Part two of our California adventure – you can read part one HERE – took us into Sonoma County: wine country! This has been on my bucket list for years, and it absolutely lived up to all of my hopes and dreams. Side note: I’m sad that I’m old enough now to start checking things off my bucket list. Sigh.
Well, if you read through Saturday’s escapades, you’ll guess why we didn’t make it to Muir Woods as planned. Oops!! No worries: we will save it for another time. Since we woke up a bit later, we checked out and headed directly to our 11am appointment at our first winery in Sonoma County.
Look at that pour! And there were three more after those…each.
It was such a grey day, but everything looked so lush.
Looking back toward the tasting room: it really was a very quiet day when we went.
Ram’s Gate Winery is just an hour outside of San Francisco and totally doable as a day trip from the city. This was my favorite tasting experience of all the wineries we visited. Our server Natalie was knowledgeable, engaged, and answered our myriad questions. We each opted for the $25 tasting, and the pours were generous here! She even gave us tastes of others to compare how processing the same grapes after harvest can change the character of the wine. Our 45-minute tasting ended up being more like 90; maybe it’s different when they’re busy, but they did not rush us, which was nice. Their tasting bar is modern rustic, with a gas fireplace on one end. After our tasting, we took a lovely stroll through their vineyard. To my palate, the wines were complex and flavorful: my favorite of the trip. We left with two bottles to take home: one for us and one for a friend. They even gave us special, bottle bubble wrap for packing on the plane – very nice.
Hot Ram’s Gate Tip – You can make reservations on their website but, if the time you want/need isn’t available, give them a call as they hold back additional tasting times. Also, there is a reserve wine tasting room next to the main tasting bar that looks pretty swank. It may be for wine club members only, but it can’t hurt to ask about it!
The Naked Pig – Santa Rosa
Up we headed then toward our northerly destination, stopping for lunch in the town of Santa Rosa. We were just flying by the seat of our pants and, man, did we luck out! The Naked Pig is an unassuming little establishment on the main road; it’s basically a shed plopped in a parking lot, with shared or close quarters tables. This sounds questionable, but I assure you it was surprisingly adorable! Bryan’s throat was bothering him, so he decided on a soup and house-made blueberry kombucha, while I ordered the best Croque Monsieur I’ve ever eaten. Served by a helpful, hipster wait staff, this food was hearty and sophisticated farm-to-table.
Hot Naked Pig Tip – Don’t pass this up!
We left The Naked Pig with bellies full and feeling satisfied. That didn’t last long because, soon after, we arrived at our accommodation in Healdsburg. *Sad emoji*
Where we stayed (and where you should not….)
Best Western Dry Creek – Uch. This place. Well, it certainly is a budget option. We disliked it so much that I’m not even linking to it or showing pictures. Ok, maybe just one picture because the gas fireplace was a hilarious joke. Here it is from our had-to-use-it-because-our-shower-sucked tub:
Oh, I’m sorry. Did you miss that? Let me enhance it for you:
Romantic. The shower is straight out of a YMCA locker room (no disrespect to the YMCA intended). If you can get two minutes of hot water from it, you are winning for the day: Best Western style. So, yeah, we used that damn tub. Seriously, don’t stay here unless your budget leaves you no other options. It was clean, but it felt sterile and smelled like disinfectant. Really, it’s just not what you want to come back to after a fabulous day of drinking wine, eating the most delicious foods, and taking in inspired vineyard views. The staff could not have been less concerned for our comfort or convenience; I’m pretty sure we were interrupting staff social hour when we checked in. Also, there was no wine opener…in our wine-themed room…on our wine bar…in wine country; and, when we requested one from the front desk, they seemed to think we were going to steal it. We assure you we do not want your chintzy Best Western wine opener, Barbara.
Hot Best Western Dry Creek Tip – Stay somewhere else. But – if you MUST – per reviewer tips on Tripadvisor, request a second-floor, courtyard-facing room in the Tuscan Villa; this is where we stayed. It’s the quieter section, as the other is facing either the highway or the parking lot. Also, skip the complimentary breakfast buffet and grab a coffee and a muffin in town.
