By Norma Meyer
Before I taste a lip-smacking estate Syrah, I try not to get smacked by a big-rig truck in Sonoma County's vineyard-spangled wine country. This takes extreme focus since I'm zipping along standing atop a two-wheeled battery-run Segway scooter on the shoulder of a two-lane road and nothing but my klutzy balance controls the contraption. Leaning forward makes the Segway go forward; standing up straight stops it. There are no brakes.
"It gets easier after the first wine-tasting," assures Josh, my trusty guide from Segway of Healdsburg.
Oh dear. Cheers!
The sniff-swirl-sip-Segway outing (more on that later) is just one reason to head to Healdsburg, a northern California haven ripe with palate-pleasing vino, verdant rolling hills and old-school charm. With 100 wineries nearby, oenophiles buzz because three acclaimed appellations — the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys — converge in this ever-toasting town. The neighborly vibe also has you over a barrel — Healdsburg is anchored by an 1857-founded grassy main square where jazz bands play under the patina of a copper-roofed gazebo.
And how eclectic is this: Just steps from the center plaza are, don't faint, the only Hand Fan Museum in the United States (see an 18th-century folded face-cooler honoring a fertility goddess); the sourdough-roll-revered Costeaux French Bakery proudly flaunting the UFO-sized pie tin it used to create the Guinness World Record hugest pumpkin pie; and the 1911 landmark Healdsburg Museum, where I ogled the 50-foot tape measure used by the turn-of-the-century undertaker to size up corpses. On the hip front, airplane-hangar-like Shed cafe boasts one of the nation's only "fermentation bars," serving non-alcoholic house-made kombucha (on tap!) and "shrubs," a farmer's tonic of fruity drinking vinegar.
I'll stick to fermented grapes. Which is why I found myself in the 140-year-old storied stone cellars of girl power Simi Winery. From 1904, when she was only 18 years old, to 1970 at age 84, feisty owner Isabelle Simi ran the winery, a pioneering female vintner in a man's world.
Famed thriller director Alfred Hitchcock was a frequent visitor to Simi and quite fond of its dessert libation. During our tour, we eyeballed the yellowed guest book containing Hitchcock's handwritten1942 entry raving: "The port here is far too good for most people." Nearby hung a collection of slogan buttons Isabelle pinned to her sweater until she died at age 95. One declared: "Wine Not War." Another cautioned, "If you don't want my peaches then don't shake my tree."
We heard how ingenious Isabelle kept making wine and stashing it during Prohibition — when many wineries went bust — so when the 13-year dry ban was lifted in 1933 she had 500,000 cases to sell to parched patrons. We also viewed the blooming rose garden where she planted bushes for every U.S. president except Prohibition proponent Herbert Hoover. He found out and dispatched a rose bush to Isabelle, but she flippantly sent it back.
In another winning wine adventure I hiked through breathtaking Jordan Vineyard and Winery, a 1,200-acre family-owned ranch lauded for producing a crisp Chard and Bordeaux-style Cab. I was on one of Jordan's occasional must-do guided treks, a 3.2-mile moderate foot journey on the bucolic estate past twisting vineyards, fields of white chamomile flowers and California bluebells, moss-covered ancient oaks, a duck- and geese-graced lake, olive orchards, vegetable garden, and mini-donkeys Maverick and Goose. To get to the starting point, we were shuttled up to a hill-perched glass pavilion with a spectacular 360-degree view; at the hike's end, on the French chateau's patio we savored Jordan's top-rated wines and feasted on a delectable farm-to-table spread prepared by the in-house chef.
Healdsburg, with just 12,000 residents, lies next to the more hyped, crowded and costlier Napa Valley, but I never felt a wine snobbishness like in Napa. Maybe that's because Healdsburg is a deep-rooted agricultural community — during the early 1900s it dubbed itself "the buckle of the prune belt" for sprawling orchards of plum trees dehydrated into wrinkled black fruit.
"The difference between us and Napa is we have a down-to-earth farming attitude," said Steve Fowler. He and his wife, Cathi, are the delightful innkeepers of the 1883-built Honor Mansion. "We've had wineries here for six generations."
The Fowlers' serene 13 guest-room, four-acre mini-resort is one of the best B&Bs I've ever bunked in. When you're not relishing gratis sherry, cranberry chocolate cookies or gourmet appetizers in the parlor of the Italianate-style Victorian manor, enjoy the swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and koi pond deck. Armed with complimentary glasses of pinot noir, my husband and I squared off on the regulation croquet lawn, two bocce-ball courts and PGA putting green surrounded by gorgeous cascades of lavender-purple wisteria.
It was hard, though, to leave our romantic Vineyard Suite bungalow with the fireplace-facing candle-lit bathtub, two-person shower and outdoor whirlpool tub on the private back patio. The do-not-disturb sign for the front door read: "Stop in the name of love."
At the buffet breakfast, as I devoured buttermilk pancakes with a sinful banana-pecan-caramel sauce, Steve told us the mansion was long inhabited by husband-and-wife physicians Herbert and Vera Honor, who in their home's annex practiced medicine and performed surgeries. Turns out our dreamy tropical-accented suite was a revamped convalescent unit. ("I once met a guy who said, 'I got my appendix out here,''' Steve chortled.)
Doctors come to mind when I initially step onto my Segway, affixed with a nameplate christening it "Zinfandel" and a two-bottle wine holder for liquid souvenirs. Our group first gets a safety briefing: Rule No. 1, never lean backward. That's how the multimillionaire Segway company owner died when he accidentally rode his Segway backward off a cliff.
Yikes. Who cares about supple tannins? Will I unwittingly plunge myself into oncoming traffic with this 12-mph robotic beast?
I concentrate. I cork my fears.
Wheeeeeeee! Helmets on, we zoom down vineyard-lined roads, bounce atop a potholed freeway overpass and lean way forward, heels-up to conquer a steep incline to pastoral Christopher Creek Winery. I wisely go light on tasting. Next we gleefully glide to Foppiano Vineyards, a fifth-generation winery started in 1896 by a gold mining-lured Italian immigrant and spiced with a colorful past. A large vintage photo shows when Prohibition federal agents raided the winery in 1926, forcing the dumping of 100,000 gallons of wine into a creek that flowed red and became the most popular spot in town.
I raise my glass. A well-balanced Segway, a sip of Nonno's Block Zinfandel and full-bodied history leaves a lovely, lingering finish to my Healdsburg trip.
WHEN YOU GO
Official Healdsburg tourism website: www.healdsburg.com
Honor Mansion: www.honormansion.com
Segway of Healdsburg: www.segwayofhealdsburg.com
Simi Winery: www.simiwinery.com
Jordan Winery: www.jordanwinery.com
Costeaux French Bakery: www.costeaux.com
Healdsburg Museum: www.healdsburgmuseum.org
Hand Fan Museum: www.handfanmuseum.com
Norma Meyer is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.