I do a lot of driving through the various appellations of Sonoma County (there are 18 in all) in the good name of research and relationship-building. It never gets old. Surrounded by vineyard, forest, river or all three, it’s a stunning way to see where things are and to make connections between climate, geography and grape.
This may be particularly true of the Russian River Valley, where I love to start from the southern end of Healdsburg on Westside Road and travel south toward River Road, and cross from there to Forestville, where the Gravenstein Highway (aka Highway 116) will connect me to Sebastopol. Going north to south is more or less going from warmer to cooler, an interesting way to observe the different styles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made by producers here.
Before taking off, I start my day at The Downtown Bakery and Creamery around the Healdsburg Plaza. One of the oldest businesses in town, it was started in 1987 by alums of Chez Panisse. The café menu serves full breakfasts of scrambled eggs and pancakes, but I’m happy with a homemade jam pocket or croissant and off I go.
The bread theme continues in Forestville at Nightingale Breads, where bakers uses a wood-fired oven to mold handmade organic breads, including focaccia, challah and sourdough. Just a touch farther down the road is Pascaline Patisserie and Café, open daily until 4 p.m. for coffee, fine French pastries, sandwiches, soups and more.
Along the way, you’ll be traversing the heart of the Russian River Valley, where Joe Rochioli, Jr. is credited with planting some of the earliest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1968. The two grape varieties remain the most widely planted in Sonoma County, with the Russian River accounting for about 15,000 vineyard acres and 70 wineries all its own. Here, the river pulls fog from the ocean inland, cooling the area so that the grapes masterfully retain crisp acidity and freshness in the wines.
The Calling winemaker James MacPhail lives outside of Healdsburg near where the Russian River Valley meets Dry Creek Valley and like me, finds himself driving Sonoma County backroads during harvest and beyond.
“I never ever tire of my drives around this county, especially Westside Road,” he says. “Driving these back roads now for 25-plus years, and as many miles as I’ve put on my truck(s), I revel in the fact that I get to live here. Even when I’m not working, I’ll take the back roads instead of the freeway. I get to impress my family and friends by not only knowing these routes, but by pointing out all the vineyards along the way and reciting who owns them, who gets the fruit, what the vineyard name is, etc.”
Within a sizable amount of acreage (nearly 80,000 acres) largely focused along Dry Creek Road, Dry Creek Valley is a beautiful place to take in the fall colors of the vines, which blaze red, orange and yellow this time of year before falling off and slumbering through winter.
The Dry Creek General Store is a must-stop for food to enjoy on premise or to go, a hub of activity in the otherwise quiet appellation where Dry Creek Road meets Lambert Bridge; it dates back to 1881, 10 years after the region’s first vineyards were planted, many of them Zinfandel, which still dominates here. It was designated an historic landmark in 1979 and boasts three culinary gardens.
At the northern end of Dry Creek Road, cross over at Yoakim Bridge Road and connect to West Dry Creek Road and see the valley from north to south. At its end, you’ll arrive at Madrona Manor, an historic inn and restaurant with eight acres of gardens. A lounge menu with cocktails is available first-come, first-served Wednesday through Sunday starting at 6 p.m.
From the end of West Dry Creek, continue south on Westside Road or cross over from Mill Street to the heart of Healdsburg and you’re back.