Stylist’s Joanna McGarry visits Healdsburg in California to find the phrase ‘farm-to-table’ isn’t a trend, it’s a way of life
Perched on a mint green stool, glass of rosé in hand, I stare out at a sleepy American town and think ‘yes, I shall be quite happy here.’ Because, right now, in this moment, everything is perfect. Now, of course, that could be down to the easy-on-the-taste-buds local rosé, but I’m more given to the notion that this is the effect that Healdsburg has on all those that pass through it.
Nestled just right of centre in Sonoma County, Northern California, Healdsburg is a small (at just three and half square miles), yet perfectly formed town which happens to be neatly fringed by Northern California’s most dynamic wineries and vegetable farms. Its convenient location – coupled with its reputation for having invented ‘farm-to-table’ dining – means Healdsburg is fast becoming the linchpin of Sonoma wine country, known as the earthier, cooler alternative to the upscale glitz of Napa Valley.
Here, at Spoonbar, in a cosy corner of H2Hotel, glitz is eschewed in favour of sustainable luxury. A modern confluence of concrete, stained glass and reclaimed wood, the hotel is modern yet homely; sustainable bamboo floor boards and organic Cayuchi crisp linens (which I’m convinced was the trick to finally shrugging off my jet lag) deck out our room. In the bathroom, a deep tub that wouldn’t look out of place in a Japanese Onsen, lies in wait. And on each hotel floor, a purified water refill station, mercifully absolves my plastic bottle eco-guilt.
The next morning, after a quick pit stop at Flying Goat Coffee (like wine, coffee is a religion here), we quiz the locals on which of the 200 local wineries to check out. For any wine-tasting excursion, a hire car is essential, so we strap in and head out, pausing only for a stomach-lining turkey and cheese sandwich as big as my head, from the 126-year-old Dry Creek General Store.
Equally as essential is a Wine Road Tasting Pass, which for the princely sum of $30 per day, grants complementary tastings at three local wineries. First stop, Dutcher’s Crossing Winery, where we are greeted by Dutchess, the local golden labrador. Here, in a stylishly renovated barn, we are poured five ‘tastes’ of in-house wines for just $10, with, I’m told, no underwritten obligation to buy. After the third taste, that soft wine haze befalls me and I leave with a bottle of Pinot Noir – Dutcher’s Crossing’s finest blend.
Ten minutes later, we hit the 100-year-old Sbragia Family Vineyards, sat on top of a hill with 360 views of the tumbling Californian landscape, and made quick work of the six-wine tasting menu, set to a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones. Rather than the often arms-length wine tours of the much-smaller Napa Valley, here in Sonoma, you’ll likely end up chatting to the owner of the estate. It’s a colloquial, casual exchange in which wine amateurs like us feel at ease enough to ask whether we should smell the wine (yes), swirl it (yes), sip it (yes), or spit it (well, probably, if you’re the designated driver).
And that Healdsburg reverence for nature runs through even the wineries: Sonoma County has pledged that by 2020, it will become America’s first 100% sustainable wine region. As a result, biodynamic wines, those untampered by fertilisers are finding themselves at the forefront of modern wine culture. On a roll, we head back into Healdsburg town to visit Longboard, a tasting room owned by an Israeli surfer who regaled us with stories of record-breaking surfs at nearby Mavericks and convinced me – a die-hard Sauvignon Blanc girl – that buttery Californian Chardonnay would be back on top by 2018 before making way for a barrage of crisp Californian sparkling wine.
Tucked inside a gentle wine fug, we head to Willie’s fish restaurant just off Healdbsurg Plaza for an early bird dinner. The lobster rolls are unfathomably good; thick, fluffy baguette and great hunks of pink fish. And of course, we devour the truffle fries. Unlike the green hills hewn into the Northern Californian landscape, Healdsburg is primarily flat and best explored on two wheels. So, the next morning, we borrow a pair of Dutch bicycles from the H2Hotel and roll around, occasionally stopping to peer into people’s homes, in all their pastel pink, wisteria-fronted glory. It’s here, on a street that smells of freshly-cut tuberose, that it occurs to me that this is where Monica and Chandler would live, after leaving New York with their twins.
Still, it’d be a mistake to dismiss Healdsburg as a merely Truman Show-esque, hyper-perfect suburbia. Behind its quaint exterior lies a fierce community spirit. For lunch, we head to the Shed, a community-driven space comprising coffee shop, patisserie, grocers, restaurant, deli, homewares, fishmongers and event space under one roof. If Cos were a food emporium, this would be it. I order an heirloom beet salad and sip on a locally fermented peach, rose and geranium champagne vinegar.
For something more special, head to Single Thread, a farm, restaurant, and inn. With a 12-course Japanese-inspired tasting menu which evolves each night in line with grown on their farm, it is breath-takingly slick. That Kyle Connaughton, former head of R&D at the Fat Duck, has chosen Healdsburg as the home of his new venture serves only to anoint its status as the current epicentre of ‘the test kitchen’ of America.
We head back to the hotel just in time to trawl the antiques warehouse just next door. I leave with a 1980’s Yashika camera for $40, a total bargain in what is, admittedly, a purse-stretching town. The current exchange rate (0.77p to the $1) is felt keenly in Healdsburg, a town conspicuously devoid of Denny’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bells. But tasting wine is mercifully cheap. And in an era where experiences are trumping material possessions as our indulgence of choice, Healdsburg more than earns its keep.