Perfectly situated between three dramatically different viticulture regions, Healdsburg provides the most diversity of Sonoma’s wine-growing regions. Skip the corporate wineries, and stick to the little guys instead – there’s greater quality control in small-batch production. (Think of it this way: If you were invited to two dinner parties, one for ten people and one for a hundred, which party would have the better food?) Bring a picnic. Unlike in Napa, nearly every winery in Sonoma allows picnicking, but be sure to purchase a bottle of your host’s wine before snagging a table.
To the west, the Russian River Valley cuts a serpentine course toward the ocean and gets blanketed with summertime fog; Burgundian-style wines do great here, specifically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Folksy De La Montanya makes terrific blends – 17 of them to be exact – and they’re infinitely drinkable. The wine-maker is usually on hand, telling dorky jokes, setting everyone at ease. Primitivo is the signature red, Viognier the signature white. The late-harvest Zin goes great with chocolate, and the ‘Summer White’ blend is the perfect back-porch wine on a hot day. For personal service and a warm reception, don’t miss De la Montanya. Bottles cost $20 to $50. Inside a geodesic dome, Armida specializes in Zinfandel – Poizin, ‘the wine to die for,’ is their top of the line. Kick back with a picnic on the wood deck outside, beneath gnarled oaks, then play bocce ball. Bottles run $12 to $50. Down the road at hippie-dippie Porter Creek, sample food-friendly, high-acid Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, some grown bio-dynamically. These guys are a trip: the tasting room is a garage from the 1920s and the bar is a former bowling-alley lane. Ask to see the aviary and yurt. Bottles cost $18 to $38.
North of town, pastoral Dry Creek Valley stays warmer in summer because hills to the west block the fog; here Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc thrive. Most people drive up Dry Creek Valley Rd, a wide high-speed two-lane road, but if you want to take it slow, or if you’re on a bicycle, take winding and undulating West Dry Creek Rd, one of Sonoma County’s loveliest back roads. At the far northern end of the valley, Bella has caves built into a hillside, which double as tasting room. A super-fun staff guides you through the offerings, including some fine Zins (one, an exceptional late-harvest variety), and a fabulous rosé, perfect for a barbecue (but hurry; it sells out early in summer). Bella also throws some of the area’s most fun parties; join their wine club and ask nicely, and they just may invite you. Bottles cost $15 to $35. Next door to Bella, Preston is a lovely spot for a picnic. Grab a table beneath the giant walnut tree. The tasting room is inside a 19th-century farmhouse; standouts include a citrus-y Sauvignon Blanc and a number of interesting Rhône varietals. The Barberra has a loyal following, as does the ‘L Preston’ blend of Syrah, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre. Bottles cost $16 to $27.
East of Healdsburg, gorgeous Alexander Valley gets hot in summer; Bordeaux-style wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do well here, but you’ll also find some voluptuous Zins too. The modern concrete-and-glass tasting room at Stryker Sonoma sits atop a hill with commanding valley views. Bring your camera. Cabernet and a fruit-forward Zinfandel are the standouts. You can only buy this wine at the tasting room, a bonus if you want to bring a special gift home. Bottles cost $18 to $50. Next door, Hanna abuts the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s a gorgeous place to picnic, especially if spring wildflowers are still blooming. Merlot and Cabernet are the standouts, but Hanna is also known for damn good big-fruit Zins and Syrah. Friday through Sunday by appointment, there’s a sit-down reserve wine and cheese pairing for $10. Bottles cost $20 to $50. Hawkes is the winery to watch. They’ve been growing grapes for three decades and recently started making some damn respectable Cabernet and Merlot. And they couldn’t be nicer folks. They’re located next to the Jimtown Store.
South of town, it’s worth the short drive to J Winery, which is best known for its crisp sparkling white, but there’s a remarkably good Pinot Noir as well. Best of all, they offer food-and-wine pairings ($12), featuring four wines and eight different canapés, to help you sharpen your tasting skills. If you’re a budding gourmand, don’t miss it. But comb your hair: the crowd is strictly skirt-and-sweater. Bottles cost $20 to $50.
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