If you head for Sonoma County and Healdsburg, you will find many great wineries, lots of fine dining options, but fewer golfing choices than elsewhere such as the Livermore Valley. After visiting Healdsburg in May 2015 for the first time in nearly 20 years, we decided to combine our passions on a quick golf getaway.
Our headquarters were the splendid Vintner’s Inn by Ferrari-Carano—a 44-room property with four-diamond service, located at the River Road exit from 101. It is owned by Don and Rhonda Carano, the founders of the Dry Creek Valley winery that carries their name.
Guests at the inn are greeted in their well-appointed rooms with a split of Ferrari-Carano’s Sauvignon Blanc. Our corner room included a couch and easy chair next to the gas fireplace as well as a comfortable king-size bed and a small balcony overlooking the fountain in the courtyard.
From any of the rooms, it is an easy walk to the signature John Ash Restaurant or the Front Room Bar and Grill café that serves breakfast and lunch. Locals enjoy the happy hour specials in the bar at John Ash. Fresh coffee is available in the foyer of the rooms daily.
The property is surrounded by 92 acres of working vineyards and orchards and there are garden plots scattered throughout the property that provide produce for the kitchen. We were particularly struck by the single-stalk staked artichokes and the tomato plants next to a small fig tree. There are so many fig trees on the property that the fruit is processed and preserved for use year-round. The farming team utilizes its space carefully for a variety of vegetables, fruits, greens and herbs.
In addition to the signature restaurant, there’s also an event center on site for corporate outings or meetings. It is also a favorite wedding venue.
We dined at John Ash and enjoyed our conversation with Executive Chef Thomas Schmidt. Schmidt grew up in the Bay Area and then spent 20 years in northern Germany before being lured back to John Ash. His German wife would like to return to her native land—he jokingly tells her when the weather in Bremen matches that of Santa Rosa, he will return.
Incidentally, for gardeners, just outside of the patio dining area, there was an 8-foot tall kale plant/tree. Yes, no typo, eight feet.
We started with a tiny bite of salmon with a pickled yellow beet. We opted for the four-course tasting menu paired with wines, passing on a special of the night, a 14-ounce rib eye steak that had been dry aged for 21 days.
The first course were Dungeness Crab Fritters over a Mexican cabbage salad with cilantro and spicy mango aioli. It was paired with a 2013 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County.
A delightful roasted carrot soup with mint-infused crème fraiche followed. Adding a seared sea scallop enhanced the pairing with a 2012 Sterling Vintner’s Collection Riesling from the California Central Coast.
My bride opted for the roasted Alaskan halibut that was served with asparagus, hummus and a pea shoot salad with a rhubarb chutney. We could see the rhubarb plants outside of the patio. The pairing was a 2013 Sonoma County chardonnay by Ferrari-Carano.
I opted for the dry-aged beef pave with roasted rainbow carrots (purple, yellow, orange), grilled trumpet mushrooms, smashed new potatoes with Pt. Reyes blue cheese. It was paired with a Zinfandel from the Alexander Valley, a 2011 Valdez “St Peter’s Church Vineyard.” The wine complimented the complex flavors perfectly.
For dessert, it was Mom’s Buttermilk Chocolate cake with melted vanilla gelato, saltine toffee and cocoa nib tuile. As rich as it sounds, it was light and capped a wonderful meal.
Given that Ferrari-Carano owns the Vintner’s Inn, it was only fitting to start our tasting time at its Villa Fiore hospitality center with its striking architecture. Five acres of gardens, all designed by Rhonda Carano, are open to visitors. Take the time to stroll around outdoors and enjoy the gardens.
Tasting options include the Villa Fiore wine bar with four tastes for $5. These include the widely distributed Chardonnay and Fume Blanc. You have your choice of six whites and six reds. The winery sources grapes from vineyards around Sonoma and Mendocino counties—Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino; Sangiovese and Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley; and Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards in the Alexander Valley. In all, nearly 2,000 acres of vineyards provide the estate-grown grapes.
We recommend either a private tasting (wine is served in a private room where guests are seated at tables) or the Enoteca where four of their better wines can be sampled for $15. The venue is a particularly striking area. It was the wine cave. Half of it was transformed into the private rooms and Enoteca, while the other half is an active barrel storage area that can be viewed through glass windows.
The Windsor Golf Club in the city of Windsor was our first stop. The club, which opened in 1989, hosted several Nike Tour events (now the Web.com Tour). The site features mature California oak trees, some of which are a hundred or more years old as well the Windsor creek that typically runs year-round (the drought has taken its toll). Designer Fred Bliss took full advantage of the creek, bringing it into play on a number of holes.
The course has an unusual entry. When you pull into the parking lot, there’s the well-regarded Charlie’s Restaurant. You reach the pro shop by crossing a bridge over the creek. The bridge connects the shop to the 10th tee.
The course is bordered by condos along No. 18, but otherwise it’s vineyards, a cemetery and the main road to the Sonoma County Airport on the boundaries. Planes on approach fly almost directly over the top of the course.
One nice feature is the complimentary yardage book that is a major help to first-timers, particularly when it comes to holes routed to cross the creek. Green fees are quite reasonable ($39 Monday-Thursday, $44 Friday, $56 on the weekend).
