Wine Country Revival
In Napa and Sonoma, new wineries and tasting experiences invite oenophiles to linger longer—and support the region’s post-fire recovery
STORY: Katie McElveen
Iwasn’t sure what to expect when a friend suggested we meet at Idlewild, a tiny tasting room tucked into a side street just off the leafy town square in Healdsburg, California. On my three previous trips to Sonoma, I’d avoided intown tasting rooms in favor of those situated amid acres of vines, which somehow seemed more authentic. Yet here I was, sipping a glass of Cortese and chatting with owner and third-generation wine maker Sam Bilbro about wine and his passion for Italian varietals as if we were old friends, and he had all the time in the world. Later, at GrapeSeed, a tasting room located in a Healdsburg art gallery, I sipped with Matt Smith, a partner in this collective that gives artisanal winemakers a way to showcase and sell their products. It’s a win-win: Vintners have a marketplace for their small-production wines; visitors can taste—and bring home—unique bottles not available at their local stores.
Although Healdsburg was spared the fury of the fires that swept through the region in October, reminders abound. GrapeSeed’s 12-foot tasting table is one: Pulled from the burning home of a friend of GrapeSeed founder Dave Trebilcock, the charspattered slab ended up being the only possession to survive the tragedy. Trebilcock, like many others, said the best thing anyone could do to help the region recover is to come for a visit. But there’s another reason to make the trip to California. Throughout Napa and Sonoma, new wineries and tasting experiences are transforming the winery trek from a quick sip in a bustling tasting room into a leisurely affair complete with a reserved table, a dedicated staff member, food and other diversions.
Located just outside of Healdsburg in the Alexander Valley, Jordan Winery crafts Bordeaux-style blends that are both elegant and refined. But where the famous chateaux of Bordeaux don’t always encourage visitors, Jordan welcomes them with open arms and interesting programs such as vineyard hikes and tours that pair views and exploration of the nearly 1,200-acre estate with Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, cheese, charcuterie and estate-produced honey and olive oil. At Ram’s Gate Winery, the Palate Play tasting shows off Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and an agile Rhone blend against an umamirich, five-course menu. Napa’s new cool kid is Ashes & Diamonds Winery, which opened in November of 2017 in a Barbara Bestor-designed, mid-century building adorned with a zig-zag roof and an interior filled with lowslung chairs, bottle-green bar stools and curvaceous tables, consoles and bookshelves. The wines are equally retro, trading Napa’s traditional bold fruit for polished flavors that come alive with food and aren’t turbocharged with alcohol. Creative bites of sourdough squares with miso-onion dip and house-cultured butter are the work of Chef Emma Sears, who also oversees cooking classes, special dining events and meal pairings.
Restaurants are shaking things up, too. Book the Garden Table at Lucy in the Bardessono hotel in Yountville, and you’ll dine on farm-focused flavors behind a fragrant screen of lemon trees and rosemary bushes surrounded by lettuces, fruits and herbs, all of which will end up on your plate. On the way out, feel free to grab a guava or two for breakfast from the prolific trees.
In Healdsburg, Dustin Valette, chef and owner of Valette, has turned the tasting menu on its head with the Trust Me menu, a brilliant stroke that allows diners to choose the number of courses they’ll be served, with a minimum of four. Even those with lighter appetites will need them: Valette’s inspired combinations—Dungeness crab with toasty coconut chips, pork with roasted mustard seeds—are bait for foodies, making it nearly impossible to choose. Be sure to wave at Bob Valette, Dustin’s father, on the way out. The local pilot spent hours rescuing families stranded by the fires, often delivering them to the restaurant, which closed to paying guests to provide free meals to its neighbors.
WHERE TO STAY
A prime downtown location makes Hotel Healdsburg an easy choice; spacious rooms and fun extras such as afternoon wine tastings, a fridge full of complimentary snacks and a serene pool make it a smart one. Oversized bathrooms have deep soaking tubs, spa showers and organic bath amenities infused with fragrant herbs. hotelhealdsburg.com
Located on the site of the old Vintage Inn in Yountville, Vintage House has re-emerged with glorious rooms—think velvet furnishings, private balconies and wood-burning fireplaces pre-loaded with easy-to-light kindling—a pampering spa and partnerships with top wineries that provide free tastings and other goodies for resort guests. vintagehouse.com
WHERE TO SIP
Jordan Winery jordanwinery.com
Ram’s Gate Winery ramsgatewinery.com
Ashes & Diamonds Winery ashesdiamonds.com
Lucy in the Bardessono hotel in Yountville bardessono.com/lucy-restaurant-baryountville-california