Why Healdsburg Is California Wine Country’s Greatest Sleeper Hit

Douglas Friedman/Courtesy Flowers Vineyards & Winery

Put yourself at the center of California's rich wine scene.

Planning a trip through Sonoma County’s vast and diverse wine country, whether virtually or in-person, can be a daunting task for those unfamiliar with the area’s distinct culture and layout. Sure, you’ll find high-end resorts, large corporate wineries, and other glitzy destinations mirroring those beckoning visitors from the tourist-laden hills of neighboring Napa Valley. But, on the other hand, you’re just as likely to come across a dusty backroads farm selling bottles of  their own organic grenache and petite sirah alongside fresh eggs, ripe fruit, and leafy greens. In many ways, this sweeping landscape is an adventurous wine enthusiast’s dream, striking a keen balance between refined technique and upmarket amenities they’ve come to expect and the humble approachability—not to mention modest price points—so often associated with under-the-radar producers. And the endlessly charming town of Healdsburg, with its direct access to three of the state’s most important winemaking regions as well as a vibrant and walkable central plaza, is smack dab in the center of all the action.

“Choosing this area seemed obvious to me,” says Aperture Cellars founder and winemaker Jesse Katz. Colorado-born Katz grew up tagging along with his father, Andy Katz, an accomplished landscape photographer, as he traveled the world documenting dazzling wineries. “The terroir was a definite draw, and I felt like Healdsburg was a great basecamp. The area is really special, both for the winemaking resources and the community.”

Healdsburg is quite literally surrounded by wine. Perched on the banks of the majestic Russian River, the northern Sonoma hamlet lies at convergence of the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and this particular vantage point is key to approaching winemakers like Katz.

Related: How to Have the Best Vacation in Healdsburg, California

“Sonoma County has one of the most unique terroirs in the world,” he continues. “The cold Pacifiic Ocean has a massive effect on temperature and creates a lot of microclimates, with sometimes 40 degree swings from the heat of the day to the cool of the night. We have areas cooler than Champagne and as warm as Bordeaux, along with a wide variety of soils with significant influence from volcanic activity a long time ago.”

Douglas Friedman/Courtesy Flowers Vineyards & Winery

Chantal Forthun, winemaker at the picturesque Flowers Vineyards & Winery, readily confirms Katz’s assessment. The Lodi, California native goes so far as to dub her adopted hometown “one of the most climatically diverse regions in California.” 

“It’s been said that Sonoma County has more soil types than all of France!” she raves. “Temperatures are moderate year round and the daily summer fog patterns are ideal for cooler climate varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay.”

And, Forthun notes, those two crowd-pleasing grapes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Healdsburg’s viticultural prowess. Zinfandel, including many old vines that survived Prohibition, as well as sauvignon blanc, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and other classics have long grown abundantly in the area while Euro-centric grapes like sangiovese, grenache, mourvedre, and gewürztraminer are beginning to make their mark. But the soil, powerful as it is, isn't the only factor attracting enterprising winemakers to Healdsburg—there’s also the town itself and the people that give it life.

“The community really drew me in,” explains Baron Ziegler, CEO of Banshee Wines. “Growing up in Minnesota, I was the kid in class with more ‘uncommon’ hobbies like reading Wine Spectator magazine.

I love the sense of humility [here] as well as the connectedness among the industry. We’re part of a group of boutique winemakers that share information, customers, and, most importantly, food and wine. Everyone helps take care of each other.”

“Healdsburg winemakers are genuine and collaborative, it’s a really special community to be a part of,” echoes Flowers’ Forthun. “We understand that when one succeeds we all succeed.”

That undercurrent of collaboration and local support bolsters Healdsburg’s reputation as the ideal slice of wine country for curious drinkers—not to mention industrious producers—of all backgrounds to explore.

“From a consumer’s perspective, it’s easier to find exceptional wines in the Healdsburg area at a lower price point compared to other California winemaking regions,” Aperture’s Katz notes. “When making wine, I like to showcase the best of an area and it’s really hard to do that in Napa [where] there are barriers to entry. The cost per ton is ridiculously high, and as a young winemaker, you really have to be born into money, which pushes out young talent.” 

Douglas Friedman/Courtesy Flowers Vineyards & Winery

Moving in tandem with the boozier sectors of the market, Healdsburg’s culinary, retail, and hospitality offerings have also blossomed over the last decade or so. “From SingleThread to Valette to the newly-opened Montage, there truly isn’t a more compelling blend of luxury and unpretentiousness in Northern California,” adds Katz.

Of course, traipsing across the country in search of great new wine isn’t exactly feasible for many these days. Luckily, for those already in California, many Healdsburg wineries are taking advantage of the moderate climate and breathtaking natural backdrop by shifting to open-air tasting rooms and other outdoor experiences that comply with local pandemic regulations. 

“We brought the excitement of the tasting room to the streets of downtown Healdsburg, channeling a European vibe with our outdoor patio and streaming music outdoors to keep the daily Banshee soundtrack alive,” Ziegler says, commenting on the ways in which his winery has adjusted to the new normal. “It helps to have beautiful views and great company to get us through the pandemic.”

