Looking for a nice weekend vacation in the wine country of California? Forget Napa; too crowded. Sonoma County is a good alternative; more rustic than Napa, more laid back. But still quite cultured and beautiful with great wine.

I spent most of the weekend in Healdsburg, CA, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco just off 101. It's a cute little town with an upscale tourist infrastructure but still relaxed. The Hotel Healdsburg was pleasant (but not perfect). The real highlight was Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen, a fantastic restaurant concentrating deeply on local food and wine. Healdsburg is full of good looking restaurants: Bistro Ralph, Madrona Manor, Zin, etc.

As for wine, the guide you need is the Russian River Wine Road, particularly the maps. We concentrated on Dry Creek valley, a long narrow valley with a great little road on the west side. Lambert Bridge is an old favourite there. This time we dropped in on Raymond Burr and Yoakim Bridge, both small wineries that only sell direct. Excellent wines, very full flavoured with some refinement.

The best wine of the weekend was at the restaurant sommelier's recommendation, a Hafner Vineyard's 1993 Alexander Valley Cabernet. The elegance of a proper aged Bordeaux at a price that wasn't wacko.

Alas, the housing prices are wacko: nice homes in Healdsburg are $700,000 and up, and a little 1800 square foot vacation home in the hills with a few acres of land is $1.5M or so. So much for the fantasy of a weekend place.

  2004-03-22 00:48 Z