The Inquisitive Traveler
Forestville and Healdsburg: Wine country neighbors
By Patty Burness
Photos by Bo Links
When visiting wine country, you can choose your destination based on any number of factors – want to explore the area driving the countryside or walking the streets of downtown? Recently, my husband and I visited Forestville and Healdsburg, two Sonoma neighbors that show the contrasts in wine country towns. What they have in common, however, is great wine, delicious food, superb accommodations, and gracious people.
We started our adventure in Forestville, nestled in the Russian River Valley. Not more than 70 miles from the Northside, this easygoing town has a lot going on, although it seems to happen around the town, not as much in the center. Our sites were set a few miles outside of town at the luxurious Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant.
Sibling co-owners Catherine and Joe Bartolomei have turned the Farmhouse into the ultimate wine country retreat — complete with main house and cottages as well as an old barn converted into über-comfortable, high-tech, high-touch rooms. Included are beautiful interiors, gardens and landscaping (with heated pool) as well as a Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s even a “bath bar” at check-in with scented oils and scrubs. You’ll delight in house-made marshmallows (for s’mores) to roast later over the outdoor fire pit.
In a newly renovated “barn” room, Joe Bartolomei gave us a quick lesson in “touch” control — from igniting the fireplace (enjoyable from the bedroom and the outside deck) and warming up the tub jets, to heating the bathroom floor and operating the ultimate surround system and flat screen television. Don’t forget the steam shower. The colors and textures of the furnishings, the vaulted ceilings, and the floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outside in. Hanging out in this lush getaway was tempting, but wine tasting waited.
We hooked up with the inn’s master sommelier for a guided tour of some of Sonoma County’s finest — all within a five-mile radius. The winemakers in this part of the Russian River Valley share the same mindset: to make quality, food-friendly wines with their own personalities that express where the grapes are grown. For us, Pinots and Syrahs were the rich and complex stars along with other top-notch varietals at Radio-Coteau, Arnot-Roberts, Freeman, Scherrer, and Wind Gap. Make an appointment to visit and get on their mailing lists. Or better yet, find their wines all at the Farmhouse Restaurant — where we were headed.
Executive chef Steve Litke turns dinner into a magical experience. That’s why he’s earned a Michelin star. And he does it all out of a kitchen that is 16 by 14 feet. His creative blending of farm-fresh ingredients with an international flair provides each diner with a seasonally prepared meal in an elegant, yet relaxed environment.
During our visit, we savored a strawberry gazpacho amuse bouche, tempura of burrata stuffed squash blossom, and fresh Maine lobster fennel sausage. Add the “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit” — rabbit cooked three ways with an applewood smoked bacon-wrapped loin, roasted rack and confit of leg — paired with local wines, and we had wine country perfection. Scrumptious dessert, then s’mores followed. We thought about sleeping in the next morning, but didn’t want to miss the mouthwatering gourmet breakfast.
Before Forestville was in the rear view mirror, we stopped at Kozlowski Farms. Four generations run the whole operation from matriarch Carmen to the great grandsons. The jams, syrups, grilling sauces, mustards, butters, and pies are all homemade. Taste your way through the store then stock up on favorites.
It was a luscious 24 hours in Forestville with Healdsburg just around the corner. The town is literally minutes away. Except for a mushroom foray that took us to the outskirts (if I told you the exact location, I’d have to kill you), much of the activity in this Sonoma enclave centers around the town plaza.
Relish Culinary Center offers mushroom foraging several times a year. Our eager group found lots of mushrooms (mostly inedible) and learned what to look for, including warning signs. But a lack of edibles wasn’t a problem when we gathered at Relish for a demonstration lunch; we enjoyed luscious and earthy porcinis, roasted chanterelles, and candy cap mushrooms cooked several ways.
Time to walk off the meal and stroll the busy plaza. You’ll find boutiques, cafes and a wonderful selection of tasting rooms from local wineries (Healdsburg encompasses three valleys: Alexander, Chalk Hill and Dry Creek). We favored the reds, but it was the dessert wines that captivated us at Rosenblum, Ferrari-Carano and Toad Hollow. If you like to mix art with your wine, try Artiste.
