For longtime residents of Sonoma County, it has been quite remarkable to witness the transformation of Healdsburg’s downtown from the somewhat sleepy center of a sparsely-populated farm town to the internationally renowned heart of the Sonoma County wine and culinary industries.

Though the changes have been many over the years, Healdsburg is still, at heart, a small town that caters to its local community.

As one of the few Sonoma County cities centered around a central plaza, Healdsburg offers a wide variety of shops, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Winter is an ideal time for locals to come visit the plaza, as there are fewer out-of-town visitors, parking is more abundant, and shopkeepers and tasting room staff have a bit more time to share.

There are now dozens of tasting rooms within a half-mile or so of the plaza, many of them offering extended hours well into the evening. No longer are wine-interested guests rushing to the next tasting room before closing; instead, they can spend a full day in town idly exploring all there is to offer.
Visitors can opt for a breakfast at one of the half-dozen or so plaza-area diners or cafes, like Costeaux French Bakery, the Downtown Bakery & Creamery or Flaky Cream Do-Nuts & Coffee, followed by perusing one of the many art galleries featuring local and outlying artists.

On Wednesdays through Sundays, the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society, located in the historic Healdsburg Carnegie Library on Matheson Street, are free, and the exhibits are well worth a look. Between tasting rooms, visitors can explore gift stores, clothing and specialty shops or one of the two bookstores, Copperfield’s or Levin & Company. Need a middle-of-the-day pick-me up? Try coffee at the Flying Goat, a slice of pie at Noble Folk or a cupcake at sister bakery Moustache, where you can occasionally watch the bakers frosting the next batch of treats.

Healdsburgians-for-the-day can grab lunch at any number of restaurants or specialty food stores. If the weather complies, perhaps even grab plaza picnic supplies at Big John’s Market, the independent grocery store with 20 years of history serving the community, and spend an hour or so sitting on the lawns or one of the many park benches. You never know what you might see—perhaps a parrot being fed gourmet ice cream, something I witnessed on my last visit.

Beyond the summer crush of tourists and behind the new hotels and high-end restaurants, Healdsburg is still filled with locals who want to preserve the idyllic small town and create a strong community. We’ve chosen a few wine destinations, each bringing their own unique take on what it means to be a part of this fantastic town.

Old Roma Station
Healdsburg’s Old Roma Station, at the intersection of Front and Hudson streets, has a long wine industry tradition. Built in the late 1800s, its origins were as a winemaking and production facility for a company (owned, coincidentally, by Beaulieu Vineyard founder Georges de Latour) that primarily focused on manufacturing cream of tartar from grapes. It was known at that time as the French-American Wine Company, but changed hands several times before being sold to Roma Wine Company, once America’s largest wine producer.

Though Roma Wine ceased business decades ago, the Old Roma Station name pays homage to their Healdsburg history. Now home to nearly a dozen wineries, Old Roma Station is a fantastic stop on a Healdsburg wine tour.

While each of the tasting rooms on the site offer fun and interesting wines, we’ve chosen to feature a couple to whet your appetite.

Sapphire Hill
Along with Holdredge Cellars, which occupies the red barn on the site, Sapphire Hill is one of the longest-serving tenants at Old Roma Station. The tasting room is small but welcoming, with brick-red walls, a stone-and-wood counter and comfortable leather couch for those who want to relax while sipping.

Established in 1989, Sapphire Hill is currently owned by Lisa and Chris Mulcahy, who purchased the winery in 2010. The couple have added their own stamp on the winery, bringing in veteran winemaker Tami Collins and redesigning the label for a more upscale and elegant look (with a bit of whimsy—ask about the hidden rooster).

Nearly all of Sapphire Hills’ wines are blends of some degree. Sometimes that’s a blend of different vineyards of a single variety, such as the Zinfandel and Pinot Noir offerings. Other times, they create a proprietary blend of different varieties. Their Cinque Gemma Italian Blend combines Sangiovese, Nero D’Avola, Primitivo, Barbera and Syrah into an inviting, earthy-yet-fruity wine created specifically to stand up to lasagna and other rich pasta dishes.

