Healdsburg, California: A Hub For Good Drinks

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When you’ve lived in a small town in the middle of Sonoma wine country for 43 years, watching the comings and goings of winemakers and farmers for the better part of four decades, you get a sense of how to add something that might complement the community. At least, that’s how David Cordtz saw it when he and his son, Robert, began toying with the idea of opening a cidery in Healdsburg, in the heart of northern Sonoma County.

Cordtz worked as a commercial winemaker for 20 years, primarily with sparkling wines, and he founded Sonoma Sparkler, where he spent a decade making natural and organic sparkling juices. The whole time, he’d watched as cider gained steam across the country. A few years ago, Robert—who had grown up around wineries with his father—was ready to start his own career, and the two settled on making cider. “We’d seen how hard cider had grown as a category, and we really wanted to bring something to the market that was more delicate and drier than what we were seeing in the mainstream,” says David Cordtz. “It’s a style that appealed more to our personal palates, and to be honest, we wanted to make something that we wanted to drink at home.”

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David Cordtz (left) with his son, Robert, at Sonoma Cider.

That was in late 2012. By July 2013, they had a production warehouse, and they started fermenting juice that October. “We were bottling by mid-November, and we stayed up all night scrambling to get our first batch out the door,” Cordtz recalls. The next morning, he headed to Big John’s Market, a local grocer, to deliver their first case. It was just before Thanksgiving, and Cordtz says the owner, John Lloyd, gave him flak for the bad timing. “ ‘You’re bringing me something new, right in the heat of getting Thanksgiving orders settled,’ ” Cordtz recalls Lloyd saying. “But I knew he’d come through for us and let us get it in there. People in this community are amazingly supportive.” David Cordtz (left) with his son, Robert, at Sonoma Cider.

Big John’s was Sonoma Cider’s first official customer, but since then, the cidery has erupted onto the market, offering distinctive dry ciders made on-site at their Healdsburg press. The ciders are made in micro-batches and are distributed in 29 states; the four core styles include a dry apple cider called The Hatchet, a dry pear cider called The Pitchfork, a bourbon-accented apple cider called The Anvil, and a sarsaparilla-vanilla cider called The Washboard, which is evocative of root beer.

The cidery’s rapid growth has been a family endeavor, from production by David and Robert to accounting by Robert’s sister, Lizzie, and tap handle fabrication and maintenance by brother-in-law, Leif. In September, the company is set to expand into a full-scale tap room adjacent to their production warehouse, just a block south of Healdsburg Square. Complete with 25 taps, the new digs serve not only Sonoma Cider’s core ciders and special seasonal releases, but also a range of international ciders to help give guests a well-rounded understanding of the world of cider. “There are about 200 wineries within 20 miles of Healdsburg—after a day of tasting wine, people look forward to something else to sip on,” Cordtz says. “Cider makes a great alternative because it’s low in alcohol and isn’t too sweet.”

Having grown up in Healdsburg, Robert is happy to see the addition to his hometown. “Healdsburg has a lot of upscale shops and restaurants, but the vibe of the town overall is slow-paced and laid-back,” he says. “It’s also a friendly town. I can’t go two blocks without striking up a conversation with someone I know. I wouldn’t want to have our cidery anywhere else.”

The Grape Beyond

Healdsburg is in the northern part of Sonoma County, right along the Russian River in Northern California. Healdsburg’s—and Sonoma’s—identity is indelibly linked with wine, with more than 400 wineries and 60,000 acres of vineyards throughout the county. While the town’s population is about 11,000—a number that has doubled over the past 30 years—Healdsburg swells dramatically in the summertime with vacationers. But the fall harvest is generally a better, more tranquil time to visit, and harvest season brings a unique energy to town, the cooler air a relief after the hot, arid summer, and winemakers and vineyard workers identifiable by their grape-stained jeans and weathered boots.

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Tasting whiskey at Alley 6.

Tasting whiskey at Alley 6 Craft Distillery.Sonoma’s wine connection can be encountered near Healdsburg at wineries such as Chalk Hill and Mauritson Wines. One of the region’s oldest and most established producers is Jordan Winery, which specializes in classic French-style renditions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A standard tasting at Jordan requires an appointment (book well in advance of your visit), but while you’re visiting the 1,200-acre property, you may as well get the full tour—and have a seasonal food pairing at each stop along the way. The best stop is atop the property’s highest elevation, Vista Point, with its panoramic views of vineyards, valleys and mountains for miles around.

In Healdsburg, within walking distance of the central Healdsburg Square, the tasting room at Banshee Wines has an eclectic, Wes Anderson vibe, and they sample a selection of wines with an emphasis on Pinot Noir. (Try the Marine Layer Pinot Noir from multiple vintages if available.) Just around the corner is Cartograph Wines, where owners Serena Lourie and Alan Baker offer tastings from their small-production winery; the Greenwood Ridge Riesling from Mendocino Valley is an iconic wine for Cartograph, and the new release is set for October. Hawley Wines and Williamson Wines are also within walking distance.
But while wine helped form Sonoma’s identity, drink options in Healdsburg increasingly range far from the vineyard, with beer, cider, spirits and cocktails becoming bigger parts of the mix. Healdsburg’s own Bear Republic Brewing has been a fixture of California’s beer scene since 1995, and its brewpub on Healdsburg’s central square pours more than a dozen fresh beers at any time, including Bear Republic’s signature Racer 5 IPA.