Checking into Hotel Healdsburg is a feast for the eyes: comfortable furnishings, soothing colors, high ceilings, and big windows — all with a hip sensibility. Light is integral in the design with interior patios and suspended hallways. Gardens, pool and a screened porch add to the relaxed atmosphere. Our luxe king room (with all the amenities) was the ultimate place to recharge before dinner.
Dry Creek Kitchen is a quick walk across the patio. The decor is signature Charlie Palmer, exuding wine country comfort and sleek lines served with a farm-fresh palette. The dining area and the service are sophisticated but friendly and conducive to conversation. The chef’s tasting menu presents a symphony of flavors beginning with smoked salmon and caviar on a lemon blini served with Jordan’s NV “J” sparkling; toasted faro risotto with roasted chestnuts complemented by a 2007 Mahoney Albarino; and crispy-skin local red snapper with sherry caramel paired with a 2007 Mauritson Sauvignon Blanc. An assortment of ice creams and sorbets (including butternut squash), candies, and more “J” concluded a wonderful meal.
Slipping back into the hotel, we cozied up to the lobby fireplace and mellowed out with the cool sound of live jazz. The next morning we were back in the same spot enjoying a sumptuous buffet breakfast with the Sunday paper.
Before leaving town, we experienced the intimate Family Table at Seghesio Winery. Small tastes from this amazing Italian family were paired with some remarkable Zinfandels available only in this setting. Classic Seghesio flavors in the 2006 Defiant, but it was the 2004 Dionigia Port that was the smooth ending to our wine country weekend.
Whether it’s downtown or near town, each destination is a fun escape. Indulge your senses, relax and enjoy — everything is at your fingertips.
Forestville and Healdsburg: Both about 70 miles north of San Francisco off Highway 101.
Tourist Information: www.sonomacounty.com, www.healdsburg.com, www.wineroad.com, www.rrvw.org, www.alexandervalley.org, www.wdrv.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Farmhouse Inn: 7871 River Road, Forestville, 800-464-6642, 707-887-3300, www.farmhouseinn.com. Cottages from $275; Barn Rooms from $525 depending on day (includes breakfast). Guided winery tours $500. The new Spa at Farmhouse opens January 2010.
Hotel Healdsburg: 25 Matheson Street, Healdsburg; 800-889-7188, 707-431-2800, www.hotelhealdsburg.com. Rooms from $295 (includes breakfast). Spa Hotel Healdsburg 707-433-4747.
WHERE TO EAT
Farmhouse Restaurant: 7871 River Road, Forestville, 800-464-6642, 707-887-3300, www.farmhouseinn.com. Dinner starters from $12, entrees from $35, dessert $10, wines by the glass from $12.
Dry Creek Kitchen: 317 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, 707-431-0330, www.charliepalmer.com. Tasting menu $74, ($119 with wine pairing), dessert from $9, dessert wine $9.
Radio-Coteau Wine Cellars: (Forestville), 707-823-2578, www.radiocoteau.com.
Arnot-Roberts Wines: (Forestville), 707-820-1383, www.arnotroberts.com.
Freeman Vineyard & Winery: (Sebastopol), 707-831-4756, www.freemanwinery.com.
Scherrer Winery: (Sebastopol), 707-824-1933, www.scherrerwinery.com.
Wind Gap Wines: (Graton), 707-887-9100, www.windgapwines.com.
Kozlowski Farms: (Forestville), 5566 Gravenstein Highway 116, 800-473-2767, www.kozlowskifarms.com.
Relish Culinary Center: 14 Matheson Street, 707-431-9999, www.relishculinary.com. Mushroom foray and cooking class $89.
Rosenblum Cellars Tasting Room: 250 Center Street, 707-431-1169, www.rosenblumcellars.com.
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery Tasting Room: 113 Plaza Street, 707-431-2222, www.ferrari-carano.com.
Toad Hollow Tasting Room: 409-A Healdsburg Avenue, 707-431-8667, www.toadhollow.com.
Artiste Impressionist Winery & Tasting Studio: 439 Healdsburg Avenue, 707-433-1920, www.artiste.com.
Seghesio Family Vineyards: 14730 Grove Street, 707-433-7764, www.seghesio.com. Family Tables wine and food pairings $35.
Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.