NorCal Wine Country Recommendations

Friends often ask for recommendations on where to go and what to do when visiting wine country. Last week, for the first time in over a decade, I returned to Northern California Wine Country. Using Petaluma and Healdsburg as bases for exploration, old ground was covered and many new discoveries were made. With this recent experience, updating recommendations is in order. Following are some thoughts, mostly organized by town/area. Another piece will get into worthwhile extracurriculars in the area.

Healdsburg Plaza

Before getting into the particulars, a few things worth noting:

  • Reservations: For the most part, the days of dropping in on wineries for a quick visit/taste are over. Most wineries/tasting rooms now refer to tastings as "experiences" and require advance reservations.
  • Spendy: This is not a place for the budget-conscious; it's expensive. And by "it," I mean everything: wine tastings, accommodations, food (even in grocery stores,) services, etc. Generally speaking, the further north you go, the more rural it is and the less things cost.
  • More: If you enjoy getting out into nature, this area has abundant options when you've had enough of touring wineries. A follow up piece to this will make some specific recommendations.
  • Distances: Highway 101 runs like a spine through Sonoma county. Petaluma is the first city you hit when heading north, and it's about 45 minutes from San Francisco. Santa Rosa, the county seat, is another 20 minutes up, and Healdsburg is another 20 minutes beyond. From the Golden Gate bridge, you can make it all the way to Healdsburg in under an hour, depending on traffic.

Sonoma County, California
Napa Valley
Not surprisingly, when domestic travelers think of wine country vacations, they first think of Napa Valley. My advice is simple on this: Don't. Unless you happen to be traveling on someone else's generous account, or are in the tiny fraction of uber-wealthy people for whom $100 tastings, $400 lunches, and $900 hotel rooms are inconsequential, skip this overrated traffic jam of a hoity-toity place. Yes, exceptions to the rule (like Smith-Madrone and Vincent Arroyo) exist, but the overhead of getting in, around, and out of Napa is not nothing. Don't just take my word for it, Lettie Teague's piece in the Wall Street Journal expands on this.

Just west of Napa Valley is Sonoma Valley. Like its high-brow neighbor's namesake city, the city of Sonoma lies towards the southern end of the valley. Clustered around and beyond the neat town plaza are all kinds of things to see and do - and not just wine-related stuff, either. But for those inclined to get their grape juice on, there are a lot of wineries within easy striking distance of downtown in pretty much every direction. While not as eye-watteringly expensive as Napa, there are few bargains here. Within a 15 minute drive there is an incredible diversity of varietal competence on display, ranging from robust zins to world class cabernets to pinot noirs of heartbreaking intricacy. For a fun taste of throwback Sonoma, check out Gundlach Bundschu Winery. And to spend some time with a tiny production winemaker doing special things with Burgundian varieties, Blue Farm Wines is just a few miles south of town.

Old Vine at Ridge's Lytton Springs Winery
The southernmost of all the places listed here, this small city is on the banks of the Petaluma River (which feeds into San Pablo Bay,) so there's a bit of a working marina vibe to part of the town. Like Guerneville, Petaluma can hardly be called a wine town, but its proximity to Sonoma Valley and affordability make it worth considering. The charming historic downtown area is full of reasonably-priced indie retail and terrific restaurants, offering a wide variety of great shopping and eating without pretense. A handful of wineries have tasting rooms here, and Lagunitas Brewing is based here, too, but Crooked Goat Brewing is about as welcoming an environment (including to dogs and kids) as you could hope for. Also worth a stop is the smaller, but well-stocked Vine & Barrel wine shop/tapas bar, run by a fun-loving, hard-working proprietor who offers a terrific selection/recommendations without an ounce of snobbery.

On my first visit to this bucolic northern Sonoma town there were saddled horses tied up outside the coffee shop in the predawn darkness. That was 25 years ago. Today, this posh mecca epitomizes Sonoma wine country as much as the city of Sonoma itself, and is a mixture of hard-working locals and tourists who want to be seen spending and sipping ostentatiously. Though the horses are long gone, there's still a soul in this town, where real life continues just a couple of blocks from the plaza's glitzy storefronts. If you're looking an enchanting, pedestrian-friendly wine town with luxury shopping/amenities to please even the most discriminating traveler, Healdsburg has all that without Napa Valley's congestion. 

Sitting at the convergence of the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys, there's something for almost every wine drinker in Healdsburg. For walkable convenience, there are a couple of dozen tasting rooms downtown, but they can be formal-feeling. If it's authenticity you like, check out the cluster of small wineries (including Peterson, Amphora, Kokomo, and more) at the top of the driveway at 4791 Dry Creek Rd. Ridge's Lytton Springs winery isn't much further up the road for anyone wanting to make a rewarding pilgrimage to one of California's most respected producers. Bonus: some genius/fool has had the audacity to open Ciao Bruto, a wine shop half a block from the plaza selling organic/biodynamic French and Italian wines - highly recommended!

