A 3-Day Local’s Guide to Wine & Food in Northern Sonoma County (Minimal Driving)
Food & Wine
While it may be tempting to jam pack your epic wine country itinerary with tasting rooms across Napa and Sonoma counties, I know from experience that all that driving is a literal buzz kill. It’s easy to underestimate the distance, mountains and windy roads between these two famous wine growing regions. Instead, apply one of my favorite mantras - do less!
To simplify logistics and still enjoy phenomenal food and wine, spend your time in the picturesque town of Healdsburg. Healdsburg is the upscale hub of Sonoma County's exploding food and wine scene. I love its leisurely pace, unpretentious vibe, and charming town plaza where you can roam on foot to tasting rooms, boutiques and memorable dinners. I’ve been exploring California's wine country since my first visit in 2009, and have called it home since moving here in 2017.
With Healdsburg as a home base, you’ll have access to excellent hotels, wine, food and relaxation and never need to drive more than 5-10 minutes. Best of all, you can walk to dinner each night from your hotel, which is the best way to end a wine tasting romp. All in all, these spots allow you to experience the best of Sonoma County while spending more time soaking in the vineyard vibe and less time in transit!
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Hotel Les Mars
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Day 1: Let's drink wine!
After you've settled into your chic downtown hotel, step outside your front door and take a walk around the Healdsburg Plaza to orient yourself. After a lap, head to Coursey Graves. Here you'll wet your palette with thoughtfully made bordeaux-style wines sourced from iconic, cooler climate vineyards.
From there, move on to Maison Healdsburg Wine Bar for a side-by-sideside tasting of a local pinot noir and it's Burgundian analog. Or maybe you prefer to compare a California Syrah blend to a French GSM? Maison is a laid-back space with an approachable wine menu, so go ahead and wander on in!
When you're hungry, head to Valette for dinner. If you didn't reserve a table, you may try your luck at one of their coveted bar stools (the comfiest in town)! Valette is a local landmark, and recently received a well-deserved nod from the Michelin guide. Chef Dustin Valette honed his craft working with several of the Bay Area's greatest chefs, including Thomas Keller, Michael Mina, and Charlie Palmer. Get ready for some seriously swoon-worthy food. My perfect meal starts with a glass of cremant and the Osetra caviar with toasted brioche. It carries on with the Hawaiian Ahi Poke, the Kobe Beef Tartare or the impressive Day Boat Scallops en Croute (or all of the above, if I can convince my dining buddy to go sharesies). The wine menu is carefully curated and the bourbon selection is extensive. I especially love to go early and snag comfy seats at the bar. The bartenders will take extra great care of you.
Day 2: Melt into wine country
After sleeping in and enjoying a hearty breakfast, hop in the black car that your travel advisor arranged for you. Your driver will take you to Aperture's new state-of-the-art estate, just a few miles from the Plaza. Here you'll experience elegant Bordeaux blends, Sauvignon Blanc, and a rare Californian Chenin Blanc, from your comfy club chair overlooking an old growth vineyard. Winemaker Jesse Katz' wines are sure to impress and they finally have the setting they demand.
Have your driver take the scenic route back to Healdsburg Plaza. Next stop, the Marine Layer tasting room. Marine Layer Wines focuses exclusively on cool-climate Sonoma Coast vineyards. Their wines are excellent on their own, but don't miss the opportunity to pair with a vegan mezze plate curated by Little Saint, a neighboring restaurant.
And for dinner tonight, choose between Guiso Latin Fusion or Barndiva, knowing both are exceptional and there is no wrong answer! At Guiso, you'll have the best home-cooked meal with top-notch service in a cozy, quirky space shared with the local theater. I highly recommend the House salad and the steak (whatever chimichurri-loving cut they are preparing that day!) Alternatively, enjoy an evening under the stars in Barndiva's magical (heated) garden. Think seasonal Californian cuisine, one well-deserved Michelin star and goat cheese croquettes laced with lavender and honey.
Day 3: Private tasting
Grab bicycles and water bottles from the hotel and head two miles into the countryside for your private tasting at Tongue Dancer Wines.
Here you'll taste talented winemaker James MacPhail's love affair with stand-out single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays. This is a working family winery and you'll be treated like an honored guest, though you may be put to work while you're there.
(Carefully) Bike back to the Plaza, grab lunch at Troudbadour Bread & Sandwiches. Spend your afternoon shopping the local boutiques, napping or sampling the tasting rooms that line Healdsburg Plaza (a few suggestions: Ernest, Lioco, Portalupi).
Save room for dinner on your last night in town at Goodnight's Prime Steak & Spirits. I was extremely pleased with the yellowtail hamachi and the Chalk Hill salad with lavender vinaigrette. But the star of the show will be the perfectly cooked steak with an expert crust and your choice of sauce and fancy salt to go with it. I am usually a sauce bearnaise gal, but the bordelaise was out of this world. You'll want to start planning your next trip back to this delicious town over your dessert of sticky toffee pudding with caramel ice cream.
Day 4: Day trip
If you aren't ready to leave northern California, have your travel advisor add another chapter with excellent food and wine. Consider easy drives south to Sausalito, west to the Sonoma Coast or north to Mendocino County.
Need to Know
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, 10 Days of Food & Wine in Cape Town & the Winelands of South Africa.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to California.