For lovers of Zinfandel, Italian grapes, Rhone varietals, and crisp whites, there's no better place to visit than Dry Creek Valley, California, the American Viticultural Area in Sonoma County that includes the bustling town of Healdsburg. Marked by a Spanish-style plaza lined with wine bars and restaurants (including Dry Creek Kitchen by Charlie Palmer and Spoonbar, headed by a former Top Chef contestant) plus shops, art galleries, and tasting rooms, Healdsburg and the surrounding region are perfect for travelers who are short on time: Most wineries’ tasting rooms are along Dry Creek Road (a 10-minute drive from downtown) and staffed by non-pretentious employees who are passionate about the art of winemaking. (Don’t be surprised if the winemaker or owner pops in during your visit, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.) Consider this your guide on where to sleep, eat, shop, and, of course, sip.
Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves
Not many Sonoma County wineries boast a wine cave, but Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves is open for 90-minute tours ($20) with a week’s notice. It includes barrel tastings of the winery’s Zinfandels. Short on time? You can taste a flight ($10) in its farm-chic rustic tasting room. (Tractors, weather vanes, and barns are printed on its Spiegelau wine glasses, sold in the tasting room.)
h2hotel and Spoonbar
The 36-room h2hotel—eco-friendly to the extreme, with its cardboard clothing hangers and filtered water served in glasses crafted from recycled wine bottles—opened in 2010 a half-block off Healdsburg’s plaza. Its street-level restaurant, Spoonbar, serves delicacies including a “flight of fish” (five fish prepared five ways, including big-fin squid) and Japanese cheesecake with yuzu curd, and the Sonoma-heavy wine list features small-production boutique producers. (Louis Maldonado, who made it to the finals of Top Chef: New Orleans, is at the helm of the kitchen.) Work off your dinner with a bicycle ride on one of the hotel’s adorable cruisers or check into sister property Hotel Healdsburg’s spa for a wine-and-honey wrap using Quivira Vineyards & Winery’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Dry Creek General Store
In the mood for a bottle of high-end Syrah and a sandwich along with a wedge of Cowgirl Creamery cheese? Cars start piling into the gravel parking lot outside Dry Creek General Store, a wine retailer and gourmet deli, for morning espresso and the traffic doesn’t let up until the 5:30 pm closing time. The store—established in 1881 and virtually unchanged since—is the only place for a bite along Dry Creek Road, but you can grab something quickly without cutting into the limited hours that tasting rooms are open.
Lambert Bridge Winery
Take your culinary goods to Lambert Bridge Winery’s picnic area, a mile or so down the road. Its 8,500 cases of wines—spanning 15 wines—are only distributed at restaurants in six states. With two sommeliers on staff, it’s worth booking the ultimate splurge: a sit-down wine-pairing lunch ($45) of umami and “flavor bridges” prepared by chef Bruce Riezenman. It’s offered in the redwood barrel-room on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only. Unique to the region is that all staff working in winemaking here—plus the two sommeliers—are women.
Dry Creek Kitchen by Charlie Palmer
For a glam dinner of progressive American foods served in an intimate setting, head to Hotel Healdsburg for Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. Chef de cuisine Dustin Valette sources from Sonoma County farms and wineries alike to devise dishes like duck breast with Pinot Noir–braised cabbage or sweet endings like a chocolate peanut-butter bar paired with a 2007 Pedroncelli “Vintage Port.”
Trattore Estate Wines and Dry Creek Olive Oil Company
Come summer, Trattore Estate Wines will debut its modern tasting room tucked into a red barn overlooking Geyser Peak. Sister company Dry Creek Olive Oil Company’s award-winning oils, made from the company’s 10 acres of olive trees, can also be tasted. Until the new facility opens, tastings of the three-year-old winery’s Rhone varietals, including Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache, and Syrah, are held by appointment at its olive mill a few miles down the road, where there's a working pizza oven out front. (Don’t fear: the new tasting room will have a pizza oven, too.)
Another must in downtown Healdsburg is Williamson Wines, founded by an Australian who formerly worked in Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry. A blending workshop ($125) using Bordeaux grape varietals is offered by appointment, with a minimum of two people needed. You’ll leave with a custom bottle blended by you, a perfect thing to pull out at your next dinner party.
Thirty-some tasting rooms are located in downtown Healdsburg. While some belong to big producers like Kendall-Jackson and La Crema, others represent boutique brands. One example is Longboard Vineyards, owned by an Israeli surfer who screens surfing-themed flicks in the tasting room. Try the Merlot or its Syrah—you won’t be disappointed.
Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee where she reports on food, wine, and travel topics around the globe for Fodors.com, along with new-hotel openings. She also writes for Wine Enthusiast, TIME, Whole Living and American Way. In 2006 she co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee and Tea (Alpha Books/Penguin). You can follow her on Twitter @kristineahansen or through her web site.