We’re going to play a little game here. Put your hands up if you don’t like big, bold Cabs or oaky Chardonnays. If you favor Zinfandels or red blends with a distinctly Bordeaux-ish feel, you’re going to love the wines of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.
Dry Creek Valley is located in Northern Sonoma County, 70 miles north of San Francisco and 20 miles east of the Pacific. In comparison to Napa, it feels tiny—you’ll find only 70 wineries, most of which are family-farmed and produced by artisan winemakers. It’s anchored by the picture-perfect town of Healdsburg, a place that you’re going to be hard-pressed to leave.
Zinfandel is the premiere grape grown here. Fun fact: Dry Creek Valley growers farm nearly 2,400 acres of Zinfandel, making it the most widely planted grape in the AVA. However, given that its climate is similar to Bordeaux, it’s no wonder that Dry Creek Valley is ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Its terroir is also uniquely suited for the cultivation of Sauvignon Blanc.
If you need one more reason to visit the Dry Creek Valley, know that it’s going to be 100% sustainable in just a few years. The area is part of Sonoma County’s initiative to become a 100% sustainable wine region by 2019. Sustainability is defined by the triple bottom line: a comprehensive set of practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable.
Now that you know what this NorthCal wine region is all about, here are nine reasons why you absolutely must visit as soon as possible.
- A TRIP TO THE FERRARI-CARANO WINERY Dry Creek Valley is home to some seriously terrific boutique wines, but there isn’t an experience quite so grandiose as the one you’ll find at the immersive, stunning Ferrari-Carano Winery, which feels like an Italian castello. Its downstairs wine tasting bar, the Enoteca Wine Tasting Room, offers guests an immersive experience, tasting all the families of Ferrari-Carano wines in an elegant room designed by Rhonda Carano. Guests may enjoy table service, or schedule private, hosted tastings in the PreVail room. Try stylish, single-variety wines and Bordeaux-style red blends, including Fumé Blanc and Chardonnay as well as a Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Trésor. Other offerings include Vineyard Selects, premium single-vineyard selections that showcase microclimate, terroir, balance and varietal character; Spirit of Italy wines, food-friendly varietals made to honor the Caranos’ Italian heritage of which inlcude a Pinot Grigio and Siena, a sangiovese-based blend aged in Hungarian and French oak; PreVail, a collection that includes a powerful, premium cabernet sauvignon and cab-syrah blends from mountain vineyards, aged in 100% French oak; wweet after-dinner wines including the luscious, delicious Baci, a fortified zinfandel infused with dark chocolate, Eldorado Gold, a Sauternes-style wine from semillon and/or sauvignon blanc, affected by botrytis cinerea and Eldorado Noir, a late-harvest black muscat. We highly suggest a VIP sensory tasting, where you’ll smell a variety of fruits, herbs and sweets from a private room before actually sampling the wines. Make sure to check out the five acres of gardens after your tasting. Planned in 1997 by Rhonda Carano and completed 16 months later, the five acres of carefully manicured foliage attract nearly as many visitors as Ferrari-Carano wines. In spring, more than 10,000 tulips grow on the property inspiring a Tulip Hotline to alert tulip-tourists when they are in bloom. Guests are free to explore the grounds on their own or guided winery tours may be arranged.
2. A PAIRED LUNCHEON AT SEGHESIO FAMILY VINEYARDS Seghesio Family Vineyards, a winery propelled by the late and indomitable Angela Seghesio, offers a true culinary treat in its paired lunch experience, Seghesio Family Tables. The experience is offered on weekends throughout the year and features the most exclusive wines in the Seghesio library paired with Executive Chef Peter Janiak‘s seasonal recipes, hosted in a private dining room adjacent to Chef’s kitchen. Although you might have to roll out of Seghesio, you’ll definitely want to stop to ooh and ah at the onsite butcher shop.
