My friend Jen Miner and I recently returned from a research trip (no, seriously) to Northern California wine country. We were sent by The Wine Institute to discover the joys of California Wine Month…or as most people call it, “September.”
September is indeed a gorgeous time to visit Sonoma County, home to over 250 wineries and the town of Healdsburg. The grape harvest has just begun, so some vines have been picked clean, while others hang heavy with fruit. Mornings are cool and overcast, midday is sunny, and by 4:30 p.m., the sky starts to turn golden.
The even better news? Sonoma County should also be pretty darn stunning in October and November.
For a little Healdsburg travel-planning inspiration, consider indulging in a winery’s custom-made wine pairing menu, and appreciating a little local art. Y’know, like we did.
The drive from Sonoma to Healdsburg is a little longer than you might think it is, so if you’re due somewhere, allow yourselves about an hour and 15 minutes.
(Hopefully, though, you won’t be due somewhere. Theoretically, in your version of the Northern California wine country, you’ll be on vacation.)
Jen and I arrived at Lambert Bridge Winery a few minutes later than we’d hoped, but far more relaxed than we might have been on a city adventure. This part of Sonoma wine country, the Dry Creek Valley, is gently gorgeous in a, “yay, we’re on a road trip!” kind of way; by the time we were cruising over burbly Dry Creek on the Lambert Bridge, we were just a half-smile shy of singing together at the top of our lungs.
One foot in the door of this big rustic cabin of a place, we all but tripped over two of the biggest, most adorable dogs we’d ever seen. Princess Bernadette, a perpetually sleepy St. Bernard, and fluffy, white Wylie the Great Pyrenees aren’t the only on-site canines — keep an eye out for Gus the yellow labrador, too — but they were plenty o’ dog for us.
Peeling ourselves up from the washed concrete floor, we took the time to say hello to Troy, our charming Southern-transplant guide, and follow him around the property (which features the work of local sculptor Mark Stasz).
If you come by the winery between early September and mid-October, you can arrange for your own harvest tour, and see the winery’s grapes bring sorted, crushed and fermented as you stand a few feet from the vines. (While you’re at it, feel free to look up and ogle the Lambert Hospitality House, a two-bedroom, hilltop home that’s available to Signature Wine Club members. Fancy.) Looking at the state-of-the-art equipment that Lambert’s sporting, we mentally calculated an expenditure of millions of dollars; this winery is committed to detail and quality, and it clearly isn’t messing around.
This commitment became even more apparent when we moved to the Barrel Room to sample Lambert’s Fall wine pairing menu. (And not just because our menu had our names on it; this is a little touch they provide for everyone who makes a tasting reservation.) If you like rooms with high ceilings, iron chandeliers, smooth-hewn wine barrels and handsome waiters/winemakers — the air sweet and heady with fermenting wine — then the Barrel Room will make you happy. It sure did the trick for us.
My favorite pairing: the elegant, restrained 2011 Maple Vineyard Zinfandel (turns out, this particular vineyard is a big deal ’round the Dry Creek Valley) and a bruschetta paired with soft Franklin’s Teleme Cheese, chopped Medjool dates and dry-cured olives. Jen’s favorite: The bold, only-lightly-oaky 2011 Chardonnay with a creamy butternut squash soup.
After directing Jen to take one little wrong turn (oh, you try navigating after a wine tasting), we managed to find our way to downtown Healdsburg to meet up with a truly delightful artist, Bob Johnson, at his eponymous gallery. In addition to being an accomplished illustrator of wine labels, this twinkly, bespectacled gentleman is also an accomplished illustrator of books, posters and cartoons. He was kind enough to show us around his perfect little library and to give us both prints of one of his favorite cartoons.
He’s also the de facto mayor of the Healdsburg Art Walk, an open-house event held on the first Friday of every month (5-8 p.m. from May to December) by a smattering of galleries around and near the town’s main plaza. (A plaza, by the way, that was recently named one of the most beautiful town squares in the U.S.)
Bob led us around to some of his favorite galleries, like Gallery Lulo, which had some of the most creative, luxurious hand-crafted jewelry we’d ever seen. Other standouts were the airy, multi-floor Erickson Fine Art Gallery (where I wanted at least seven works of art) and the Healdsburg Center for the Arts, a community collective featuring everything from wood marquetry to blown glass to the fascination of hand-sewn paintings.
We only had an hour or so with Bob before we had to skedaddle (about 15 minutes south) to Santa Rosa, home of Sonoma County’s small airport…and its only African wildlife park.
To be continued in
Adventures in California Wine Country: Sonoma County – Part Three
This trip was sponsored by The Wine Institute,
including all travel, meals, winery visits and lodgings.
However, all observations and opinions are my own.