Yes, I love a sunny, lush, green vineyard with plump, ripening fruit as much as the next person. But there is something special and serene about visiting wine country in the fall and winter. This is especially true during the holidays. The added twinkle from the Christmas lights along with the changing foliage of the vines presents a unique beauty and a calming peace after the hustle and bustle of the harvest season. So why not Healdsburg for the Holidays?
Located in the northern reaches of Sonoma County, Healdsburg was one of those places I had yet to venture to in Sonoma. Ok, yes, I’ll admit that I’m the person that NEVER wants to go to Napa or Sonoma. But let’s be honest, they are so well known and beloved that they don’t need the additional exposure. I’ve loved my Cali wine trips to the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Barbara, and Temecula and am always on the lookout for more under the radar places to share with people. I’m coming for ya soon Paso! But I started thinking. Can’t I visit both the popular and the lesser-known? Of course ya girl only has so many vacation days, but it was high time to go back and visit some USA wine royalty. And let me clear, our trip to Healdsburg for the holidays was all about indulgence and pampering.
Where to Stay
I was on the fence about where to stay in Healdsburg. The place we stayed HAD to have a fireplace place and it needed to be a luxury hotel. I’m from Texas and I want to enjoy a cozy fireplace any chance I get. You know, aside from Christmas when we turn on the A/C and the fireplace for ambiance. Don’t judge me. Anywho, I looked at Farmhouse Inn and Montage, but they both lacked the walkability in Healdsburg that I was after. I didn’t want to have to get in my car to enjoy the Healdsburg town square. So that left me with Hotel Les Mars, which is located just a block from the square.
Hotel Les Mars is member of Relais & Chateaux, which is an association of individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants with headquarters in France. So our hotel was all about the charm and romance of upscale French country living. If you’re into minimalist, modern spaces, this is not for you. But we loved it! The service, the location, and yes, the fireplace! And while it could use a bit of a refresh IMHO, I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. Literally every single morning, we ordered a pot of coffee along with the complimentary continental breakfast and sat for at least a couple of hours just enjoying the fire.
Yeah, ok, I also spent that time answering the incessant work emails and all the stuff from the kids’ schools. Which if you have kids in schools, you know that the emails and parent chats are another job unto itself. We also sipped some vino by it as well.
Where to Spa
As I’ve previously mentioned I’ve made spa treatments a regular part of my wine travel experiences. It just seems to fit into the essence of the trip.
And while I’ve had treatments at top of the line spas in amazing locales, I have to say that the massage at a A Simple Touch Spa was the most amazing that I can ever remember having. Like ever! This unassuming, no-frills spa is the business! Even Mr. Corkscrew was like “those massage therapists are amazing!”
Where to Eat
When it comes to eating, I love a combo of mom and pop, local haunts, a little celebrity, and fine-dining. In other words, I enjoy all of the various dining experiences. It just needs to have good food and good service.
Ok, let me start by saying that I’m usually a positive person on this blog. If I don’t have anything nice to say in the wine space, I just keep it to myself. After all, there’s enough negativity in the world. But I have to say that the service at The Matheson is utter bullshit! We had our anniversary dinner and they legit ruined it from the jump. Plus, I gave them two chances two days in a row to get it right and both times the little girl gate-keepers just ‘effed it up. So yeah, I’m done. Now on to the places that we enjoyed…
Bravas Bar de Tapas
Walking around town, we asked a random person on the street a good place to have lunch and they pointed us to Bravas Bar de Tapas. This cute little spot serving Spanish tapas (small plates) and fruity sangria was so damn good.
We loved the set extensive outdoor space and the servers were so friendly. We throughly enjoyed patatas bravas, croquetas, eggplant chips, crispy pig ears, and of course, the white sangria.
The Rooftop, which sits atop Harmon Guest House, offers a lovely terrace for drinks and dining with views of Fitch Mountain, the Sonoma hills, and downtown Healdsburg. We loved the abundance of firepits and heaters which made it perfect to sip on some wine and just enjoy a relaxing bite.
And yes, a much more friendly rooftop experience than that other place.
Stark’s Steak & Seafood
Another recommendation by a random stranger on the street in Santa Rosa was Stark’s Steak & Seafood. We were there for lunch so I wasn’t in the mood for the steak for which they are known. Walking in, I thought he’d made a mistake as this just seemed to be an old-school steakhouse that hadn’t been updated in some time. Not to mention there weren’t many people there. Well no worries.
This was maybe one of the most amazing scallop entrees I’ve had in my life! The sear was perfection and the butternut squash purée with pancetta was to die for!
Located right in our hotel, Chalkboard Restaurant seemed like a no-brainer one night when it was cold and drizzly outside. Inside was warm and welcoming and all smiles. And I loved the little chalk board with the day’s specials as a nod to the restaurant’s name. Our waiter encouraged ordering a few small plates, so we went with his suggestion.