The Tucker car in the Coppola gift shop, or so I gathered: I did not see that movie.
“Uuuhhh, Michael!” (I do an awesome Godfather impression…. Yes, I do, Bryan!)
The upstairs reserve bar had a model ship used in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
The Coppola Winery property is gorgeous: amazing views of rolling vineyards from a Tuscan style villa. It was rainy when we went, so we didn’t get to wander or sit outside, but the villa provides lovely views. If you’re into either Coppolas’ movies, there’s some memorabilia from The Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Tucker, Marie Antoinette, and others. Bryan and I shared the $18 tasting. The pours were measly and rushed and, if I’m honest, the wines are nothing to write home about. We’ve had the mass market bottles in Chicago, but thought maybe some of their estate only wines would be better. Meh.
Hot Coppola Winery Tip – Skip the tasting for a single glass and, if the weather allows, grab a seat outside. The view is breathtaking!
Barndiva was my choice for birthday dinner but, as they are closed on Mondays, we made reservations for Sunday night instead. We arrived a touch early and had a cocktail at the bar before being seated. Bryan ordered the duck leg confit and I the roast chicken and we split the flan for dessert. Once again we were met with inventive dishes that were as filling as they were delicious. I’ll be honest though, now that we’ve gone, we may not feel that we need to go again. It’s not that it wasn’t great – it was – but that it isn’t necessarily an experience that needs to be repeated for us.
Hot Barndiva Tip – Definitely make a reservation in advance online if you’re planning to go; however, they also have a studio next to the main space called The Gallery Bar & Bistro that looked awfully cozy when we passed. They share a few of the same menu items but mostly have more upscale bar foods. We are more likely to try that next time we’re in the area. Give them a call to inquire or make a reservation, as they seem to have private parties some evenings.
Monday — Birthday!
We wanted to check out what Healdsburg had to offer for breakfast, so we took our freezing showers and skipped the unremarkable breakfast buffet at our hotel. Hey, it was my birthday!
HUGE bowl of potatoes!
SHED was our selection for a nice, sit-down breakfast. The dining area was industrial, farm chic and, again, they serve up farm-to-table, complex dishes. Honestly, we found it to be a bit pricey, the wait staff was a little less than courteous, and the food portions were strangely inconsistent. My husband received a tiny plate of biscuits and gravy, while I was served about five pounds of basically just new potatoes: no meat, no cheese – just seasoned, whole new potatoes. It was too much of one thing.
Hot SHED Tip – Skip the sit-down breakfast here. Instead, grab some fresh pressed juice and a muffin at one of the registers and take a wander around their cute shop.
Shopping in Healdsburg
There are plenty of shops in Healdsburg, offering clothing, shoes, antiques, and all the regular and locale-specific tchotchkes. And…it’s quite pricey. I don’t mean J Crew pricey; I mean Gucci pricey. At one store, I was looking over a simple black dress…that was $1,050. Yikes! It was knit!! I adore Gathered, though: boho chic at a more reasonable price point. My husband bought me an adored tassel necklace for my birthday here, and I’m still regretting not snatching up a beautiful kimono-style shawl in the sale section. Regrets!
Look. At. That. View.
There we are!
Oh, Iron Horse Vineyards. Golly, am I glad we made it here! The drive, meandering on country roads through vineyards and fields, was worth it alone. Once you climb the Iron Horse driveway to the outdoor tasting bar, you’re met with panoramic views of rolling vineyards. We chose the bubbly flight, because I will drink anything with bubbles in it. Their pours were quite reasonable – they even gave us a couple extra – and then they comped our tasting because it also happened to be their comptroller’s birthday! Who does that? So nice! It was my favorite overall winery experience of the trip. I could have sat on that bench looking down at the valley and up at the swooping condors, listening to Motown music for hours. We’re seriously considering joining their wine club. All of their bubblies were so good: nothing was too sweet or too dry. We bought a bottle here, too, to save as a remembrance and for our anniversary.
