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Weekend Escape

A Sip of the Good Life in Healdsburg

Living in an estate of grace and feasting on fine wine-country cuisine, if only for a couple of days.

April 22, 2001|SHERRY STERN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HEALDSBURG, Calif. — There we were, in the middle of the afternoon at a graceful Victorian mansion called Madrona Manor, blowing $22 on two glasses of wine. My husband, C.P., selected a 1998 McCray Ridge Merlot; I tried a 1995 Kendall-Jackson reserve Viognier. We trotted upstairs to sip in solitude next to the fireplace in our room.

Not a bad welcome to Sonoma County.

We're not wine country experts, not even wine experts. We'd simply heard from friends that the lovely, if pricey, Madrona Manor was worth a splurge for a romantic getaway. So one weekend in February, we flew from Orange County into Oakland. (The fare, $182.50 per person, was on the high side, but we were redeeming unused tickets on Alaska Airlines.)

After about 90 minutes in the rental car, we had moved from town to country, winding along the narrow roads around Healdsburg, population 10,000.

Madrona Manor is secluded atop a hill, five minutes from the town's center. Despite about 75 wineries in the region, instant gratification is hard to resist at Madrona, where next to the check-in desk stands a small bar with a selection of local Cabernets, Chardonnays and Pinots.

After our introductory sips, we explored the inn. Beyond the three-story main building, we found four guest houses (22 rooms total), a pool and manicured gardens on eight acres. It's the kind of B&B we like-where guests have plenty of privacy, and decor is elegant but cozy. Some rooms have antique furnishings; the rest feel as if they do. (Our room in the Mansion was $345 a night plus tax; rates run as low as $185 in the Carriage House on a weeknight, up to $445 in School House Suites on weekends.)

Madrona has its own restaurant with a solid reputation. But for us, Healdsburg beckoned. We went to the charming plaza, a park and gazebo surrounded by boutiques, restaurants and bookstores with nary a chain store in sight.

Off the plaza we saw plenty of hole-in-the-wall eateries that speak to Healdsburg's rural roots. But cosmopolitan dining has tapped into the area's burgeoning wealth. We chose Bistro Ralph, a New American restaurant popular with locals. As we edged into the boisterous room, diners table-hopped with a glass in hand, taking a pour from open bottles on other tables and trading opinions.

Bistro Ralph's list was a wine lover's dream, with local whites and reds and a few foreign selections (meaning from Napa and the Central Coast). Our starter dishes were delightful: The complimentary house specialty is a focaccia puff, pieces of warm, aromatic dough drenched in mild spices; the lobster bisque had actual chunks of lobster. Main courses were a bit of a letdown and seemed pricey for the quality. Broiled salmon was seared to let the flavor come through, but the potatoes were uneven, with a pocket of cold, lumpy spuds hiding under the fish. Muscovy duck was too gamy for my taste. Still, by the time our lattes arrived, we were content.

The next morning, the scent of freshly brewed coffee invited us downstairs in Madrona's main building. The breakfast buffet included muffins, sweet rolls and breads, fresh fruit, cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs and granola. The hot dish was a tasty frittata of cheese, mushrooms and zucchini. Fresh orange juice sat next to a bottle of champagne for make-them-yourself mimosas.

Then we were ready for vineyard hopping, our ignorance aside. We stopped en route at Jimtown Store, a gourmet deli and old-time mercantile on the northeast outskirts of Healdsburg. While Jimtown built our lunches-to-go, we moseyed around the shop, a delight for nostalgic baby boomers, with sweets we forgot existed (candy buttons!) and gizmos for sale that could fill the back pages of 1960s comic books (ant farms!).

Our sandwiches on chewy sourdough baguettes proved one of our best meals. C.P. swore his home-baked ham-and-brie with olive spread was the wiser choice, but I'd order the Molinari salami with provolone any day.

Finally it was wine touring time, but where to begin? With a great map from Madrona and advice from a wine-expert friend, we headed to Dry Creek Valley, 10 minutes west of Jimtown.

A few things quickly became clear: Some wineries require reservations, most now charge for tasting (the charge is applied toward purchases), no one cares how naive you are, and in Sonoma wine circles, Merlot is utterly plebeian.

One of the sleekest wineries we saw in Healdsburg was Ferrari-Carano, with lavish gardens and the perfume of wine in the cellar. Upstairs in the gift shop, the staff served four sips ($2.50 per person) and we bought-who cares?-a bottle of Merlot.

We lucked into one of the few wineries that offer tours without reservations, Simi Winery, also in Healdsburg. We had an informative tour guide, Ned, to ourselves and learned a bit about Simi.

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