Fried chicken biscuits, little gem caesar, crispy brussels, and a ridiculously delicious mushroom pasta paired well with a bottle of RAEN Pinot Noir. RAEN had been on my radar for a while and this was my first opportunity to try it.
Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar
Because sometimes you just want some seafood and cocktails. We loved the extensive raw bar, fresh salad, fish tacos, and lobster roll at Willi’s. And the cocktails were a nice respite from all the wine.
Dry Creek Kitchen
Dry Creek Kitchen was one of those places that I’d heard about for years, so it was nice to finally visit. It really was the essence of wine country dining and so festive! The bread, the cheese, the duck, the pork chop, the dessert – it was all delicious! And we had the sweetest server who made us feel at home.
Of course, this doesn’t include the amazing bites featured in several of the pairing experiences at the wineries – which I’ll share now!
Where to Taste
So many options, so little time. It’s Sonoma, so of course there are plenty of amazing places to taste. More than anything, I appreciate an “ experience” when tasting as opposed to just standing at the tasting bar. We tried to be be efficient with our time and not zig zag back and forth. And we visited no more than two wineries per day so that I cold actually drink (as opposed to tasting and spitting) the wine and enjoy it for a change. Visiting just two wineries a day also allowed us to be able to enjoy a nice bottle of wine (or a cocktail) at dinner.
We flew into Sacramento and had to (generally) drive right by, so yeah, I wasn’t going to pass up the bubbly. I’d visited Domaine Carneros what seemed to be ages ago, when I wasn’t as much of a bubbly aficionado. Well, y’all know that has changed as sparkling wine is seriously my spirit juice! I was able to make a reservation online while in the car.
Domaine Carneros has always been a stunning estate. It’s not as beautiful in the winter, but the bubbles are just as tasty. The first thought was just to add the caviar, but as we were indulging in bubbles, we needed a bit more sustenance and added some cheese as well.
But yeah, highly recommend adding the caviar! An amazing, indulgent experience and a great way to get the trip started.
Marine Layer Wines
While its nice to head out to the wineries, it’s also nice to hang out in Healdsburg and enjoy the local tasting rooms. I’d read several press releases about Marine Layer Wines and immediately added it to my list of must visit places. It did not disappoint. The name is a nod to the thick fog that rolls off the Pacific Ocean and blankets the region. It’s a boutique winery with the aim of bringing to life the terroir and soul of the cool climate Sonoma Coast. The far Sonoma Coast is known for extreme growing conditions but the results are worth it – grapes with longer hang time, phenolic ripeness, and vibrant acidity. Not surprising, their specialty is small-production, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Lean, linear, and focused, these were some great wines to taste though.
Like the wines, the tasting room is like a work of art. I seriously wanted to hang out all day. I’m not a designer with proper lingo, but it’s like retro chic meets California coast. The modern, 3-sided glass fireplace, the retro chic corduroy benches, stone and wood tasting bar, handmade ceramic pendant lights sculpted by Oaxacan artists, oversized Moroccan wool rugs, large beaming skylights all create quite a vibe. I can’t do it justice in pictures!
And yeah, it was so nice and toasty by the fireplace that we ended up hanging out longer than we’d planned.
Our other stop for our “in town” day was Williamson Wines. I knew absolutely nothing about them but the reviews were good so we thought “why not?” And what a great decision it ended up being. While they have a food and wine pairing experience, we’d recently had lunch so weren’t really hungry. But since I love a true “experience” we opted for their wine and cheese pairing.
As I’ve mentioned before, when wine tasting, I’m at a point where I enjoy a unique, seated experience rather than just standing at the bar tasting the wine. There’s nothing wrong with a quick taste, but for me, I just appreciate the wines more. And we so enjoyed all the different cheeses that really did enhance the wines. They also sell all of the spreads and sauces that are featured during the tasting. In fact, they have tons of spices, oils, and other gourmet foods. We enjoyed a little shopping after our tasting.
Gary Farrell Winery
I still remember last summer (where the heck did the time go?!) when I did a Zoom tasting with Gary Farrell winemaker, Theresa Heredia. She’s been the winemaker there since 2012. I love her story (which I previously shared) of how she got into wine and was so inspired by her commitment to her craft with all of the small lots she uses in making wines. She’s seriously like a mad scientist (in a good way!) trying to get the best from each vineyard and is so thoughtful about the process. And yeah, the wines are ah-mazing! Serious Pinot whisperer here as they craft a dizzying array of single vineyard Pinot Noir wines.
So when I knew we were headed out to Sonoma, I knew I HAD to visit the winery. And wow! This place is stunning! There is literally no bad place to sit.
The views are amazing, the staff so welcoming, the wines of course phenomenal (sublime Chardonnay and Pinot!), and the cheese pairings on point. I could have sat there all day! Alas we had to move on to the next stop, but I’m super excited about the suitcase wines we purchased to bring home!
