of good competition, with some of the Texas horse riders and rough stock riders coming to California," he noted.

Tickets are $10 per day Saturday and Sunday. Children under 12 years of age get in free.

The following weekend, women will take over Guerneville for the 39th annual Women's Weekend Russian River (http://www.womensweekendrussianriver.com) at the R3 Resort, September 20-22. Tickets are $60. (http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4070866)

At Christmastime the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will perform its annual concert at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University (https://gmc.sonoma.edu/sfgmc/) on December 15. Tickets are $25 to $85.

Staying in the luxury of Healdsburg and attending events in Guerneville or Santa Rosa is only a short 20- to 30-minute drive to each town.

Where to sleep
Depending on your taste and purpose of your adventure in Healdsburg you can find the perfect accommodation to make your trip to wine country memorable.

Each hotel where I was a guest or toured is unique, from artsy to sleek minimalism to high-tech to classic to modern wine country. Most of these hotels were either on the square or a block off of the square with one exception — the Honor Mansion.

For a classic luxury romantic getaway, I suggest Hotel Healdsburg (www.hotelhealdsburg.com) and Honor Mansion (www.honormansion.com) with its cabins and suites that include a backyard hot tub and sitting area to relax and enjoy with a glass of wine. For a more modern luxury romantic escape, the Duchamp Hotel (www.duchamphotel.com) and the recently opened Harmon Guest House (https://harmonguesthouse.com) are excellent options.

For a simple getaway with the gang, the Duchamp Hotel, Harmon Guest House, and the aforementioned h2 hotel offer suites that can accommodate small groups and families right in the heart of the action in Healdsburg.

Healdsburg made it easy to create your perfect visit to the town with Stay Healdsburg (http://www.stayhealdsburg.com), which was launched in the spring.

Getting there
Healdsburg is conveniently located off of Highway 101 and is an easy drive. It's about an hour and 15 minutes from San Francisco and Oakland and nearly two hours from San Jose.