3. PICNIC OR PARTY AT GUSTAFSON FAMILY VINEYARDS. At 1800 feet above sea level, Gustafson Family Vineyards is the highest elevation estate vineyard and winery in Sonoma County meaning that its views are exceptional. Pick up some artisanal sandwiches from the Dry Creek General Store on your way up and once onsite, grab a bottle of the 2013 Mountain Cuvee Estate Zinfandel (available onsite or to club members only) and enjoy the views with a picnic lunch. You can also choose to stay on site at the winery’s estate vacation rental, a truly luxe escape which includes a pool, spa, gardens, a living room with 30-mile views of the valley and a fully-equipped chef’s kitchen with double ovens, two dishwashers, custom Heath servingware and a dining bar in order to throw the best possible weekend wine tasting dinner party.
4. WINE, CHOCOLATE & SHOPPING—OH MY! If you still haven’t had enough (we’re always game for more wine) head to Seasons of the Vineyard Wine Shop, a boutique owned and operated by Ferrari-Carano’s Rhonda Carano. This charming wine country boutique in downtown Healdsburg offers daily tastings featuring Scharffen Berger’s gourmet chocolates (it is, in fact, the only place in Sonoma Wine Country that offers said chocolates). After you’ve sated yourself and are bathed in a pleasant wine and choccie haze, snap up wine country décor items such as cutlery, furniture, jewelry and more.
5. WINE ABOUT IT! While some relish experiences, let’s not forget that there are a plethora of wineries to choose from if you want a more inclusive weekend of tasting. Book yourself a luxury ride from California Wine Tours (no driving allowed!), sit back and relax as your driver ferries you around to a variety of vineyards. The best of the rest include:
- Ridge is one of our favorite wines to date! Surrounded by beautiful 115-year-old vines, its eco-sustainable Lytton Springs Winery stands as one of the most unique sites in all of Sonoma County’s wine country. A natural extension of Ridge’s commitment to sustainable vineyard and winery practices, this remarkable facility (built of straw bales and vineyard clay, and primarily solar-powered) is a wonderful environment in which to experience our exceptional single-vineyard wines. If you’re lucky, you’ll taste the 2012 Monte Bello and 2013 East Bench Zinfandel.
- Lambert Bridge, a winery known for its comfortable estate winery create the perfect environment to savor artisanal wines recognized for their balance, elegance and nuances of old world structure.
- A. Rafanelli Winery has a cult following, no doubt. This is a true Sonoma experience, as the winery doesn’t have national distribution, but you can find their wines on restaurant wine lists throughout the country.
- Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves have earned scores as high as 96 from Robert Parker. It’s small production, but a favorite for visitors.
- Dry Creek Vineyard is one of Dry Creek Valley’s most famous wineries. Like Ferrari-Carano, you can find their entry-level wines nationally in grocery stores, but a visit to the winery will show you many smaller production, premium offerings. Specializing in Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux grape varieties.
- Mauritson Family Winery has grown grapes in Dry Creek Valley since the 1880s and is considered to be a classic brand for the region.
- Nalle Winery is nationally-known with a cult following for their lean-style Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
6. HOTEL HEALDSBURG When you first enter Hotel Healdsburg, you’re going to smile. We predict it right now. For starters, you’ll see a wine tasting going on before you even hit the check in desk, which is adjacent to gratis hot chocolate and hot apple cider (available at all hours). Just around the corner you’ll find a roaring fireplace, a fabulous location to enjoy a glass of Zinfandel and stave off the cold outside. But there’s more. This boutique hotel is the one to beat in Sonoma County. You’ll find a 60-foot outdoor pool, a 3,000-square-foot spa, .country gardens within the grounds, and Charlie Palmer’s internationally renowned Dry Creek Kitchen as well as 50 guest rooms and six suites, which will all receive an elegant update by spring 2016. To brighten up the rooms and elevate the abundant natural light, the new design features an updated color palate of Farrow and Ball Ammonite white walls and pale green-blue Mizzle shutters, along with light blue accents detailed through blankets, custom-made ceramic cups and plates designed by local artisan Jered Nelson. Playing off this color scheme, Healdsburg-based artist Wade Hoefer has created original cloud paintings unique to each room in shades of silver, lavender, and gray, exuding calming and ethereal undertones. Locally-made artisan furniture will add a level of richness, depth, and authenticity of place to each room. The refresh also includes a new showpiece, a large-scale panoramic photo of the Russian River taken by Barbara Bourne, a local landscape photographer known for her stunning portraits of the Russian River. Measuring nearly 15 feet in length, the black and white image depicts an 8-mile section of the nearby river and was made by blending eight images together. The hotel has also changed its lighting systems to use environmentally friendly LEDs and central switching controls at the bedside and door, supporting the hotel’s ongoing eco-conscious practices.