Related: Everything You Need to Know About California Wine Country

Thanks to a little homegrown ingenuity, folks unable to make the trip can still dip their toes into Healdsburg’s tasty waters via online tastings, demos, and other events. 

“It really goes beyond video conferencing at this point,” Forthun says of Flowers’ shift into the digital realm. “I’ve started to host winemaker dinners virtually. My favorite is when I can actually see everyone's faces and they’re excited about the wines and want to ask questions. We’re all feeling a little cooped up while at the same time incredibly lucky that wine production has been deemed essential to our local economy.”

Whether their customers are sipping and swirling from a social distance or raising a glass over Zoom, Healdburg’s lot of ambitious and optimistic winemakers are confident they have what it takes to withstand any storm that comes their way. As Aperture’s Katz concludes, “When you consider the amount of hurdles the wine industry here has had to climb in the past few years, from multiple fires to the pandemic, it’s only natural that we all look out for each other and share what we can to help the whole community rise to the top.”

Aperture Cellars

Courtesy Aperture Cellars

“The longer growing season combined with the cooler-climate spots we have in the area—I feel as though Bordeaux varietals work best here, which is why I chose to invest so heavily in them,” explains Aperture Cellars founder and winemaker Jesse Katz. While the seasoned wine pro kicked off this latest venture just this summer, his resume lists stints at esteemed international wineries like Petrus in Bordeaux, Viña Cobos in Argentina, as well as Napa’s Screaming Eagle, among other outposts. At Aperture, Katz’s vision comes to life in the form of two terroir-driven series: Soil and Site. The first focuses on blended and single origin expressions designed to highlight their particular soil type and range from an elegant and fruit-forward clay loam-influenced Chenin Blanc to a rich, herbaceous, and intoxicatingly aromatic 2018 cabernet sauvignon derived from mineral-rich, volcanic soil. Site’s lineup revolves around single vineyard releases that embody the area’s essence like the stunning 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Del Rio Vineyard, born of the Alexander Valley and showcasing an earthy, almost savory nose followed by layers of luscious cassis and a refreshing minerality. Awash in sun-drenched, open-air spaces, the 4,000-square-foot estate is available for in-person visits as well as virtual tastings.

Flowers Vineyards & Winery

Douglas Friedman/Courtesy Flowers Vineyards & Winery

“Growing up near Lodi, my parents are fantastic gardeners and I always liked the idea of working with living things, especially plants,” recalls Flowers winemaker Chantal Forthun. “Making wines that speak of a specific place and time requires curiosity and flexibility. No two days are the same and the quest for an unattainable perfection is constant.”

Unattainable? Perhaps, but Forthun’s efforts have come quite close to perfection. While the House of Flowers (AKA the gorgeously-designed Healdsburg tasting room) has been introducing visitors to the winery’s expertly crafted fleet since 2019, the estate sources their pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from remote seaside vineyards along Sonoma’s craggy shores, taking full advantage of the Pacific’s looming fog patterns.

Must-tries include the 2018 Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay, with its burst of fresh citrus, bright floral fragrance, and crisp natural acidity, and the 2018 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, fermented with 100% native yeast and imbued with notes of lush red berries, a hint of baking spice, and a sophisticated salinity. The 2019 Sonoma Coast Rosé, made from pinot noir and laced with plump summer fruit, rose petals, and dashes of juicy Meyer lemon, racked up 93 points on Wine Enthusiast and never fails to delight. As of December, 2020, Flowers is temporarily closed to visitors but they’ve revved up curbside pick-up options as well as engaging virtual tastings.

Banshee Wines

“I’m always working towards getting people excited about wine,” says forward-thinking Banshee CEO Baron Ziegler. “The next generation of wine drinkers are out there and eager to join the community, and we’re constantly striving for the authenticity to draw them in.” Ziegler’s welcoming philosophy translates beautifully into every aspect of this laid-back and lively downtown Healdsburg outfit. With an expansive range and large spectrum of price-points, Banshee’s collection is rife with enticing options primed to enchant any palate, from the rose water-kissed 2019 Mendocino County Rosé’s ambrosial melon-rich appeal to the 2015 Sullivan Vineyard Pinot Noir, awarded 93+ points by Wine Advocate and teeming with plump dark cherry, vibrant plum, and blackberry notes beneath a peppery anise- and lilac-scented nose and a soft, luxuriant tannic structure.

The breezy outdoor patio, perpetually set to an upbeat soundtrack, is the ideal spot for learning more about Banshee’s prolific and ever-growing portfolio over a few socially-distanced glasses. Though out-of-towners, never fear: Launched in 2009, the established winery also offers several different wine club memberships with at-home delivery as well as widespread distribution.

Passalacqua Winery

This Dry Creek Valley family-owned operation prides itself on small-batch, handcrafted wines that evoke a gracefully understated panache while simultaneously reflecting their rustic, ranch-like surrounds. They’ve amassed a dedicated cult following since opening their doors in 2004 and continue to win over wine lovers with their constantly evolving limited-production catalog of vineyard-to-glass favorites like show-stopping zinfandels, cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays, blends, and more. The winery is currently open for outdoor tastings on the epically scenic deck and they also maintain a robust wine club as well as direct-to-consumer shipping.

