California, Here I Come


Fifteen years ago, not so much — empty storefronts on a dowdy plaza. Today, the shopping/dining/wine-tasting scene in Healdsburg, California, is hot-hot-hot, and those storefronts hemming their now-magical plaza occupy some of the costliest real estate in Sonoma.

Vineyard in Alexander Valley, California. Photo courtesy of wollertz/

Vineyard in Alexander Valley, California. Photo courtesy of wollertz/

A number of Sonoma’s bold-name vintners command tasting rooms right there in the heart of town. Others — many, many others — are just a short drive (or bike ride) away, on estates like that of Ferrari-Carano, launched by an Italian-American family, that rival those of Tuscany. Its similar climate prompted the planting of Mediterranean grape varietals, “and 2016 proved a very good year, with a warm spring and late harvest,” discloses Director of Hospitality Patrick Mukaida.

Dry Creek Vineyard, a close neighbor, was the Johnny Appleseed of grapes. No one in Sonoma planted varietals before its visionary founder in 1972. “Now, with vineyards in several different micro-climates, we have even more diversity,” explains a tour guide. “But, unlike other wineries, we’re deliberately getting smaller, concentrating on quality over quantity.”

While on the road, we stop for lunch at Jimtown Store, launched in the 1890s and resuscitated 25 years ago to sate hungry palates with primo sandwiches of spicy pulled pork or grilled cheese gentrified with mushrooms and pesto. Its quirky shopping ops careen from rustic antiques to old-time candies (wax lips, anyone?).

Add DaVero Farm to your must-tour list. Here, as Andrew Hoke explains, “everything Italian” flourishes, including trees for its fabulous olive oil (customers include NYC’s Mario Batali and the White House) and primo Primitivo wine. Its 16 acres are certified bio-dynamic, and all its animals have assignments. “The pigs are my tractors to rip up the soil; the sheep are the lawn mowers, and the chickens the security guards” for this Eden of edibles — also, wines “meant to be drunk on any day that ends in Y,” chuckles Andrew.

Back in town, consider Oakville Grocery your Mecca for picnic victuals, or tote your lunch (excellent curried chicken salad and mozz-tomato sandwiches) for a spot of people-watching on its terrace. Segue to Noble Folk, conjuring up ice cream and pie in wow! flavors. Or to Costeaux French Bakery’s counter of culinary vices amid a display of, oh, maybe 10,000 nutcracker figurines.

Overlooking the vineyards at Ferrari Cavano Winery outside Healdsburg, California.

Overlooking the vineyards at Ferrari Cavano Winery outside Healdsburg, California.

Bad meals seem to be illegal in this town. Begin with the guy who put it on the foodie map, Charlie Palmer. At Dry Creek Kitchen, his entrees gambol from pork chop with celery-root puree and chanterelles to spice-crusted duck with Asian pears and duck confit ravioli. Valette, launched by two local brothers, wins points for California dreamin’ in the shape of scallops en croute (like a giant pot pie); black cod paired with chili sausage and fennel confit; fennel-crusted Petrali sole partnered with clams, mussels and saffron risotto; and grilled persimmon salad with orange zest and pomegranates.

Meanwhile, Barndiva, housed in a former guess-what, reinvents the BLT with pork belly, tomato marmalade, butter lettuce and bacon crumbles. Then proceed to duck leg confit with polenta and apple marmalade, and my new favorite cocktail: a blend of Buffalo Trace and house Brown Butter whiskey (Jameson, Jim Beam rye and Lapahroig, the three most unlikely glassmates on earth) and apple juice.

Best of the best is Shed, a kitchenware store fronted by a cafe, where it was impossible to decide between roasted potatoes with sauerkraut, cheese and dill; chicken liver pate with chanterelles and mustard seeds; charred cauliflower salad with broccoli, pecans and dates; or sunchoke and Meyer lemon pizza embellished with fontina.

To create your own feast, head to Relish Culinary Center, where a hands-on three-course dinner (ours: beet-persimmon-chevre salad; fennel/lemongrass chicken with faro and kale; and olive oil cake) includes wine to sip while stirring and savoring.

Between bites, pop into the Hand Fan Museum, whose unique collection includes rare antiques from Venice to India and China as well as dainty models suitable for Scarlett. Or blaze a trail among the town’s 22 galleries, ranging from Healdsburg Center for the Arts’ cache of elegant blown glass and jewelry to Hammersmith’s conceptual collection, Paul Mahder’s artists who meld technique with passion, and high-end Erickson, representing California’s bold names.