Three miles north of Healdsburg Square, Alley 6 is Healdsburg’s lone distillery, established by Jason and Krystle Jorgensen in an effort to craft whiskies in Northern Sonoma County. Originally from Colorado, the couple left a career in the bar industry to chase the California sun; along the way, the idea of opening a distillery took hold. For the Jorgensens, there was no better place than Healdsburg. “We’d been living here for a while and fell in love with the community, but also the opportunity to start something new,” says Jason Jorgensen.

Alley 6 produces a smooth and spicy rye whiskey, as well as single malt whiskeys. Curious about experimentation, Jorgensen has released four different single malts made with grains from different areas of Europe, each distilled and aged to reveal different nuances. “Tasting through the different styles with visitors has been a great way to extend the experience most people are already having in wine tasting rooms,” says Jorgensen. “It’s a fun way for people to speak the same sort of language, just with a different genre.”

The distillery has a vintage apothecary feel, with furniture and steel fabrications built by Jorgensen. A long bisection of an oak tree is spread over whiskey barrels as a counter slab, and there are seating areas where people can taste the whiskies on their own or enjoy them in a cocktail. As the owner of the only distillery in town, Jorgensen has helped other producers with side projects, as well as distilling an apple brandy for Sonoma Cider to release later in the fall. He also looks forward to releasing gin, brandy and grappa collaborations with nearby Thumbprint Cellars, which uses a Viognier white wine as the base, distilled with a selection of local botanicals for the gin.

All Mixed Up

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Picking herbs for drinks at SHED.

Healdsburg is no stranger to good cocktails—spots like Barndiva, Campo Fina and Mateo’s draw a steady crowd of locals—and since 2010, the sleek, modern Spoonbar in the H2Hotel has been a Sonoma destination for mixed drinks. The cocktails were first designed by original bar manager Scott Beattie, and today Alec Vlastnik continues to build Spoonbar’s prowess via seasonal recipes such as the Fireside Sour with bourbon, spiced blood-orange liqueur, lemon, cranberry bitters and Campari, and Sweet Heat, which combines tequila infused with pomegranate and peppers, along with Ancho Reyes liqueur, lime and Espelette pepper.

This summer, three veteran Spoonbar bartenders opened Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in an historic building on the square that’s been home to a drinking establishment since the end of Prohibition. Laura Sanfilippo, Tara Heffernon and Steven Maduro met while working at Spoonbar, and in a nod to that bar’s innovative approach, the Duke’s partners are pushing the boundaries of cocktails. “Each of us had ideas and desires for owning our own place in Healdsburg,” says Sanfilippo. Heffernon’s farm supplies many of the ingredients used in cocktails such as the Fool’s Paradise, with tequila, clarified passion fruit juice, blanc vermouth and bay laurel. “We wanted to take a culinary approach to cocktails and stretch beyond what we had done already. But it had to be in a relaxed atmosphere that wasn’t fussy—a place where locals would want to come any day of the week.”

A couple of blocks off the town square, SHED is a market and café that serves as a community gathering spot. And while it won a James Beard Award for design in 2014, SHED also functions as the heart of a small town, serving creative cuisine from chef Perry Hoffman. One of its most intriguing vignettes is the Fermentation Bar, which offers local beer, wine, cider and mead but specializes in housemade kombucha, shrubs, natural sodas and “shims,” which are low-alcohol, shrub-based cocktails. “We wanted to have a wine bar, but not something you see everywhere else in the area, so we came up with the idea to serve anything and everything fermented,” says co-owner Cindy Daniel.

Fermentation Bar looks a little like a farmstead science lab, with an array of glass jars and bottles displaying concoctions from kaffir lime water to preserved Meyer lemons. The menu rotates through a handful of seasonal shrubs made with housemade vinegars, fresh herbs and locally grown fruit; seasonal favorites include strawberry-tarragon and ginger-carrot shrubs, as well as a shim made from quince shrub, sparkling wine and a local wine-based aperitif called Jardesca, made with Viognier, eau de vie and a mix of botanicals. “I love that this is such an agriculturally based community,” Daniel says. “It has a small-town feel, but it’s also a place where people are very forward-thinking.”

While there has certainly been shared success among wineries, restaurants, distilleries and other producers, the question remains deep in David Cordtz’s mind of whether or not Sonoma Cider would have been so successful had they not been in Healdsburg. “I don’t know for sure how Sonoma Cider would have done if we’d been in another town—but I’m glad we were here,” he says. “Healdsburg is small in size, but it’s big in heart. It’s changed a lot since I moved here more than 40 years ago, but being in this community of people, who are so inspired by the environment around us, is what makes it a great place to call home.”