Beyond that, owner Circe Sher, partner in Piazza Hospitality, has created a thoughtful place that travelers are actually loathe to leave. So many of the larger resorts nickel and dime their guests, but not Hotel Healdsburg. You’ll find gratis internet and free-use bikes to cycle around town, a Tesla charging station, stocked fridges with items like truffles, delicacies from Spoonbar at its sister property, h2hotel, a complimentary buffet breakfast including sparkling wine for mimosas and a fitness center for the exercise included. Additionally, those who stay this month are encouraged to put their best feet forward in the name of New Year’s resolutions and fitness with dedicated vineyard workouts at the nearby Quivira Winery with certified personal trainers and a healthy comfort food cooking class with Chef Lacey Sher, owner of Oakland’s Encuentro restaurant,
7. SPA IT UP IN WINE COUNTRY We know you’re going to be completely worn out from endless hours of wine tasting, which is why you totally deserve (ahem) even further relaxation. We strongly suggest (and by strongly, we mean you need) to book a treatment or two at The Spa at Hotel Healdsburg. You’ll find biodynamic treatments, locally sourced products as well as internationally renowned organic spa line Eminence here. Gals—try out the signature facial, which uses Biodynamic botanicals like lemongrass, sweet clover and echinacea to leave your skin calm, rejuvenated and refreshed. Guys, you don’t have to miss out here either, as the spa offers a Gentleman’s Facial: a treatment that begins with a warm barber wrap and pressure point facial massage, followed by a scrub and deep pore cleanse. Couples can even enjoy a treatment together. Afterwards make sure to try out the Jacuzzi, which is surrounded by the property’s own olive grove. Yes, it is as romantic as it sounds.
8. ONE OF THE BEST MEALS YOU’LL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFE We have nothing but beautiful things to say about Chalkboard, a casual,cozy and contemporary restaurant located just off the square in downtown Healdsburg. Executive Chef Shane McAnelly has created a menu of daily-changing small plates inspired by produce from a dedicated three-acre garden with other ingredients sourced from local purveyors and farms, highlighting crudos, just-picked salads, handmade pastas, roasted and grilled meats, seafood, and a selection of playful dessert offerings. Every item topped the next, from pumpkin arancini with fontina and black garlic aioli to exquisite hamachi crudo with avocado, jalapeno and grapefruit to fried Brussels sprouts with pickled quince to some of the best dayboat scallops we’ve ever tasted, unique for their flavorings of black truffle and vanilla bean. The wine list is extensive; its sommelier pairs to each course with effortless perfection, highlighting local wines that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else and lucky enough to sample at least once. Happy hour will wet your whistle as well, as daily offerings highlight an international destination. The current destination is Great Britain, so expect to find Welsh rarebit, bubble & squeak and Scotch quail eggs paired with Pimm’s Cup and gin & tonic cocktails.
9. FABULOUS FINE DINING For such a small area, Healdsburg seriously has some restaurants you can’t miss. At Charlie Palmer’s elegant eatery, Dry Creek Kitchen, you’ll find vibrant American cooking and world class bottlings with the intimate charm of a small town and true wine country hospitality. It’s a high-end establishment specializing in surf and sea fare for a special occasion. Barndiva is a hip local hangout that embodies the idea of “wine country haute dining.” Beautifully presented dishes such as braised short rib ravioli with artichoke and red wine vinaigrette and goat cheese croquettes with wildflower honey and lavender are served alongside garden-fresh cocktails like the L.A. Is My DNA—tarragon whiskey, huckleberry jus and bitter honey foam—in a cool, modernized barn with a magical, white light-strung entranceway. Finally, make sure you check out the cozy Bravas Bar de Tapas, a Spanish tapas bar specializing in meat-centric small, shared plates, spicy cocktails and Spanish wines.