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On to Lodi, the Avis of California’s wine country. Napa and Sonoma get most of the glory, but — like Avis — Lodi tries harder. (Plus, the 120,000-acre grape-growing region east of San Francisco not only is larger than Napa and Sonoma combined, it also supplies those bold-name destinations with grapes.)

Viaggio produces fine wines from Italian varietals in Lodi, California.

Viaggio produces fine wines from Italian varietals in Lodi, California.

Back in the day, if you said “Where?” well, so did everybody else. Agriculture was the focus of the region, founded in the 1850s during the Gold Rush when those mining pans didn’t pan out. Grapes flourished, including during Prohibition, when they were shipped back east with explicit instructions on exactly how not to make wine (“First step: Do not…… Next, do not…..”).

Today, thanks to the dedication of vintners who took root here, Lodi has grown from an original eight to 85 boutique wineries, specializing in small-lot, handmade, exquisitely drinkable varietals that celebrate their sense of place. Lodi’s 35 tasting rooms showcase 75 varietals that flourish here, but the poster grape — the one that has taken the wine-drinking world by storm — is Zinfandel. It’s an extremely versatile grape, and the wine it produces can be heavy or light in style. But I love it for its DNA: wild and bristly.

At Michael David Winery, owned by brothers who grew up growing fruits and veggies, David got the bug to make wine, and now produces perhaps the most famous of all Zin labels, 7 Deadly Zins. “We had a record crush this year, the best year for Zins we’ve seen,” he notes. However, his Inkblot, saluting the Tannot grape, “proves Lodi is not homogeneous.”

David and Heather, the husband/wife owners of Lucas Winery, met while working at Mondavi, then followed their dream to Lodi, launching its first winery “to demonstrate the appellation’s highest potential,” says David, who welcomes visitors into his vineyard “to experience the agriculture, not just taste the wine.” He introduces us to a vine named Louise (she’s next to Cindy and Tina), which produced the elegant 2014 Zin we’re tasting: “I’m not after a fruity wine, boring at the table,” he explains.

At LangeTwins, a fifth-generation of growers-now-vintners, “We’re a participant in the whole ecosystem, not just a monoculture. If you want to be generational, you have to be sustainable, restoring native habitat, monitoring water use.”

Jeremy Trettevik worked at Sebastiani before launching Jeremy Wine Co. “Younger guys like me are coming in now, seeing the potential. I work with growers who have the passion to work hard for the little guy, who also believe in what they’re doing” — in his case, producing micro-lots of Albarino, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Old Vine Zin and more.

Namesake Shed Salad at Shed Restaurant in Healdsburg, California

Namesake Shed Salad at Shed Restaurant in Healdsburg, California

At Acquiesce, Sue Tipton, a Chicago girl who “followed a hobby that got out of control,” specializes in white Rhone-style varietals because “Lodi’s climate is similar to that of the south of France,” producing elegant Viognier, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc and more. St. Jorge Winery’s Vern and Jesse Vietta honor their Portuguese heritage not only in their winery’s name, but their Portuguese grapes. Their old-world tasting room encourages visitors not only to “buy the wine, but buy the atmosphere.”

Bites around town: Towne House, at Wine & Roses Hotel, offers taste treats of CIA-trained chef John Hitchcock, from beet salad with goat cheese panna cotta to pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin, then fig and quince Napoleon. The resort-hotel — the best in town — offers a spa and outdoor pool.

Michael David Winery sports a café whose tortilla soup is tops, as is the green-tomato BLT. Don’t leave without pie: apricot, boysenberry, peach, grape, apple. Rosewood offers a pork belly/persimmon salad starter, followed by pork osso buco, salmon with pumpkin hash, or rabbit roulade. The country’s original A&W stand, here in Lodi, is saluted by Peter Knight’s signature shop, featuring amazing root beer floats and his memorabilia collection.

Stroll downtown: antiques shops, bookstore, art galleries, cookware, and Cheese Central which offers 100 varieties as well as pairing and cooking classes and a walking trail of Walldog murals. Then venture to Cecchetta Olive Oil Farm for tours and tastes of its premier flavored oils from 100-year-old trees.

San Joachim Historical Museum sports 17 acres dotted with historic homes, a one-room school, and a mining campsite. Ag and winemaking tools from past years bring home the region’s roots, along with interactive explanations of its fruit-and-nut producing heritage. A neighboring Japanese Garden offers serenity amid lanterns and pond. Sand Hill Crane Watch — mesmerizing, and I’m not even a birdie — attracts cranes flying en masse (2,000 or more nightly) to roost in ankle-deep water. Maps and guided tours.

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