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 https://bit.ly/PARENTEDGALA23. 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.