Forestville and Healdsburg, CA: Wine Country Neighbors by Patty Burness

When visiting wine country, you can choose your destination based on any number of factors such as wanting to explore the area by driving the countryside or walking the streets of a particular downtown? Recently my husband and I visited Forestville and Healdsburg, two Sonoma neighbors that show the contrasts in wine country towns. What they have in common, however, is great wine, delicious food, superb accommodations and gracious people.

We started our adventure in Forestville, nestled in the Russian River Valley. Not more than 70 miles from the Northside, this easy going town has a lot going on, although it seems to happen around the town, not as much in the center. Our sites were set a few miles outside of town at the luxurious Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant.

The Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant has been turned into the ultimate wine country retreat by sibling co-owners Catherine and Joe Bartolomei – complete with Main House and cottages as well as an old barn converted into uber-comfortable, high tech, high touch rooms. Included are beautiful interiors, gardens and landscaping (with heated pool) as well as a Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s even a bath bar at check-in with scented oils and scrubs. You’ll delight in homemade marshmallows (for s’mores) to roast later over the outdoor fire pit.

In a newly renovated “barn” room, Joe Bartolomei gave us a quick lesson in “touch” control – from igniting the fireplace (enjoyable from the bedroom and the outside deck) and warming up the tub jets, to heating the bathroom floor and the ultimate surround system and flat screen TV. Don’t forget the steam shower. The colors and textures of the furnishings, the vaulted ceilings and the floor to ceiling windows bring the outside in. Hanging out in this lush getaway was tempting, but wine tasting waited.

We hooked up with the Inn’s Master Sommelier for a guided tour of some of Sonoma County’s finest – all within a 5 mile radius. The winemakers in this part of the Russian River Valley share the same mindset – to make quality, food friendly wines with their own personalities that express where the grapes are grown. For us, Pinots and Syrahs were the rich and complex stars – along with other top notch varietals at Radio-Coteau, Scherrer, Freeman, Arnot-Roberts and Wind Gap. Make an appointment to visit and get on their mailing lists. Or better yet, find them all at the Farmhouse Restaurant – where we were headed.

Executive Chef Steve Litke turns dinner into a magical experience. That’s why he’s earned a Michelin star. And he does it all out of a kitchen that is 16′ X 14′. His creative blending of farm fresh ingredients with an international flair provides each diner with a seasonally prepared meal in an elegant, yet relaxed environment.
A tempura of burrata stuffed squash blossom was exquisite. During our visit, we also savored a strawberry gazpacho amuse bouche and fresh Maine lobster fennel sausage. Add the “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” cooked three ways with an applewood smoked bacon wrapped loin, roasted rack and confit of leg paired with local wines and we had wine country perfection with the added after touch of scrumptious dessert, then s’mores. We thought about sleeping in the next morning, but didn’t want to miss the mouthwatering gourmet breakfast.
Kozlowski Farms was our final stop before Forestville was in the rear view mirror. Four generations run the whole operation – from matriarch Carmen to the great grandsons. The jams, syrups, grilling sauces, mustards, butters, pies are all homemade. Taste your way through the store then stock up on favorites.
It was a luscious 24 hours in Forestville with Healdsburg just around the corner. The town is literally minutes away. Except for a mushroom foray that took us to the outskirts (if I told you the exact location, I’d have to kill you), much of the activity in this Sonoma enclave centers around the town Plaza.

Mushroom foraging is offered by Relish Culinary Center several times a year. Our eager group found lots of mushrooms (mostly inedible) and learned what to look for, including warning signs. But a lack of edibles wasn’t a problem when we gathered at Relish for a demonstration lunch – we enjoyed luscious and earthy porcinis, roasted chanterelles and candy cap mushrooms cooked several ways.

Next was our time to walk off the meal and stroll the busy Plaza. You’ll find boutiques, cafes and a wonderful selection of local wineries (Healdsburg encompasses three valleys: Alexander, Chalk Hill and Dry Creek). We favored the reds, but it was the dessert wines that captivated us at Rosenblum, Ferrari-Carano and Toad Hollow. If you like to mix art with your wine, try Artiste.
Hotel Healdsburg is a feast for the eyes – comfortable furnishings, soothing colors, high ceilings, big windows – all with a hip sensibility. Light is integral in the design with interior patios and suspended hallways. Gardens, pool and screened porch add to the relaxed atmosphere. Our luxe king room (with all the amenities) was the ultimate place to recharge before dinner.

Dry Creek Kitchen is a quick walk across the patio. The décor is signature Charlie Palmer: Exuding wine country comfort and sleek lines served with a farm fresh palette. The dining area and the service are sophisticated but friendly and conducive to conversation. The Chef’s Tasting Menu presents a symphony of flavors – beginning with smoked salmon and caviar on a lemon blini served with J NV sparkling; toasted faro risotto (with roasted chestnuts) with a 2007 Mahoney Albarino and crispy skin local red snapper (and sherry caramel) paired with a 2007 Mauritson Sauvignon Blanc. An assortment of ice creams and sorbets (including butternut squash), candies and more J concluded a wonderful meal.

Slipping back into the hotel, we cozied up to the lobby fireplace and mellowed out with the cool sound of live jazz. Next morning we were back in the same spot enjoying a sumptuous buffet breakfast with the Sunday paper.
Seghesio Winery’s Family Table is an intimate experience not to be missed. Small tastes from this amazing Italian family were paired with some remarkable Zinfandels available only in this setting. Classic Seghesio flavors in the 2006 Defiant, but it was the 2004 Dionigia Port that was the smooth ending to our wine country weekend.

Whether it’s downtown or near town, each destination is a fun escape. Indulge your senses, relax and enjoy – everything is at your fingertips.