On weekends, the Mulcahys host a five-course food-and-wine pairing in their barrel room on-site for $35; advanced reservations are required. The winery also offers a daily small-plates tasting at $25 for two. If you just want to pop in for a tasting, for a $10 refundable-with-purchase fee you’ll get a sampling of the five or so wines being poured that day.

Hudson Street Wineries
A collective tasting room of five wineries, Hudson Street Wineries allows visitors to explore wines from a variety of different winemakers and winemaking styles. On offer are wines from Bluenose Wines, Kelley & Young, Owl Ridge, Shippey Vineyards and Willowbrook. There’s a $5 tasting fee (refunded with purchase) that gives visitors access to any number of the 15 wines or so being poured.
The tasting room offers a peek into the history of Old Roma Station, with photographs of various winemaking operations dotting the walls. These are mixed with pieces from local artists, as well as a dozen or so vintage rock concert posters, part of the personal collection of Shippey Vineyards. Hudson Street Wineries also offers television, which is especially helpful for sports-minded visitors.
Willowbrook has two Pinot Noirs that offer a glimpse into how geography influences the taste of the wine: the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is elegant and refined with notes of red plum and black cherry, while the Sonoma Mountain version is full, spicy and rich with hints of black pepper and hazelnut. Bluenose offers a well-priced homage to their Canadian roots with their “eh?” Zinfandel, a fruit-forward and long-finishing take on the variety.

There are several varieties poured here that can be somewhat difficult to find as stand-alone wines, making Hudson Street an especially good choice for those who are looking for something new or different to try. Owl Ridge has a Petit Verdot, a dark, velvety and complex Bordeaux varietal that is beginning to find a foothold outside of their usual use in blends. Kelley & Young offers an Alexander Valley Malbec, which thrives in the warmth of the region, as well as an excellent dry Malbec-based Rosé that features lush strawberry and raspberry notes. Shippey Vineyards Flaming J Petit Sirah is a dark, heavy and big wine with hints of toast and blueberry.

Banshee Wines
Though Banshee Wines was only established about five years ago, and the tasting room opened roughly a year ago, the winery is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated in Healdsburg. The winery was founded by three friends, Noah Dorrance, Baron Ziegler and Steve Graf, who sought to create iconic, balanced and elegant wines at affordable prices.

Rather than a tasting bar, the small, but bright, space is designed around relaxing tasting spaces. Favoring a mid-century modern style mixed with bohemian comfort, Eames-like molded plywood and Danish modern, brushed-leather egg chairs sit atop South American woven rugs. A large central wooden table, which looks as if it could once have been in a high school science lab, is surrounded by industrial metal-and-leather stools.

Along one of the back walls is a collection of vintage and found objects. These are all for sale, making Banshee one of the few, if not the only, tasting room and vintage boutique in the region. In fact, everything here is purportedly for sale.

The feeling here is of relaxed, restaurant-like service. Guests are invited to choose an open seat and servers bring out your selected wines at the pace you’re drinking. There are two tasting options, a $15 House Flight and a $30 Reserve Flight, which are waived with a bottle purchase from that flight. You can also buy wines by the glass.

Hungry guests can opt for one of the Small Bites plates created for Banshee by the nearby Barndiva restaurant. On my visit, these bites included chicken liver mousse with apricot marmalade, pork rillette with red onion apple relish, white bean puree with bacon jam and a chickpea hummus with sundried tomato pesto, with prices ranging from $9 to $15.

There’s a large selection of wines, from Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to single-vineyard Pinot Noir. I was particularly fond of the Marine Layer Pinot Noir, which featured notes of strawberry, candied walnut and cranberry, with a bit of earthiness and spice.

Valdez Family Winery
Just a short distance south of the Healdsburg plaza, at the corner of Healdsburg Avenue and Mill Street, is the home of the tasting room for Valdez Family Winery. The space, open from Thursday through Sunday, is large, understated and humble, with a long tasting bar and a blackboard announcing the day’s wine selections. There are only a few small indications—some news stories along one wall, a small map of Mexico behind the tasting bar, a black-and-white photo of a burro outside a small home—of the remarkable story of Ulises Valdez, the man behind the Valdez Family Winery.