Hot Iron Horse Tip – You can make an appointment on their website or call for a last-minute time slot, which is what we did. There was a couple who bought a bottle at the tasting bar and had packed their own little picnic to enjoy on the benches overlooking the vineyard. How lovely!
The outdoor tasting bar and view, just before sunset
We’d passed Russian River Vineyards on our way out to Iron Horse and decided to stop in afterwards: a lucky little stop, for sure. There was a live jazz guitarist –Jason Bodlovich – setting a relaxing tone as the sun set over the trees. His CD provided a wonderful soundtrack for our meander back into town. Two skittish puppy dogs, a wandering kitty, a lovely flower garden, woodpeckers on the turret, and bean bag games in the back truly made for a relaxing, homey experience. Again, an experience that was so amazing we bought a bottle of their wine to cart home with us. If you’re keeping track, that’s one for a friend and three for us. We’re going to have to choose additional special occasions besides our anniversary! They also offer snacks and what looks like a lovely dinner.
Hot Russian River Tip – Come just prior to sunset on a clear evening for live music and gorgeous views. Then maybe stay for dinner!
Campo Fina is so cute and om nom nom nom nom. Bryan and I love a good wood-fired pizza, and theirs is delicious. We made a reservation knowing that we were going to try for the first-come-first-serve back courtyard. Since it was Monday night, we had no problem getting a hi-top table. Their pizzas are small and meant for individual consumption but – since we weren’t starving – we ordered a margarita pizza with house-made salami to share, and then the burrata appetizer to top us off. Finally, we took a turn on their bocce ball court! So much fun!
Hot Campo Fina Tip – Make a reservation on their website to ensure a seat, but then check to see if there’s room outside once you arrive. The back garden is first-come-first-serve and, even on a chilly evening, it’s cozy with heat lamps.
Tuesday morning we packed up and decided to roll the dice by trying the free breakfast buffet at the hotel. Good grief. It was the worst breakfast buffet ever designed or executed – as Bryan said, “The eggs are shaped like tacos.” We quickly shoved off, made a stop at Flying Goat Coffee in town for some real brew, and left Healdsburg behind with much sadness. The drive back to San Francisco was beautiful but full of melancholy sighs.
Hot Playlist Tip – As we meandered, our playlist for this trip included the Big Little Lies soundtrack, Leon Bridges, The Tallest Man on Earth, Michael Kiwanuka, and – as mentioned previously – local artist Jason Bodlovich.
Hot Winery Wardrobe Tip – My friend Carol gave me great advice when it came to what to wear to the wineries. You want to wear something that makes you feel swanky, but you also want to be able to tromp through the vineyards. So I wore knit maxi dresses layered with scarves and a blanket sweater and then Keds-style tennis shoes. Bryan wore jeans, a t-shirt, blazer, and Chuck Taylors. We also have delicate Midwestern winter skin, so we wore hats to shield us from the California sun. Also, don’t forget sunscreen!
We had a little bit of time to kill before heading to the airport, so we made one last stop. Marin Headlands is free and offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, the bay, and the Pacific. You can drive up, park, and snap a few shots; or the trails go for a couple miles, if you’d rather a longer hike. Our trip luck continued as we had the brightest, sunniest day with clear views and the sun glinting off the water. My husband received some very good news while we were here, so this spot will always be special to us for more than the views alone. ❤
Hot Marin Headlands Tip – Hey, it’s FREE!! You can’t afford not to go! Parking may be limited during the weekends and high season, but we found plenty on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in March. The visitor’s center is all the way at the end of the park but, if you need a restroom, there are some disgusting but much appreciated port-a-potties.
Sigh…. What a completely magical surprise trip! We absolutely cannot wait to go back. What are your favorite spots in Sonoma/Napa? Do you have any additional tips? I’d love to hear!