Maybe the best discovery of the trip, Benovia Winery is the place I didn’t really know before, but whose praises I will definitely now sing. Co-owner and winemaker Mike Sullivan is a fifth-generation Californian who grew up in Sonoma County and has wine in his veins. He started working in the cellar at Chateau St. Jean at the age of 18 and spent summers farming at Four Brothers, his family’s vineyard while pursuing his enology degree. With winemaking stints at places the likes of Landmark Vineyards (under the legendary Helen Turley), Chappellet, and Hartford Family Winery, Mike partnered with Mary Dewane and Joe Anderson to found Benovia in 2005.
And I so loved the setting at the winery. The cozy tasting room with its welcoming fireplace as well as the intimate outdoor terrace with views of the surrounding Martaella Estate Vineyard seriously beckon and invite you to stay awhile.
I was familiar with Martaella Vineyard as the Gary Farrell Martaella Pinot Noir emerged as my favorite in a lineup of seven single vineyard Pinots that I got to taste with them. So I was thrilled to now be tasting with the person responsible for farming such a phenomenal vineyard.
The only problem I had was restraining myself from buying everything. You know a wine is special if I buy more than one bottle and I found myself purchasing multiple bottles of the Martaella Chardonnay. I also swooned over the Grenache, Blanc de Blanc bubbly, and of course, the Pinot.
I don’t always love social media, but “met” the fabulous Kerith Overstreet, owner and winemaker of Bruliam Wines during a Twitter chat and the rest, as they say, is history. After tasting her rosé during that Twitter chat and getting a taste of her Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir when I was in Carmel, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to taste with her when I got up to Sonoma. She was just one of those personalities that I clicked with AND her wines are damn good! She’s all smiles, sunshine, and rainbows with intensity simmering right below the surface.
And I learned that she has wines in establishments all over Houston! In fact, her 2015 Bu Bruliam Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir earned both a double-gold medal and was named a Reserve Class Champion during the 2018 Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition. She may seriously be the highest rated winemaker you’ve never heard of. If you need points as proof, she has all sorts of wines that regularly score in the 90s from all the “official” critics.
We were greeted by her furry friend Chewie, who is an absolute sweetie. From the beautiful rosé, to the elegant, well-balanced Chardonnay, to those well-crafted Pinots, to the delicious “non-slutty” Zinfandel (a Kerith saying) we so enjoyed tasting through her portfolio. And she explains things in such a way that even Mr. Corkscrew (who quickly bores of ‘wine talk’) was all in and asking questions. We bought some of just about everything including multiple bottles of the most recent vintage of the Bu Bruliam Sangiacomo Vineyard pinot. A great visit all around!
This is one of those wine country destinations that truly evoke the essence of the place. I mean, how can you not be happy in such a setting?! Bricoleur Vineyards opened in 2020 and was supposed to have its grand opening experience in May 2020. Well, we all know how that turned out! But they’re open now! During our visit, the tasting room was decked out for the holidays, but even aside from holiday decor, it’s an impressive setting.
The 40-acre property is quite a destination in and of itself. It’s home to quaint rentals, ponds with ducks and swans, chickens, amazing gardens, bocce ball, picnic spaces, a pizza oven and so much more. It truly is a self-contained wine country experience.
The word Bricoleur is French and loosely means building something without a clear or set plan. Like kinda winging it and flying by the seat of your pants. And that’s exactly what they did when trying to open during a pandemic. But from the looks of things, they’ve done an amazing job.
Their “Rooted” pairing experience is so well done and not to be missed! Our tasting experience began with their aptly named sparkling wine, “Flying by the Seat of our Pants” and it’s such a clean, crisp bubbly.
After that, we were presented with 2 courses at a time accompanied by two wines. They have Charlie Palmer and Nate Appleman as their culinary advisors so you know the food is the business! Each dish is practically a work of art and almost too pretty people to eat. Almost.
While I enjoyed each course, the seared scallop with vichyssoise foam and their manicotti with chanterelles made me almost forget where I was and I almost licked the plate.
It’s bubbly season y’all! Well, my season runs all year, but for many folks the holidays is truly their bubbly season. And since bubbly is my spirit juice, I was NOT going to miss out on the Bubble Room at J Vineyards while in Sonoma. And what a stunning, luxury setting.
They do a rotating menu that typically features a mix of still and sparkling wines. But since it was the holidays, they were featuring all bubbly. I mean, how great was my timing?! During our visit, they had literally just rolled out the new menu and all I can say is wow! This was seriously an amazing and decadent experience.
The Filet Mignon Tartare with black truffles is bordering on life changing! I’d never had celeriac crisps and now I might be kicking potato chips to the curb! The dungeness crab, the truffle gelato, the pork belly…yeah, ok everything!
And we have been feeling no pain by the time we tasted a little Pinot Noir at the end. Hey, it was the last tasting of the trip!
Y’all, I’m so glad I got out of my “no Napa or Sonoma” wine visit stance. This trip in Healdsburg for the holidays was truly amazing and I’m looking forward to visiting again soon!