Warm Sun, Cool Wine and Haute Cuisine at the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience

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Warm Sun, Cool Wine and Haute Cuisine at the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience

Only about 2% of the Earth’s land surface is favored by what we refer to as the classical “Mediterranean climate.” These narrow strips of temperature and weather, which human beings tend to prefer above all others, can be found in tiny patches, typically near coast lines. The west coast of South America has some. Portugal and Spain are rich in these areas. There’s a bit in southern Australia. But in America, these slices of heaven are contained almost entirely in California. They make the state one of the country’s most desirable places to spend a balmy summer afternoon … not least of all because this climate–the hot, dry summers and temperate winters–are also perfectly suited to the growing of world class wine grapes. And the moment you walk into the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, you get a perfect sense of just how gifted this area truly is.

Healdsburg is a small city in the center of Sonoma County, just up the highway from Santa Rosa. As you make the drive from San Francisco, the hills and dense forest north of the bay slowly give way to fertile valleys, teeming in seemingly every direction with row after row of grapes, and countless turn-in signs for vineyards and wineries. Attending the festival (now in its third year) courtesy of sponsor Mazda, I threaded through the hills in a brand new CX-90, appreciating the opportunity to suddenly drop in on Sonoma wine country at the height of its allure. It’s not often you get a chance to escape from your wet, muggy East Coast abode for an unexpected weekend in one of the most lovely places on Earth. Even without the wine, it would be an easy sell.

But thankfully for us, there’s also more wine than anyone could conceivably sample. Healdsburg itself is ringed with vineyards, with more than 20 tasting rooms or local wine bars within the radius of a few blocks surrounding the charming town square. Dropping in on the Saturday farmer’s market, the choices for an afternoon glass of wine seem downright endless. Don’t like the looks of one stop? Just walk another 50 feet, and there’s bound to be another, in an entirely separate style. In the space of a couple hours, it’s easy to drop in on tasting rooms featuring Italian-inspired varietals, French classics, or bold New World blends. It’s like being at the nexus of American viticulture.

The Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, meanwhile, celebrates growers and winemakers from throughout the region, with forays into the rest of California as well. The festival is sponsored by Food & Wine, but chooses to consciously invert the order of those features to center the reader’s attention on Sonoma’s most beloved export. The centerpiece of the four-day festival is of course the Vintners Plaza Grand Tasting, a chance to sample sips and bites from more than 150 artisans and makers, with selections stretching well beyond wine and into the worlds of craft beer, spirits and cocktails. But the spirit of the festival is particularly captured in the other events and seminars, which ranged in this year’s festival from a taco and chardonnay pairing event, to a taste-off between California sparkling wine and French bubbles, or even a pool party at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. That event lineup brilliantly captures all levels of wine interest and engagement, from serious, academic appreciation, to casual enjoyment of good wine and food.

I had an opportunity to experience one of the signature events of this year’s festival in the form of Artistry in Japanese Culinary Mastery at Bricoleur Vineyards, Crafted by Mazda, a “sensory dining experience” dedicated to the Japanese concept of omotenashi–essentially the art form of mindful hosting, to provide for guests in a warm and multifaceted way. As guests strolled the beautiful Bricoleur grounds, sampling immaculate bites of tuna tartare, inspecting the new Mazda 2025 CX-70s and sipping sparkling rosé, Chef Diego Oka of Miami was leading a crack team of cooks in preparing a five course symphony of fresh seafood and contrasting flavors. Highlights included the thin slices of kanpachi, dressed in the Peruvian hangover cure/bright curing liquid known as leche de tigre, the delicate California quail consommé, featuring some of the best bites of poultry I’ve encountered in recent memory, or the fancifully piped, bright magenta combination of potatoes and beet puree that adorned Chef Oka’s layered Crab Causa dish. Even the dessert was built around a totally unexpected element, in the form of a pot de crème flavored with the beautifully sweet candy cap mushroom, contributing a dramatic, maple-like note. All told, this was a world-class dining experience the likes of which attendees will not soon be able to put out of mind.

The entire weekend in Healdsburg, in fact, was populated by those singular moments that will stick in the imagination for the foreseeable future. Those moments tend to fall into a category I can only describe as wine country decadence, Sonoma’s own particular brand of la dolce vita. The sights are frozen in my mind now: Attendees enjoying “bumps” of caviar off a closed fist, as a woman wearing a metal dress outline stands in place, her garment holding glasses of sparkling wine for people to pluck off as they walk past. An entire, bisected suckling pig being transformed into bite-sized sliders as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives icon Guy Fieri auctions off $10,000 magnums of wine in support of the Maui Strong Fund to rebuild the island following its devastating wildfires. A perfectly preserved, orange blossom frozen at the peak of its beauty in a chunk of ice, cooling my (delicious) lemon and mezcal ranch water. It’s the kind of imagery that makes one feel a little sheepish about the finery you’re surrounded by, while simultaneously wishing that everyone who loves wine could experience it. There are a lot of wine and food festivals out there, but few could match the Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience for these types of indelible moments.

Finally, I’d like to call out a few particular wineries and wines that caught my special attention over the course of the festival. There were of course too many exceptional tastes to count, but these few particularly appealed to my own tastes, and are ones I’ll likely be searching for online in the future.

Longboard Vineyards — Dakine Vineyard Syrah

A beguiling, very dark, inky Syrah expression from this Healdsburg local winery, displaying plenty of dark fruit (blackberry, currant) and significant pepperiness, transitioning into subtle earthiness, smoked meat and just a touch of roasted coffee. In a setting where lighter Pinot Noir expressions were likely the most common bottles on offer, this one really stood out from the pack in an appreciable way.

Notre Vue Estate Winery & Vineyards — GSM

The classic trio of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are well represented here in a GSM blend from Windsor, CA’s Notre Vue. Fruit-forward on the nose, with distinct plum fruitiness and hints of blueberry, the flavor evolves on the palate to encompass both floral characteristics and jammy fruit, with subtle streaks of pink peppercorn and Herbs de Provence. All in all, a very well rounded and extremely versatile red blend that I would be happy to turn to in almost any scenario.

Ehret Family Vineyards — Merlot

Arguably my favorite taste of wine throughout the weekend, this Ehret Family Vineyards Merlot was grown East of Healdsburg in Knights Valley, and was given a generous treatment of French oak aging, spending 18 months in casks. The results are pretty decadent and absolutely luscious, with generous toasted oak and cocoa on the nose, along with ripe, juicy Bing cherry and raspberry. On the palate, this merlot develops great richness, supported by white pepper earthiness and floral vanilla, with a subtle layer of savory olive. All in all, it’s a beautiful interplay between the bright fruit/cherry of the varietal and the transformative effects and spice characteristics of the French oak. We argued in a recent piece that the “cool kids” are drinking Merlot these days, and I can only imagine that this is the type of Merlot that would get them excited.

All in all, the third annual Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience offered an unforgettable array of liquid memories and perfectly paired cuisine accompaniments. If late spring in wine country sounds appealing to you, then curious oenophiles will want to be ready for its return in 2025.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer and spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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