If you are looking for a fresh, laid-back take on California's wine country, head for Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Here, you'll find beautifully structured wines, locavore innovation, and ample ways to soak up the sunshine. A balanced blend of old-town charm and sleek modern architecture, Healdsburg has had quite a growth spurt over the past few years, and it's had to in order to keep pace with visitor demand. The good news? It retains its sense of small-town nostalgia.
Here are some budget-friendly reasons to visit this charming wine region:
Stay: With room rates starting at $199 per night, h2hotel is the more budget-friendly sibling to the more austere Hotel Healdsburg. The hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel in town and it's hip enough to offer stylized amenities like still and sparkling water in oversized milk bottles, a salt-water swimming pool, and free bike rentals. Its signature restaurant, Spoonbar, is spearheaded by ex-French Laundry chef Louis Maldonado. Dishes like the polenta stew with grana padano, greens, and spring onions scream originality but with a dose of comfort. A new sibling hotel will debut in 2015 a block away from the h2, and will cater to families.
Drink: With over 170 vineyards in the areas, you won't be thirsty. The Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander valleys all offer outstanding wines (most notably Zinfandels and Sauvignon Blancs), and the best idea is to find a vineyard that will allow you to pair these wines with local cuisine. Lambert Bridge in Dry Creek Valley handpicks its grapes – a rarity these days – and makes a fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc Cuvee, among others. The weekend-only tasting menu ($45) with dishes like the butternut squash soup with crème fraîche and Tuscan olive oil is an ideal foodie introduction to the area’s flavors. If you’re into sustainability, sip Quivira’s biodynamic wines (five wine tastings are only $10), including its notable Zinfandel and Grenache varietals. The vineyard also offers wine-tasting dinners with notable local chefs in its rustic garden, which is flanked by a greenhouse and hen coop.
If you happen to be in town on April 26 or 27, catch the annual Passport to Dry Creek Valley, an immersive weekend of tastings and food pairings at over 50 vineyards in the region. A two-day ticket sets you back only $120.
Learn: SHED, an upscale, grange-style space opened by two local farmers last May houses a restaurant, an open-area cafe that serves hand-crafted beverages, and a twice-weekly farmers market. Its unique marketplace notwithstanding (you can find both hand-forged English garden tools and kombucha on tap), SHED also offers workshops and talks so you can channel the farm-to-fork philosophy at home. Nearby on Matheson Street, Relish culinary school offers cooking classes, including a "roving" course that will take you mushroom foraging in the Sonoma hills.
Get outdoors: The surrounding area is filled with sinuous roads and gentle hills that are covered in a spectacular carpet of blooming mustard flowers in spring. From affordable Segway tours ($99 and up) that take you past several vineyards (wine tastings are part of the deal) to biking, Healdsburg welcomes wanderers. Soak the day off at the Hotel Healdsburg, where you can enjoy "farm to spa" treatments like the Meyer Lemon Sage massage.