JEFFERSON FINNEY / JFINNEY@STARBULLETIN.COM
Delilah prevents deer from nibbling on the grapes in the Porter-Bass vineyard.
Take a break from corporate wineries
Healdsburg offers family-run vineyards 65 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge
Unlike some of the touristy towns on the Napa side of California wine country, where vineyard tasting rooms have reached Disneyesque proportions with their faux Tuscan and Provençal themes, Sonoma's Healdsburg, just 65 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, has managed to retain much of its local flavor.
If you go ...
When to visit
Visiting Healdsburg and its surrounding area is a pleasurable experience during all seasons, but I am partial to early winter, when most of the grapevines are still sporting their seasonal bright reds and orangey-yellow leaves. It is also when the afternoon light makes everything appear as if in an Edward Hopper painting, though more pronounced as if lightly outlined with a soft charcoal pencil.
Hotel Healdsburg possesses a hip yet casual California attitude. Large common areas are airy and elegant, with comfortable chairs and an ample fireplace. Rooms are spacious and well appointed, each with a balcony. I didn't get a chance to use the Spa at Hotel Healdsburg, but noted that the setting is tranquil and pleasantly minimalist. Visit www.hotelhealdsburg.com for visuals.
Healdsburg is quickly becoming a culinary contender to the more established Napa towns. Off the main square is Cyrus, which Food & Wine listed as one of the best new restaurants of 2006, making it just about impossible to get a reservation. The evening I peered at the menu, bacon-wrapped pork with red-wine-braised cabbage and hen of the woods were offered as an entree.
The Down Town Creamery, an old-fashioned full-service bakery using organic and locally grown and produced ingredients, is worth a visit. Try the creamery's Volcano, a fresh sourdough leaf with warm cheddar cheese bubbling from the crater on the top.
If you like authentic Mexican food, try El Sombrero Taqueria, which has the best carnitas (deep-fried pork) tacos I've ever eaten, and a great jukebox loaded with the latest Mexican tunes.
If planning a picnic, stop by the Oakville Market for an array of cheeses, deli meats and precooked gourmet delicacies and Epicurean treats.
Sonoma County has more than 175 wineries. I chose to focus on Porter-Bass, a family-owned and operated vineyard that produces organic wine (www.porterbass.com). If planning to visit Porter-Bass, call ahead for a required appointment.
If you can't be there, Porter-Bass zinfandel can be purchased at R. Field at the Beretania Foodland.
Although it is small by museum standards, I could spend hours in this one. Its well-conceived, detailed collections and knowledgeable docents make it a great resource for Sonoma history (www.healdsburgmuseum.org)
Healdsburg Regional Library
I always make it a point to drop by the local library of towns I visit. I think of them as good barometers of a community. Healdsburg's has a no-nonsense reading room with a healthy oenology (study of wine) section, with a collection of more than 5,000 sources (www.sonomalibrary.org).
This isn't to say Healdsburg doesn't have its share of kitchen stores crammed with wine-country-inspired tchotchkes, and there are a fair amount of tourists, especially on weekends. It just seems to have more of a real town feeling as evidenced by the dusty pickup trucks carrying farm equipment and posturing dogs parked at the front of hardware stores and cafes; families and friends setting up blankets and chairs for weekly Tuesday evening concerts in the town's central Spanish-style plaza; and a bustling farmers market, which seems to be a meeting place for locals chit-chatting about upcoming events.
Curious to learn about Healdsburg's past, I visited the Healdsburg Museum (in an old Carnegie Library building) and found it a great resource. I learned that by the time Healdsburg was incorporated in 1869, fields of hops and wine grapes were grown by Italian and French immigrants familiar with Mediterranean farming and who found the area's rich soil ideal. These crops flourished until 1920, when the 18th Amendment prohibited importing, exporting, transporting, selling and manufacturing intoxicating liquor.
Other than in a lucky few wineries, which were allowed to produce a small amount of wine for "sacramental" purposes, grape and hop growing came to a halt. During Prohibition, farmers switched to growing a European variety of plums called Prunus domestica. The plums primarily were dried into prunes and farmed successfully until the 1950s, when the popularity of table wines made farming wine grapes profitable again.
Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a plum orchard, let alone a lug of plums; they've all been replaced by grapes, as evidenced by Sonoma County's 175 or more wineries. The main varietals being grown are zinfandel, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Other varietals are cultivated in lesser degree.
IN CONTRAST TO Napa County, where corporate wineries seem to dominate the landscape, many of the vineyards surrounding Healdsburg are small and family-run. Porter-Bass, a scenic 20-minute drive from Healdsburg in the Russian River Valley, is one of my favorites. After growing grapes and selling its crop to select area wineries for years, Porter-Bass only recently began producing zinfandel under its own label.
There is much to like about Porter-Bass. A recent review of its zinfandel described it this way: "This wine is rich in the scent of an early summer rose garden and vivid red cherry and raspberry, wrapped in the perfume of fresh-baked almond tart. The finish leaves lingering hints of anise and espresso."
Its grapes are grown organically, so it's comforting to know that the health benefits of a glass of red wine aren't compromised by chemical residue. Also, Porter-Bass vineyard practices biodynamic farming, an ecological and ethical approach to modern sustainable agriculture.
"We start with building healthy, humus-rich soils," said winemaker Luke Bass. "Healthy soil grows healthy vines, which produce fruit whose flavors are truly representative of the region that they're grown in. It is also often the case that the flavors of such fruit are more complex."
This makes a lot of sense. Even those who claim not to have discerning tastes can easily distinguish between a full and rich or a bland and watery wine.
It also has become a practice of many wineries to manipulate grapes' growth cycle, with the intention of producing more or, in some cases, to tweak the taste of the final product, in time upsetting the balance of the earth by stripping it of its natural nutrients.
JEFFERSON FINNEY / JFINNEY@STARBULLETIN.COM
Porter-Bass, in the Russian River Valley 20 minutes from Healdsburg, practices biodynamic farming to produce uncompromised wine grapes.
In talking with Bass, it's hard not to admire his passion for winemaking: It's what he knows best.
"I guess that I've always known I would be a winemaker, much in the way some kids know exactly what it is they'll do when they're adults."
His résumé is impressive. Following college, he worked as a cellar master with winemaker Greg LaFollette of Flowers Winery, the producer of some of California's best pinot noir and chardonnay.
Eager to expand his experience, Bass ventured to South Africa and Chile where he learned about the practice of winemaking. Two years ago he returned to his family's vineyard and assumed his current role.
"As a kid, after harvest time, I'd watch the trucks full of grapes leave, and I always felt that somehow we were missing something. We'd nurture the land, plant and harvest the fruit, but we were left out of the final part of the cycle. Now that we make and bottle our wine, the cycle is complete."
If you're headed to Porter-Bass, Bass will give you a tour of the hillside vineyard, pointing out different stages of vine growth and pruning methods. The views are tremendous, and if you're lucky, Syrah, a Saluki who's fast enough to keep the deer from nibbling the grape buds in the spring, and her comrade, Delilah, a red-boned hound who serves as backup on deer duty, will join you.
And when it comes time to sample zinfandel, Bass is eager to hear your interpretation. After all, like all fine art, winemaking is a craft that evolves with experience and input.