HEALDSBURG, Calif. — Winemakers who practice their art near this northern Sonoma County outpost aren't the only ones who wrestle with maintaining a sense of taste, charm and authenticity these days. Anyone who lives here or who has visited regularly over the past few years can see the change during every stroll downtown.
Just north of the central plaza, where an auto parts store once stood, is a year-old hotel that charges $525 to $1,025 a night, resembles a French chateau and is adorned with a 17th-century Flemish tapestry and 18th-century armoires. It's called Les Mars, and the otherworldly allusion is fitting. Adjoining it is Cyrus, a sumptuous year-old restaurant offering caviar service, $80 tasting menus and ice cubes customized for particular brands of bourbon.
Nestled on a quiet street to the east is Barndiva, a bistro housed in a faux barn that aspires to big-city hipness with an artsy décor, $12 cocktails made with organic juices and menu categories labeled "spicy passionate," "comfort soothing" and "light clean."
And all around the center of this town of 11,000, interspersed with shops selling antiques and fabrics from the Ralph Lauren Collection, are a dozen intimate tasting rooms, most of them less than 2 years old, dispensing wines from some of the country's best-known producers.
Keep in mind that about two generations ago, this area was devoted to fruit orchards, livestock ranches and prune production. And even after the wine industry blossomed in the 1970s and brought national attention to the region, Healdsburg-area residents prided themselves on living in the "anti-Napa." While their neighbors to the east put on country club airs and sold overpriced wines in pretentious tasting rooms, Sonomans saw themselves as humble stewards of the most gorgeous and fertile farmland in America.
"Part of the reason I love Sonoma is that you can wear jeans and drive pick-ups because everyone's still farmers, connected to the land," says John Stewart, who opened Bovolo café/deli last year on the central plaza with the mission of showcasing local produce and food products.
That salt-of-the-earth spirit still runs deep, though the argument for it grows a little less convincing every year. As America's interest in wine has mushroomed over the last decade, so has interest in upscale wine-country travel. Last year, tourism brought in an estimated $1 billion in revenues to Sonoma County, and at least half of that total was attributable to the allure of the vine, according to the county's Economic Development Board.
The county's 200 wineries, about half of which are in the Healdsburg (HEELDS-burg) area, "are our No. 1 calling card," board director Ben Stone says.
And Healdsburg has emerged as the county's prime destination, largely because it sits at the confluence of three major wine-producing regions: the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley. It's increasingly a town where well-heeled visitors come to relax after a hard day of driving or biking through the vineyards and to grab some world-class, artisanally inspired cuisine.
Seeds of change
Tourism kicked into high gear four years ago when Charlie Palmer, a chef who won national acclaim with his Aureole restaurants in New York and Las Vegas, moved to town and opened the chic 55-room Hotel Healdsburg and the adjoining Dry Creek Kitchen on a vacant lot on the west side of the plaza. Palmer says he struggled initially with not disrupting the small-town flavor. "I wanted to be sensitive and cater to locals but also satisfy the wine-country traveler, and I think we've accomplished that," he says.
Says Lynn Woznicki, CEO of the chamber of commerce: "There was just something about having a full-service hotel that made it all happen. After that came certain types of (upscale) shops and chefs from San Francisco opening restaurants — and the subsequent rent increases."
Though residents are ever-alert to overdevelopment and creeping preciousness — Gina Gallo of the famous wine-producing family recently bought the 1880s-era Dry Creek General Store to preserve it as a store and community hangout — most feel that the town has found a sweet spot where the haute, the hip and the homespun exist in harmony. They point to the free three-hour parking around the plaza, the weekly band concerts and picnics in the plaza during the summer, the locals-oriented bookstores, bars and coffee shops, and the recent moratorium on new tasting rooms as evidence that the town hasn't sold its soul to Bacchus.
"There will always be people who move here, find nirvana and then want no more," says Bruce Snyder, owner of Camellia Cellars on the south side of town. "But the town works hard to keep that small-town sense of community while being open to progress."
That's a good thing, because more progress is on the horizon. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola recently bought the Chateau Souverain winery and restaurant just north of Healdsburg and is converting it into the headquarters for his value-priced wine brands. The tasting room at the as-yet-unnamed property has just opened and will stay open as he revamps it and transfers some of his movie memorabilia there from his Rubicon Estate winery in Napa Valley. Nearby, developers are formulating plans for a luxury resort on a 350-acre parcel on the city's northern border. And the investors behind the new Meritage Resort at Napa also are talking with Healdsburg officials about a project.
Holding back the flood
"There is a big wave of interest for more beds (hotel rooms) in Healdsburg," Woznicki says. "A lot of people are really anxious to get into that market, and that will continue to shape our growth."
At some point the balance between small-town charm and luxury destination may be thrown out of whack, but for now the center is holding.
"The way I look at it, Healdsburg has a good hand and keeps adding cards to it," says Dan Michael, who runs the Gallo Family Vineyards tasting room on the Plaza.
"Healdsburg has all the good stuff and hasn't kept out the new good stuff."
Whether you're downtown or out in the country, wine rules.
Along with feasting on some of the country's finest produce and artisanal products and driving or bicycling through the vineyards that stretch between the windswept Pacific Coast and the rugged slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, the primary attraction of northern Sonoma County is sampling the region's wines.
In the past few years, two dozen wineries from the outlying areas have opened small, tastefully appointed tasting rooms and retail shops in downtown Healdsburg, including such well-known names as Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, Lake Sonoma, La Crema and Rosenblum. Most are within a block or two of the central plaza, and they've proved to be so popular that the city recently imposed a moratorium on opening new ones in that area. Most rooms either offer free wine samples or charge a few dollars to taste the regular lineup; for a few dollars more, the servers usually will pour reserve wines and special bottles not sold in stores.
Many wine buffs supplement the in-town tastings with visits to the dozens of rural wineries. Those tasting rooms tend to be more elaborate, the views are often breathtaking and the in-the-vineyard ambience takes hold. Some are open by appointment only, so phone ahead. Healdsburg lies at the confluence of three major wine-producing areas, and each has a distinct flavor.
* Alexander Valley Standout grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. Suggested tasting rooms: Alexander Valley Vineyards, Geyser Peak, Hanna, Jordan, Robert Young, Simi, Trentadue
* Dry Creek Valley Standout grapes: Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon. Suggested tasting rooms: Dry Creek Vineyard, Ferrari-Carano, Fritz, Lambert Bridge, Preston of Dry Creek, Quivira, Seghesio.
* Russian River Valley Standout grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. Suggested tasting rooms: Christopher Creek, Gary Farrell, Hartford, Lynmar, Martinelli
[cross-posted to dream_vacations]