Just 15 minutes west of Santa Rosa and set amongst apple orchards, vineyards, and forested hills, this once hippy enclave has been discovered, but not yet overrun, by city folk. The newer and pedestrian-centric Barlow complex on the edge of town is a modern indie collection of retail, restaurants, tasting rooms, winery, brewery, distillery, cidery and more, and worthy of a leisurely afternoon of exploration. Though there are some well-known wineries in town, Region, a collective tasting room, showcases a couple dozen smaller Northern California wineries' products from self-serve dispensing machines. Many other wineries dot the winding roads outside town. This is less of a wine-saturated town than Healdsburg or Sonoma, but has plenty to offer wine-o's and non-enthusiasts alike.

One afternoon of wandering Healdsburg's chic retail had me longing to find wine country towns more like what Healdsburg and Sonoma were decades ago. This lead us to the town of Windsor, about 10 minutes south of Healdsburg. It was a disappointment. The so-called historic district is a contrivance of poor civic planning with a fa├žade that looks like much of Florida. Major construction in the town green is underway, and other arterial roads seem to be benefiting from redevelopment as well, but only time will tell if the town planners are able to stitch these things together in an appealing way. In the meantime, skip it.

The same search for character from a bygone era also took me to this one stop sign town that gentrification seems to have skipped - so far, anyway. A quick 10 minute drive north of Healdsburg, it has an elevated boardwalk fronting a handful of storefronts, resembling the western frontier town this likely was. (Try not to notice the garish casino marring the otherwise beautiful ridgeline across the Alexander Valley.) To call Geyserville sleepy is an understatement, but worth a quick visit, especially if/when the collective tasting room Locals reopens. 

Roughly a half hour's drive along windy vineyard roads west from either Santa Rosa or Healdsburg, this sleepy town on the banks of the Russian River retains its free spirit vibe, but is rapidly becoming discovered and gentrified. Surrounded by old growth redwoods and just down the street from the must-visit Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, you'll find a restaurants, watering holes, art galleries, coffee shops, thrift shops, and other old-timey shops on the two block long main drag. Not so much of a wine country town, but certainly worth the stop on your way to the woods or coast.

Further Afield:
Travelers willing to drive more should consider getting beyond Sonoma County where things are a lot more spread out, and the wine experience is more farm than fashion. Though less-known than Napa/Sonoma, wineries in Lake and Mendocino counties are turning out top-notch bottlings at a fraction of the prices of their southerly neighbors. The tradeoff here is that there are fewer cutesy towns and sights can be a bit of a drive to get to. Roads are windy and can challenge relationships if you're not on the same page road tripping.

Anderson Valley
An hour north of Healdsburg is the Anderson Valley and the town time forgot: Boonville. The rollercoaster drive along route 128 will take you through the Yorkville Highlands where organic/sustainable/biodynamic pioneers Yorkville Cellars are, as well as Meyer Family Vineyards, whose owners also co-founded Silver Oak in Napa. Both of these are worth a stop on the way into town. Boonville; small, casual, and unconcerned with polish, is a special place. Their weekly local newspaper's motto was "None rich, none poor, all happy," strongly hinting at the region's hippy heritage. There are a few restaurants and tasting rooms in town, anchored by the wonderful Boonville Hotel, where simplicity, comfort, and hospitality coexist with ease. Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which has been making craft beer since before the term was coined, is also here.

Most of the regions wineries dot the roadside a short drive further along 128 towards the coast. Here, some of California's best pinot noir is grown, as evidenced by the wine list at Disco Ranch. But Mendocino County also grows some incredible syrah, zin, petite sirah, and white wine grapes for those willing to experiment. As you head west, wine country quickly gives way to stands of redwoods, and beyond the hamlets of Philo and Navarro, the road meanders along Navarro River all the way to the craggy Pacific coastline.

Lake County
It might not be worth spending an entire wine-centric vacation here, but worth a day trip and just north of Napa County is the rural home to California's largest fresh water lake, Clear Lake.  The towns of Kelseyville and Clearlake might lack the bucolic nature of some of the places listed above, but are adjacent to the underrated Red Hills appellation, the source of some truly extraordinary cabernets. About an hour north of either Healdsburg or Calistoga, the drive is beautiful, but can be harrowing for passengers. Longtime winemaker Jed Steele set up shop here 30 years ago. Though he sold to Shannon Ridge in 2020, there are still some of his wines available and worth seeking out.