Then This Happened…

HEALDSBURG, Calif. – Sometimes atop a hill, or in a beach cave – this one time at the auto show – California sheds its idiocy, its swagger, its demoiselle sense of self, and becomes the most attractive place you could ever imagine. 

Like up here in Healdsburg, where we’ve come in search of the perfect pinot.

“Regret nothing,” the poet Dorianne Laux suggests — not the nights you sank like a dog in the couch, “crushed by loneliness.”

“You were meant to inhale those smoky nights,” she explains.

In that spirit, breathe deep this fertile land. Regret nothing. Dig your toes into this pixie dust dirt. Sonoma’s kitty-litter soil would seem incapable of growing anything, let alone some of the world’s best berries, bottled and sold at grand cathedrals of brick and stained glass.

Only Scotland has more castles.

Generally, I’m a beer guy, but I have a serious crush on this romantic and winey region. I keep looking for the dark side, of course, as is my nature.

Everyone seems so content up here, so healthy, so relaxed. After L.A., it’s really sort of weird.

Certainly, the food is far better than average. The other night, our pals Ridge and Carol took us to a place that served “salmon wings” with kimchi salt. They arrived oily and slippery and just how I like my food: bewildering.

Much of the grub up here is something you’ve never witnessed before. It is a cuisine based on audacity and surprise. After all those burgers, don’t you want a bit of that?

I’m with my buddy Bittner, who is like a mother to me. He invites me along just out of sheer habit. Life is full of unheard hymns, and he is one of them.

Suzanne is up here too, visiting her dashing daughter, who pours for one of the local winemakers. We hang in this storybook town of Healdsburg, this region’s gooey center.

“Beverly Healdsburg,” they sometimes call it, since it has that expensive twinkle, though there is much more to do.

If Mayberry married Carmel, and they had a diva together, she would look much like Healdsburg.

I like knocking around its bookstores and various shops. I snagged the best cup of coffee at Black Oak. When I tell Suzanne that we need to come back the next day, she says we should try some other place.

“Wonder if it’s not as good?” I ask.

“But wonder if it’s better?” she says.

See, I never think that way. When I find something I love, I stick with it forever. Like Bittner, for instance.

Meanwhile, even the birds up here seem a little buzzed. On my morning walks through the  vineyards, the birds sing to me. Nothing you’d know. It was like a Super Bowl halftime show, passive and quickly thrown together.  

I like the mornings up here best. They are almost as good as the evenings. Make your reservations early because the good restaurants load up fast.

But watch yourself. They do this thing with the chicken skewers at Willi’s Wine Bar that will make you forget your first kiss. The chicken strips are doused in a peppery Caribbean marinade, and served on what looks like yogurt. I could eat a billion of them.

Everything up here is served sparingly, as if there is a shortage.

When you go to a tasting room, they give you a drip or two while telling you how uniquely brilliant it is and all the voodoo behind it.

When you go to eat, they give you what amounts to an appetizer. It’s a tease, like in this one dream I have where they pull the plate away just after I swallow the most-perfect thing ever, which happened one night on the patio at Bravas – Suzanne on one side, her daughter Claire on the other, a space heater one seat over.


With food, I prefer wine – red, white, unleaded, defrocked, doesn’t matter. Just so it’s a California wine, which tastes of sunscreen and Vitamin D and surfer girls and cinnamon.

At least to me.

If I didn’t have a dog back home, I would never leave this gently rolling paradise.

I want to hold writers’ retreats here in Sonoma, fill good minds with sparkling wines and talk about penning slippery stories that last, in a scary world so faithless and desperate that TV ads now sell us Jesus.

He might, in fact, be living in these fabled hills. I think I see him in the glint of my wine glass.

Sipping. Soothing. Regretting nothing.

Last call for donations:  I’m fundraising for a parent-ed program that assists struggling families. Donations honor my late wife and son. To contribute, please go to Scroll down to Ticket Information. The first item is “Give to Support the Cathy & Christopher Erskine Compassion Memorial.” Every 10 bucks helps. On behalf of all the families this helps, thank you in advance.

Clockwise from top: The elegant old Madrona Inn; salmon wings at Bird & Bottle; my dinner dates; Gramm Vineyards; a peppery dish at Bravas.

Looking for the perfect pinot? Lambert Bridge serves a fine one, as does Flowers, in beautiful surroundings. Longboard, an unpretentious tasting room in Healdsburg, served the best Sauvignon Blanc of the trip. Be sure to stop in at The Madrona, a beautiful Victorian inn, for lunch or a mixed drink. Closer to home, find Gramm Vineyards’ excellent rose or pinot at North Shore Burgers in La Canada or Etta in Culver City.

7 thoughts on “Then This Happened…

  1. Who knew salmon have wings? Glad you are enjoying your getaway in the area of California I think is the most beautiful. I’m with you, when you find something you love, why look further? Suzanne should appreciate that about you. Cheers!

  2. Healdsburg is (one of) my happy place! The square, with its tasting rooms, restaurants & book stores is my idea of heaven. And the surrounding vineyards…lovely. Next time you’re up there, stop in at Breathless for their exquisite and award-winning bubbly. It’s the best! Cheers!

    1. Wonderful to read about how happy you are on this trip. It really comes across. And their tourism department should appreciate it too.

  3. so many good metaphors, aphorisms, comparisons and poetic allusions in this one Chris ~ all that fresh air must have inspired you !
    I especially liked: crushed by loneliness, bewildering food, and life is full of unheard hymns, he is one of them, forgetting your first kiss, surfer girls and cinnamon ~ ~ ~ Rock on Chris ~ Rock on ~ ~ ~

  4. I agree with your choice of stored sunshine to warm this year’s winter chill. My favorite appellation: the Alexander Valley, where the first german settlers planted the (now) old vines that produce the under-the-radar spicy zins that are the peerless envy of the enosphere. This is red wine country, Healdsburg its unofficial capital with a 20’s-30’s old town square whose edges you can bounce along, going mano-a-mano with the little delights and surptises of the shops and restaurants you find there. It’s a quick shot from S.F. Up the 101, so there is a monied glow to its tourism, but little of the big city press and bustle that has darkened the experience in Napa and environs (not to mention the absence of Napa’s memorably heavy and prodigiously slow traffic)’. If Healdsburg is head, Geyserville is the heart of the area, where on a Friday evening in late September, the harvest in full thrum—humming in the dust, the much mourned Sante’ was where you had to be: the narrow door;the long gleaming old wood bar stretching on your left to a back wall; the sommelier meeting you with a wine list that stopped the mind and blew your eyes out (a dozen local zins!!);the interior courtyard feel of the fully enclosed dining space, tables placed around like islands in a garden. I loved the place.

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