Quivira Vineyards & Winery

A Demeter-certified Biodynamic and organic winery since 2005, this Dry Creek Valley original is equally revered for its zinfandel-, sauvignon blanc-, and rhône-dominated fleet as well as for its verdant and spacious grounds complete with a labyrinth of a garden, clusters of happy chickens, and even a resident wild pig affectionately named Ruby. Winemaker Hugh Chappelle is the man behind the magic, overseeing the estate’s 90 acres and producing a host of award-winning releases fueled by sustainably-farmed grapes. Pay special attention to the 2017 Black Bear Zinfandel, a dual-vineyard 79% zinfandel and 21% petite sirah estate wine aged for a full 18 months on both French and American oak before it was unveiled to much fanfare. The 2018 Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc, spiked with a sparsely cultivated sauvignon musqué clone and aged partly in acacia barrels, explodes with white waxy blossoms on sweet pear on the nose before giving way to a wash of tropical fruit, invigorating grapefruit pith, and dustings of white pepper. Quivira is open for tastings by appointment only and also offers curbside pick-up, a wine club with tri-annual shipments, and online purchasing.

Seghesio Family Vineyards

One of the region’s oldest, this zinfandel specialist traces its roots all the way back to 1895 when founder Edoardo Seghesio arrived from Italy and began planting his beloved vines in the wilds of Alexander Valley. Those same vines are still trucking, providing the fruit for many of the vineyard’s award-winning zins while subsequent plantings have given rise to a bounty of additional Italian-accented expressions including California rarities like the 2016 Venom, seductively silky and comprised of 100% sangiovese grapes, and a particularly sought-after single varietal aglianico. The downtown Healdsburg tasting room may be temporarily shuttered, but do take advantage of virtual at-home tastings, wine club memberships, direct-to-consumer shipping, and curbside pickup.

Chalk Hill Estate

Courtesy Chalk Hill Estate

Situated just south of downtown, this lavish estate covers 1,300 heavenly acres of the Russian River Valley’s easternmost edge. The sprawling campus personifies the area’s relaxed opulence and spans 300 acres of vineyards plus designated wilderness areas, panoramic views of the Mayacamas Mountains, a top-of-the-line production facility and hospitality center, and an abundant culinary garden. Winemaker Courtney Foley helms the sustainably-minded, low-intervention program, creating a well-stocked troupe of sturdy reds and polished whites with an emphasis on malbec, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. A dynamic, California-centric sauvignon gris and a toasty, devilishly spiced carménère represent the estate’s more exclusive and experimental offerings. Tastings on the terrace are available by reservation only while a subscription wine club and online retail sales remain popular points of entry during these unprecedented times.

Arista Winery

This Russian River Valley knockout made waves when it debuted back in 2002, quickly stealing the local spotlight with its idyllic 36-acre layout and discerning flock of highly-decorated chardonnays and pinot noirs that amass reliably high marks with each vintage. Gradual fermentation techniques using 100% natural yeast give the wines a distinct terroir that speaks masterfully of the region’s environmental complexity. On-site tastings are suspended through January 31, 2021 but February reservations are now open for booking as is parking lot pick-up, wine club memberships, and online ordering.

J Vineyards & Winery

Courtesy J Vineyards & Winery

Operating just south of Healdsburg proper, this far-reaching outfit is regarded as the region’s premiere purveyor of sparkling wines. Six different vineyards provide winemakers with everything they need to maintain and build J’s deep and wide-ranging portfolio while the ample estate grounds create plenty of opportunities for safe on-site exploration. The Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays turn heads, but cuvées undoubtedly lead the celebrated pack and the 2014 Blanc de Blancs, with its lemon grove aroma, green apple crispness, and velvety body with just a tinge of wet stone at the finish, is a wonderful representation of the style. Outdoor in-person tastings and food pairing experiences are in full swing, as are shop-from-home options and a multifaceted wine club.

Reeve Wines

Gretchen Gause/Courtesy Banshee Wines

Banshee co-founder Noah Dorrance struck out on his own when he opened this Dry Creek Road venture in 2015 and, considering Reeve’s status as one of the area’s most exciting young wineries, Dorrance’s professional leap has paid off in droves. Exuding a warm and homey yet stylish vibe courtesy of Dorrance’s midwestern roots, the bucolic indy darling yields around just 2,500 cases per year and, as the website avows, they “do not subscribe to a formulaic dogma but instead practice the light-handed art of winemaking.” The result is a thrilling bill of unexpected gems like a riesling made with 50-year-old organic vines, a compellingly handsome blanc de noir, and a spunky, spectacularly food-friendly sangiovese. For now, the estate is only offering curbside bottle pick-ups but reservations for in-person tastings should return as regulations allow. In the meantime, check out Band of Reeve, the joint’s dual-level wine club, as well as online direct-to-consumer shipping.