Valdez, one of eight children, left school after the third grade in order to begin working in the fields near his village in Michoacán, Mexico. By 12, he had moved to Mexico City, where he sought more work and higher-paying wages. He used some of his funds, 500 pesos a month, to hire a tutor to teach him to read and write, fulfilling a promise to his mother. By 16, he came to the United States, finding work in Sonoma County’s vineyards by claiming he was 18 years old. His dream was to earn enough to create a better life for his family, and perhaps to open a grocery store near his village.

Inquisitive and hard-working, he quickly took to tending grapevines. Fortuitously, after a few years here, Valdez was able to obtain legal residency after President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to certain immigrant populations in 1986. Though he was still in his teens, he seized the chance to take responsibility for his future, co-founding a vineyard management company with a partner in 1987. In 2003, he bought out the partner and now runs the company as Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management.
He began making his own wines in 2004, using grapes from land he bought or leased over the years, and a custom crush winemaking facility. By 2010, he’d opened his own winery in Cloverdale, the same year that he and his wines were honored by being served at a White House state dinner in honor of the visiting Mexican president.

The tasting room was opened in 2013. Ulises Valdez’s daughter is usually found behind the counter, or sometimes Ulises and his wife, sharing their story and their wines.

The wines are sourced from his vineyards throughout Sonoma County. The Russian River-area Lancel Creek Pinot Noir, with its soft and supple edges and a black-fruit palate, is a particular standout. Valdez also offers a selection of Zinfandels, Chardonnay, Syrah and Petit Sirah. Another standout is the Pine Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a big, bold and heavy version of the variety with a nice undercurrent of smoked raspberry flavors.

“I’m not the best, but I’m a happy person,” Valdez told us on our visit. “I only have my name. The way you build your name is important: it’s by being honest and fair.”

Portalupi Wine Co.
The motto at Portalupi Wine Co., judging by their delightful tee shirts and irreverent posters, is “More wine, less everything else.” The everything else are the complexities and difficulties of life, which the Portalupi family believes can be cured with a bit of fine wine and a hearty meal with loved ones.
Founded by Jane Portalupi and her husband, winemaker Tim Borges, the winery’s trademark is their Vaso di Marina line of table wines bottled in one-liter glass milk jugs. This is the only winery in the United States using the bottle, but the idea has origins going back nearly a century.
Though the Portalupi tasting room is decidedly rustic modern—with roughly-finished cement walls, stacked wooden fruit crate counters and a wall of wooden pallets for wine shelving, pulled together by an incongruously bright and oversized violet couch—the wines themselves are inspired by the Portalupi family’s Italian roots.

Vaso di Marina is named after Jane Portalupi’s Nonna, Marina, who bottled her wines for her local Piemonte village using empty milk jugs. Wine, she believed, was meant to be shared. There’s a Vaso di Marina red and a white wine version, both sourced from the North Coast. Though not overly complex, these are meant to be relaxed, table wines shared with family and friends around a meal. The white is floral with subtle notes of wooden spice, while the red is fruit-driven with hints of red plum and ripe blackberry.

More intriguing on the palate are the winery’s selection of varietal wines. Portalupi produces just about 3,800 cases of these wines, focused on Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and the robust Italian variety Barbera. The Old Vine Zinfandel sourced from 108-year-old vines from the Dolinsek Ranch in the Russian River Valley is outstanding. With strong fruit flavors at the forefront, it is backed up with a mid-palate and finish of white pepper and winter spices. Old vines offer a complexity of flavor that might be reached only after a century of producing grapes.

Out in front, by the way, sits a fully restored 1976 Vespa scooter. The Vespa was found several years ago, sadly neglected, on the Portalupi family’s Italian ranch. It was brought here and restored and now serves as an ambassador of sorts for the winery’s mix of old and new traditions rooted in their Italian heritage.  SD