When I visited Healdsburg for the first time in 1987, it flashed "home" to me like a big Las Vegas neon sign. "Move here. Move here. Move here," it said. And I did, three years later, on nothing but blind faith.
Sure, the vineyards and mountain ranges were beautiful, the Russian River benevolently calm in some stretches, mighty and dramatic in others. Wineries were most welcoming, and at that time, nearly all of them poured free tastes and did so with pleasure, hoping to recruit new wine drinkers. Sunny, dry days from April through October brightened my mood, and it was difficult to be upset with the 50 inches of rain that fell each year, because they came down all at once, in January and February, filling lakes and irrigation ponds, and giving the grapevines a deep drink as they readied themselves for spring.
Yet what sold me was the feel of Healdsburg and Sonoma County. The physical grandeur of the region was important, of course, yet with it came heart, soul and a genuine friendliness of the people. Many of the folks who owned vineyards and wineries back then had been hops and prune growers previously, the land in their families for generations. Large Italian and Hispanic populations add great diversity to the area. Every Memorial Day weekend we have the Country Fair and Twilight Parade, where 4H kids and Future Farmers of America outnumber the rest of us.
Healdsburgers have a willingness to help each other out, to appreciate the beauty and bounty of the place they live in, to drink wine as it's meant to be drunk, with good food, family and friends. The best meals I've ever had have been in Sonoma County; not in restaurants, but in vineyards, on patios and in home dining rooms, where folks get together to break bread, uncork a few bottles of wine, and talk, talk, talk.
Change, of course, is inevitable, and my Healdsburg isn't the same as it was when I landed there in 1990. The joke used to be that Healdsburg was in danger of becoming St. Helena, that posh outpost in Napa Valley. No one is laughing now, as Healdsburg has more boutiques than St. Helena and just as many restaurants, with more on the way--plus a real town square, with a gazebo and concerts on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons, and art and antiques shows.
The population has remained relatively unchanged, but tourism has soared, and it's no longer seasonal, it's year-round. Folks stay in our hotels, eat in the restaurants, sip wine in the nearly two dozen tasting rooms downtown and the 50 or so others within a few minutes' drive (Gallo chose to put its only public tasting room, anywhere, in Healdsburg), and buy expensive handbags and jewelry. They cough up much-needed sales tax dollars, but they also take up the still-free parking spaces in town, get in the way of the locals' morning cup of Joe at Flying Goat Coffee, and book the best restaurants months in advance, eliminating any spur-of-the-moment dining decisions by the populace.
Now the joke is that you can't buy underwear anymore in Healdsburg. Actually, you can: Fruit of the Loom, at Longs Drugs or Rite-Aid.
A project called Saggio Hills is wending its way through the city approval process. It's a property just north of the Healdsburg city limits that would be developed into a fancy resort and 70 multi-million-dollar homes, with 14 acres set aside for 'affordable housing.' If the city approves Saggio Hills and annexes the property, construction could begin by late 2008.
More traffic. More tourists. More competition for restaurant seats and a cup of coffee. I can't wait.
Just a few miles up the road in Geyserville, on scenic Highway 128 in Alexander Valley, is the scar on the vine-covered hillside known as the River Rock Casino, operated by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. Since 2002, the slot machines and gaming tables have been housed in a stark white tent-like structure, with an even more hideous multi-level parking garage next door. Shuttle buses drive up and down the hill and through Alexander Valley, delivering gamblers from throughout Northern California to the place 'Where Mother Nature meets Lady Luck.'
In the near future, the tribe will begin replacing the tent with a $300 million "destination resort" modeled after a Tuscan village, with a 600-room hotel, restaurants, spa and wedding chapel.
More traffic. More tourists. More competition for restaurant seats and a cup of coffee. Oh boy.
On the west side of Alexander Valley is Francis Ford Coppola's Rosso & Bianco Winery (formerly Chateau Souverain), where the filmmaker has moved production of his inexpensive wines and his collection of movie memorabilia. He also plans to install a split-level swimming pool with cabanas, a new outdoor restaurant, band shell with dance floor, and bocce courts. Sonoma County officials turned down Coppola's request to build 24-foot-tall rooftop pyramids with colored theatrical lighting to be illuminated from within, after neighbors opposed them.
The pyramids will likely stay, the lighting, not. Guests at River Rock should have a grand view of Coppola's towers, beckoning them to spend some of their dollars on his side of the valley.
The morphing of wine country into Disneyland is nothing new; Napa Valley has its Sterling Vineyards tram, Castello di Amorosa winery with its drawbridge, gargoyles and dungeon, and the Darioush winery is a replica of Persia. Healdsburg is headed for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, it seems, yet I know progress can't be stopped, and that change is ongoing. It's easy to be a NIMBY, yet the same Healdsburg attributes that drew me here all those years ago are just as attractive to others today, and I should share the love. I'm proud of where I live, and I'm pleased when out-of-towners enjoy it as much as I do.
Visit Healdsburg now if you're really into wine and wine country, before too much Napa-ness sets in.
And go to Paso Robles, with its booming wine industry; taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône-style blends, eat at Artisan and Villa Creek, and stay at Hotel Cheval or Justin. You'll feel as if you're in Healdsburg 10 years ago.
Go to Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; stay at the Boonville Hotel or Philo Apple Farm and drink a beautiful Pinot Noir while you watch the sun set in this bucolic, non-commercial enclave of vintners and hippies. No Starbucks here.
Head to Santa Barbara County and do the cool thing by not visiting the wineries featured in that famous Pinot Noir movie. Keep an eye on Temecula, and Livermore, and Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley, and San Luis Obispo County, and the Sierra Foothills, for your wine fix, for discovery is half the fun.
Heck, anyone can go to Healdsburg.