California Wine Country. Those three little words have been elusive for decades. Well, the two decades during which I’ve been legal. Once I ditched my dream of moving to San Francisco post-college, I never looked back. And when I took off for worldly pastures, there was always a snazzier, more exotic, international destination calling my name. Wine country, the American edition, always wound up overshadowed by wine country, the global edition. Stories began to accumulate; there was Hunter Valley hide and seek in Australia with Sarah, Sally, and Tim. There was the unfortunate car accident after a day of solo tasting in Marlborough, New Zealand. There was the letdown of Concha y Toro in Chile’s Pirque, and the failed trip through Argentina’s Mendoza. Wine country wasn’t of my country—it became part of the folly of other countries. Until earlier this month…
My friend Kristen, an old Harper colleague, broke from publishing the same year I did (2005). She and her (now) husband shucked their New York coats for greener, wide-open spaces…and grapes. He decided to become a winemaker; she went along for the ride. Cut to 2010, their sixth vintage, Kristen and Jamie have made a beautiful life for themselves on the left coast. On her last trip to New York, Kristen convinced me to head west for a vacation, and a proper vineyard education. I love wine, especially California reds. Harvest was upon us. Kristen reasoned it was high time for a visit. I reasoned that Kristen was right.
Enlisting Darryl, my trusty travel sidekick of late, wine country awaited exploration. Of course, I had preconceived notions of what I expected, wondering if everyone swirled the glass pretentiously in Napa, or if they sucked air through their teeth before a swallow in Sonoma. I imagined the residents of these places spoke in varietals and vintages only privy to savvy insiders, and mocked silly people like New Yorkers who bought bottles based on menu pricing. Turns out, my trip changed every single of one of those ideas. Implicitly. I guess I should have expected that it would.
It all started at 6 AM on an October Monday when, sitting in the Admirals Club at JFK, I got the call that Darryl missed her flight. Sure, we had a wild Saturday prior, but C’mon D! Get it to-freakin-gether! Six hours and one screaming baby later, I arrived solo at SFO to find Kristen, a rental car, and a big smile in welcome. Kristen and Jamie were privileged insiders to wine country and they would be my able guides.
First stop was Healdsburg, a quaint little town in the northern reaches of Sonoma County. Ask anyone who’s passed through Healdsburg about a favorite wine country spot, and Healdsburg itself is the answer. Now, mine included. Off a vibrant main square, cafes and restaurants abound—Scopa for pizza, Healdsburg Bar & Grill for burgers and Bovolo for to-go breakfast and lunch sandwiches. Freshly ground coffee beans come from The Flying Goat and accompanying reading material from Copperfield’s. The three stories of the Healdsburg Hotel beckoned with its ivy-covered trellis, while down the road, its sister property the new h2hotel makes headlines. Healdsburg is also home to renowned restaurants Cyrus and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. The pool in the back garden of the Healdsburg Hotel was equally enticing, but as we whizzed through the square, further discovery would have to wait, for we were onto our first tasting and pairing. At Simi.
Simi holds a special place in my heart. Almost half a lifetime ago, I got my first promotion to a publicist position at Avon Books. It was a happy day, for I got business cards and my own office…and a subscription to California’s Cab of the Month Club from my San Fran-living friend, Todd. In that first package of Cabs was a bottle of Simi. Love at first taste, it was fitting that I was standing on Simi ground popping my wine country cherry.
The winery itself is a gorgeous example of architecture and sustainability. Built in 1890 by brothers Guiseppe and Pietro Simi, the facility was Healdsburg’s first winemaking property, and has withstood many massive earthquakes. Tours of Simi, which take place twice daily, are followed by tastings and pairings. Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more overjoyed about my plans. Chef Eric Lee is the food force at Simi, and he’s churning out some amazing pairings for guests of the property. I indulged in fried greed tomatoes with Dungeness crab (with the RRV Chardonnay), and simple wood-oven grilled pizzas (with the Sauvignon Blanc), a duck breast over creamed spinach (with the Alexander Valley Cabernet and the Landslide), and a black and tan crème brulee for dessert.
Met by Steve Reeder and winemaking power women Susan Lueker and Megan Schofield, the first thing I learned at Simi was to trust my palate. This wine mantra would hold up over and over again. Trust. Your. Palate. Yes, it’s that simple. I entered Simi certain it would only deliver on reds and, man, was I wrong. I left Simi delighted by whites, especially their Pinot Gris. Repertoire expanded, I wondered how deep my revised wine lists would run after a week in Bay Area vines.
When I Kristen and I retired to our borrowed Healdsburg vineyard house for the night, we couldn’t help but open some more Simi to pair with a baguette and some cheese. We stood in the kitchen, sipping our wine, and caught up like the old friends we were. We were significantly buzzed when Darryl arrived fresh from layovers in Charlotte and Chicago, then a bus ride to Sonoma Airport, and a taxi to the house. It took me a trip around the world to get to Sonoma; she merely grazed a couple of states, but I could already tell that both of our trips were going to be well worth the prolonged wait.