COUNTY, Calif. There are no grapevines growing in the
grassy, tree-shaded plaza in downtown Healdsburg. Instead, the
heady scent of Southern magnolias wafts through the air.
Even so, it doesn't take long to realize
that wine is a way of life here.
Take Bistro Ralph, a tiny storefront
restaurant on the north side of the plaza. A couple of long, wall-mounted
shelves traverse the dining room and serve as Ralph's decor, and
its open-air wine cellar. They bend under the weight of hundreds
of bottles of wine, virtually every one produced within 40
miles of here. At every table, a bottle or two is in evidence,
and if you listen hard enough to catch a few snatches of conversation,
the topic, inevitably, turns to wine.
The talk may be fairly simple, or it
may be highly technical. The talkers may be tourists or, just
as likely, winemakers and grape-growers from nearby vineyards.
After all, three of the most famous wine appelations in the United
States meet virtually outside Bistro Ralph's front door. It is
here that the Alexander Valley, the Russian River and the Dry
Creek Valley, certainly Sonoma's most famous appelations, come
This is the beauty of a wine country
vacation. You can immerse yourself as deeply as you want in the
culture of wine. Without much effort, you can find someone to
talk to about "dropping fruit," or "malolactic
fermentation," or what makes a "soft tannin," or
exactly how the trees are chosen and cut by French coopers to
make oak barrels that may sell for $800 apiece.
It seems that most everyone is here for,
or because of, wine. Whether it's growing, producing, selling,
distributing, barrel-making, or just plain enjoying, wine is the
tie that binds in Napa and Sonoma counties.
That makes it a tourist's paradise
as long as you're interested in wine. But you don't have to be
a connoisseur or even much of an aficionado to have a good time
here. The scenery is just as beautiful and the winery tours almost
as interesting even if you don't drink at all.
What sounds more appealing than a leisurely
drive along scenic, tree-shaded highways with frequent stops to
tour some of the most beautiful chateaus you can imagine? Top
it off with a picnic under an arbor in a fabulous vineyard and
dinner at a fine restaurant and you have the makings of a wonderful
But where to go? On a map, the California
wine country looks as if it can be easily traversed in a day.
I suppose it can be, but a well-planned vacation will make a great
deal of difference in how much time you spend traveling and how
much time you spend enjoying yourself.
The first thing to decide is which part
of the wine country interests you the most, and the best way to
make that decision is to consider which types of wines you enjoy
If your primary passion is red wines,
especially big, bold cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels, then
the Napa Valley is for you. If you prefer white wines such as
chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, your best bet is to head for northern
Sonoma County where the Healdsburg area produces some of the finest
white wines in the world. For fine champagne and lighter red wines
such as pinot noir, the Carneros district, an area that traverses
parts of Napa and Sonoma counties at the southern end of the wine
country, is the place to be.
If all that seems too confusing, you
can base your decision on the pace of life.
The Napa Valley is busier, more bustling,
more of a tourist destination than is Sonoma. That means you're
more likely to fight the crowds, both on the roads and for winery
tours, in Napa. You also will usually have to pay a small fee
of $3 to $5 to taste the wines at each winery.
Sonoma County is more laid back than
Napa. Very few wineries charge for tastings, traffic is lighter,
prices are lower for lodging and food, and the traffic is easier
to deal with. Sonoma, say frequent visitors to the wine country,
is what Napa was like 20 years ago. Whether you plan to visit
Sonoma or Napa, advance room reservations are suggested during
the busy summer months, particularly on weekends.
My favorite is northern Sonoma County.
Healdsburg is a delightful little town of 7,500 on U.S. 101about
two hours' drive north of San Francisco. It's not a tourist trap.
Instead, it's sort of a living replica of the thousands of small
towns we all knew in the 1950s and '60s. The grassy, tree-shaded
town square is a gathering place for everyone, and on Sunday afternoons
all summer long there are free concerts frequented by locals and
The pace of life in Healdsburg is calm
and collected, and there is a wide range of accommodations to
suit most tastes and pocketbooks. You can choose from bed-and-breakfast
inns in various price ranges, or find a cozy room at the local
Best Western motel. The restaurant choices are similarly varied
in price and quality, and there's even a local micro brewery.
Best of all, Healdsburg is centrally located, meaning that some
70 wineries are within a 30-minute drive. You don't even have
to leave town to sample local wines. Kendall-Jackson has a tasting
room just steps from the plaza.
If it's Napa you crave, St. Helena (pronounced
St. HelEEna) and Calistoga are the best choices for your headquarters.
Both are in the 4,000 to 5,000 population range and are on California
29 about 70 miles north of San Francisco.
St. Helena is more centrally located
(and I think more quaint), but Calistoga offers hot springs and
mud baths for those who are so inclined. Each has plenty of places
to stay, but St. Helena and the towns to the south of it, Rutherford
and Oakville, have a wider range of restaurants and eateries than
What gives St. Helena its special ambiance
is the warmth of the sun-baked stone buildings along Main Street
downtown. Some of them date from the 1870s, and they give the
town a feeling that Calistoga can't match for me.
When you visit Napa Valley, be sure to
get off the beaten path that is California 29, the well-traveled
highway from Napa to Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga.
Another highway runs down the east side of the valley, the Silverado
Trail, and it's far more scenic and less crowded than the main
road up the valley floor. Several "crossovers" are available
as you head up the valley.
Wherever you go in Napa or Sonoma, dress
is casual except in the finest restaurants, and the summertime
weather is likely to be warm during the day and cool at night.
It is the cooling, early morning fog that rolls northward from
San Francisco Bay that gives the wine country its special, grape-growing
climate. Therefore, a jacket or sweater is a good idea for evening
and early morning outings.
Winery tours usually are free in both
Napa and Sonoma, and most vineyards are open to the public at
least from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. Many of the Napa wineries
now charge a few dollars for tastings, but few do in Sonoma. You
generally do not have to take a tour to taste wines in the tasting
rooms, but many of the wineries are fascinating to tour. Be sure
to see at least one facility with caves for wine storage. Beringer
in St. Helena is an excellent choice for this.
Jean Miller of Dry Creek Vineyards
demonstrates how grapes form on the vines.
Many wineries allow picnics on their beautiful, landscaped grounds,
and virtually all of them will be delighted to sell you a bottle
or more of their wines for your picnic or to take home.
Thanks to the Florida Legislature,
however, wineries cannot and will not ship wine
to Florida residents. It is a felony punishable by a year in
jail and a $5,000 fine. This means you can't join the wine clubs
that many wineries sponsor, offering to ship a couple of bottles
a month at very reasonable prices. But there is no law to prevent
Florida residents from shipping wine to themselves. If you find
wines you want to buy, snap them up and stop off to ship them
to yourself in the cities of Napa or Sonoma on your way back
to the airport. At least a dozen other states have similar laws,
so check before you travel.
David Carlson is a wine lover, food writer and director of
the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida's College
of Journalism and Communications. This story was published June
22, 1997 in the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun