Archive for October 4, 2008

Healdsburg and Manzanita

October 4, 2008 Leave a comment

Late this afternoon I walked around Healdsburg again, but this time without darkness, rain, and an umbrella. I could look up, see the architecture of the buildings, get a better sense of what the town is like. I headed from the hotel back toward Healdsburg Plaza. Just across from the northeast corner of the plaza is Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, which we passed yesterday but didn’t go into. I did today. It was evocative of old candy stores. Reading about them online, I see that they are in fact a recent chain store, designed to evoke old-time feelings. They started a few years ago as a single store just south of here in Windsor, then expanded through franchising, with many sites in California now plus sites in Boulder and Boise.

At the southeast corner of the plaza, I headed east to see what the town looks like away from the commercial center. One block east, I reached an intersection with a large Catholic church on the southeast corner and a small, intimate Episcopalian church on the northeast corner. The intimacy of the Episcopalian church was something of a visual trick, for it went way, way east, with extensions of the 1900 church. And beyond that, on the corner of the next intersection, was the Healdsburg Museum, housed in a 1910 Carnegie public library building. From there, I backtracked to the plaza, explored some stores to the south, then returned to the plaza again and took a seat facing a giant palm tree. After about 10 minutes of observing the people and cars, I got up, went to the palm, and read the sign below it, tracing it back to 1897, when four palms were planted in a formal pattern in the plaza, during a time of popularity of decorative palms. They are among the oldest trees in the plaza.

Back at the hotel, after a short break, we went down for the daily wine tasting in the hotel’s library. It became clear, as I suspected last night, that last night’s wine tasting was an anamoly — featuring a suite of wines from a single winery, with the owners of the winery doing the pouring themselves, while the hotel’s wine expert, Ron, served as host and welcomed people. Tonight, as I assume is the norm, Ron was host and pourer, with wines from a variety of vineyards. For the second evening in a row, we had a great conversation with Ron. He had explained last night that he grew up in southern California and was a sommelier in LA for 20 years. Now he lives in Chalk Hill, nearby, and uses his wine expertise on behalf of the hotel. He gave us badly-needed advice on vineyards to visit in the Russian River Valley.

From the wine tasting, we headed to Manzanita Restaurant, just a half a block east and one building down on Healdsburg Avenue. The restaurant describes itself as offering “casual fine dining in the heart of Healdsburg,” with “fresh seasonal cuisine with flavors of France, Italy & Spain,” and “the finest local products & wood-fired brick oven specialties.” That sounds about right. We sat at a two-top in the rear of the main room, against a four-foot wall on the far side of which the person managing the brick oven did his work. Beyond the wall was his work counter, then the space where he stood, then the oven itself, whose heat was easily felt at our table. We shared the “Pizza Margaretta with Heirloom Tomatoes, Fresh Basil and House Made Mozzarella” to start. It was pretty oily, but with excellent flavor. The basil and tomatoes were superb. We were then given an unexpected complimentary course, courtesy of our being guests of Les Mars Hotel — a salmon mousse inside a squash blossom. Whether this sounds good or not, it sure was good. We both were drawn to the same entree, the “Sonoma Lamb Ragoût over House Made Pappardelle Pasta with Fresh English Peas and Shaved Grana Padano.” A great dish. And for dessert we shared an apple tart with the house made vanilla bean ice cream.

It’s been a delightful day. We still have the Alexander Valley, the Russian River Valley, and the coast to explore.

Categories: Food, Travel

Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley

October 4, 2008 Leave a comment

We are in Healdsburg, California, where the Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Russian River Valley all meet, for a few days.  Yesterday we took Horizon Air’s non-stop flight from Seattle to Santa Rosa and it was cloudy all the way down.  Thick clouds, so that one could see nothing in any direction except gray until well into our descent.  Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport is quite small, a good deal smaller for instance than the last small airport we were at, Nantucket’s.  As a result, the arrival of our small but fully loaded Bombardier 400 seemed to overwhelm the airport.  When we got to the Hertz parking lot, where the cars are parked two deep, lots of people were standing around waiting for an attendant to unblock their cars. Ours too was blocked in, and the friendly Hertz attendant was mystified. He had washed them all and arranged them for our incoming flight to ensure no problems.  

We had rented a Chrysler Sebring convertible.  Well, according to the lettering on the back of the trunk, we had a Se rin .  On opening the trunk, we saw a warning about not putting luggage too far back, which we assumed mattered only when lowering the top, but we checked with the guy to be sure.  Somewhere along the way, he mentioned with bemusement that here he was moving cars around with two college degrees.  We put the top down and then put the larger bags in the backseat.  It was still cloudy, mind you, and pretty cool, but not raining, so we gave it a shot.  We had to drive a couple of miles to 101, and then north about 8 miles to Healdsburg on 101.  But by the time we approached the 101 entrance ramp, I suggested to Gail that we put the top up, since it really was cool and I didn’t want to be driving at 65 and freezing.  So we passed the highway entrance, turned into a fresh corn stand, put the top up, and resumed our drive.  Two miles later it was raining.  Soon it was raining heavily.  Very frustrating, considering that for days, when I checked online, the weather had been sunny and over 80 degrees.  We arrived during the first rain since last February.  

We got to Les Mars Hotel around 4:15 yesterday and checked in. There are only 16 rooms in the hotel, on floors two and three. Floor one has a small lobby, with a library to one side and Cyrus Restaurant to the other. We’re on floor two, in the largest room on the floor, the southeast corner room, with lots of windows and light. As advertised, the hotel is French style, with the tall windows typical of French buildings. It’s lovely.

Les Mars Hotel, Healdsburg

Les Mars Hotel, Healdsburg

Around 5:00, we headed out for a short walk around town, armed with umbrellas. We only went into a couple of places, but marveled at the many galleries, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and food shops. The Oakville Grocery was particularly interesting, with many specialty food items. On our return, the daily wine tasting in Les Mars’ library was just beginning. The husband-and-wife owners of Topel Winery, Mark and Donnis Topel, were doing the pouring themselves, aided by Les Mars’ in-house wine expert, Ron. We had quite a good time trying their wines and talking with them and Ron. Mark is a criminal trial lawyer in San Francisco when not overseeing the winery. Donnis was celebrating her birthday yesterday and they were guests at the hotel last night. They also have a wine tasting room right in town, though their principal vineyards are up in Mendocino County.

We headed up to Geyserville, 8 miles or so north of here, in very heavy rain, for our 7:00 dinner at Santi. Geyserville is a small town with little of note, as far as we could tell in the dark and rain, but with one fabulous restaurant. We shared their mixed salumi plate and then their simple but excellent green salad to start. Gail had a chicken dish on a bed of polenta, figs, onions, some chard-like green, and maybe another item or two that I’m forgetting. I had a spaghetti dish with local pork, pepperoncini, and some other things. Both were great. And for dessert we had a pear tart with their own vanilla gelato.

Les Mars has no breakfast restaurant. They bring a simple breakfast up to the room on trays — a choice of various pastries, fruit or cereal, beverages. We had their tomato and cheese quiche, croissants, and berries. By 10:30 we were off to explore the Dry Creek Valley, with the top down. We drove northwest, up Dry Creek Road, up the valley. Our first stop was Wilson Winery, just a short distance outside town, with an intimate tasting room and another couple there ahead of us. A friendly and knowledgeable woman with the hint of a European accent that I couldn’t quite place was our guide. (As we were going to leave, I asked her about her accent, and she said she’s Dutch. She came here just 3 years ago.) We tried many wines, mostly Zinfandels and Cabs, and decided to buy two bottles, a Zin and something else. I can’t even remember. Right around then, heavy showers broke out. Fortunately, we had put the car’s top up when we parked, but we had to stand around for 10 minutes before the showers turned to a light drizzle.

Then we were off, up the Dry Creek Valley, passing many vineyards, until we got to Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery. What a contrast to Wilson Winery. Huge parking lot, gigantic basement tasting room, maybe 50 people inside, service at the long bar or at tables. Not nearly as enjoyable an experience, though the wines were good, and again we bought two, a Cab-something blend and a Muscat. We toured the beautiful gardens, then headed to our car, with the sun shining, put the top down, and drove back down the valley in search of a late lunch.

We found it at the Dry Creek General Store. Short of returning to Healdsburg, this seems to be the only eating option, and accordingly, it was packed. Cars, buses, bicycles. There is a sandwich counter where one orders from the list of standard sandwiches or to order, then one gets on a huge line to pay, then one waits for one’s number to be called. We ate outside on the porch, just next to the front door, watching everyone’s comings and goings. Just after we started eating, a bus showed up with 18 people. It’s quite a place, complete with seedy bar that we stumbled on only at the end in search of restrooms.

From there we crossed over the valley via a tiny one-lane bridge over the creek. The road on the far side, West Dry Creek Road, is very narrow, twisting, more the domain of bicyclists than cars. We headed southeast on it for our next winery, only to discover on arrival that it was closed for a private event. So we kept on, until the road ended at Westside Road, which comes out of Healdsburg and heads southwest and west past the last part of Dry Creek Valley, becoming the main road of the Russian River Valley. After a couple of miles, we left Dry Creek Valley behind and entered Russian River Valley. The second winery we reached within Russian River Valley was Matrix Winery, which the Dutch woman at Wilson Winery had recommended.

Matrix Winery, Russian River Valley

(Matrix and Wilson are affiliated in some form, which I don’t fully understand.) Like Wilson, it has a small tasting room. Someone left as we arrived, and we were then the only ones there. We tried 9 wines, bought their Syrah, and were done for the day. It’s just a few minutes from there to the hotel and we were back by 3:15.

Next up: another walk around town, another wine tasting at Les Mars, then dinner at Manzanita, just around the corner.

Categories: Food, Travel