For the most part, the course features generous landing areas and greens that were rolling true and fast when we played it on a warm June afternoon. The par threes are testing, particularly No. 7, which is all uphill and requires a 217-yard shot from the tips to reach the green.
On our second day, we headed down Highway 12 southeast to the active adult community of Oakmont and its 36-hole layout in the Valley of the Moon. Many of the vistas from the tees are framed by the tree-covered hills on both the east and west sides of the valley.
Again, designer Ted Robinson took full advantage of beautiful mature oaks on most holes. The front side featured small greens, while the greens on the back were bigger and the holes a bit longer. It plays 6,379 yards from the tips with a 126 slope.
We went off in foggy brisk conditions around 7:30 a.m. By nine, the skies were clear and the jacket was in the cart. Our early start allowed us to get around in a little more than three hours—a walking twosome behind us finished at about that pace.
Like Windsor, this course is easily walkable, although carts are available. The 18-hole executive East course measures 4,300 yards. Rates during the week were $33 to walk and $49 with a cart.
As you would expect in a golf community, homes border many holes, but it is easy to focus on the fairways and raise your eyes to enjoy the green hills.
We were surprised the third morning when we played the Healdsburg Golf Club at Tayman Park. It is located on Mt. Fitch less than a mile from the downtown square. Built in 1921, it is the oldest course in the area. We knew it was nine holes and when we started off on No. 1, it was an unimposing 121-yard hole that was sharply downhill.
Routing for No. 2 turned back up the hill and was a challenging par 5 with a tiered green that sloped back to the fairway. Needless to say, it was all carry to reach the green. The course then opened up before us on No. 3 where we should see the other seven holes.
It was an enjoyable nine holes (there are two sets of tees so you can play 18 if you would like). For a fast round with a cart, it would be ideal to start off a day before heading to the wineries or other activities. We did exactly that on a return trip in May 2016.
The designer took full advantage of the hillside because only two holes are relatively flat—the others are either downhill or uphill. The track plays 2,622 yards with a slope of 122 from the Blues at par 35. Fees for nine holes at $19 during the week and $22 on the weekend to walk, with an additional $8 for a cart.
One note-it’s a small operation. The pro in the shop collects green fees at one counter and then turns around and pour beverages on the other. Because one of the owners of the Truett Hurst Winery on Dry Creek Road is a regular at the course, a selection of their wines is available by the glass.
We visited the small operation at the suggestion of Cheryl McMillan, who guided us on a tour of the showcase Ferrari-Carano winery.
The Truett Hurst estate is on Dry Creek Road and consists of a five-acre garden and 20 acres of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines. The winery specializes in Zin, which has been grown in the Dry Creek Valley since Italian immigrants planted vines in the 1800s.
The feature that sets it apart from the many other wineries in the Dry Creek area is access to the creek, which was flowing quite swiftly thanks to releases from Lake Sonoma. During spawning season, coho salmon and steelhead can be seen in the creek. It was delightful to relax in an Adirondack chair under oak trees and sip a glass of wine.
ON THE HEALDSBURG SQUARE
The downtown Healdsburg area abounds with dining choices from beer and burgers at Healdsburg Bar & Grill, to Mexican food at a well-patronized hole-in-the-wall across the street from the police station to fine dining. We opted for Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, which is located right on the historic square in the Hotel Healdsburg.
The restaurant was the first California wine country restaurant for Palmer, who has restaurants in major cities across the country, including eight in New York City. He’s recently opened Harvest Table in downtown St. Helena. Dry Creek has been open for 14 years.
The team at Dry Creek prides itself in sourcing many ingredients on a regional basis and rotates a tasting menu by season. Chefs particularly enjoy buying vegetables and produce at the Saturday farmer’s market and then serving the product that evening.
We decided on the spring tasting menu and then were surprised when the team supplemented the five-course menu with additional items.
We started with grilled Treviso dressed with a castelvetrano oil vinaigrette that was paired perfectly with a 2012 Gundlach Bundschu Gewurstraminer from the Sonoma Coast. We also sampled a wonderful Spanish Octopus with a Thai vinaigrette and spiced peanut brittle. What a flavor combination.
That was followed with a Comanche Creek Pea Risotto paired with a 2013 Belden Barns Gruner Veltliner from Sonoma Mountain.
The tasting entrees included both a grilled Wild King Salmon served with morel mushrooms and an English pea hummus and a Rib Eye Duo with slices of center-cut steak and house-made pastrami. The salmon paired perfectly with a Quince 2013 Pinot Noir, while a 2012 Papa’s All Black ‘Old Vine’ red blend from the North Coast suited the rib eye.
Another surprise was Curry-Spiced Lamb Sirloin with lentil sprout salad and tomato mint relish. Normally, I am no fan of curry, but this dish changed that viewpoint.
Executive Chef Andrew Wilson oversees the kitchen and the menus, while Pastry Chef Andrew Di Clementi creates some of the most imaginative desserts we have seen. His take on “Summer Smores” was extraordinary as well the Raspberry Buttermilk Torte—they looked nothing like what we expected, but they were both light and tasty and a wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.
Incidentally, both the Dry Creek Kitchen and John Ash were recognized in Wine Spectator’s August 2015 edition for their excellence.