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Savoring harvesttime in Sonoma County.

Enjoy small towns and wine touring in Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, 90 minutes north of the Golden Gate

BANKED BY CLASSIC Californian farmland, the Russian River cuts west near Healdsburg and crosses U.S. 101, then flows south and west, creating valleys on either side of the highway. East of 101, in the Alexander Valley, alluvial deposits have created deep, rich soil--land that has been cultivated over generations by the same proud families. Plantings have changed from hops to prunes to, today, grapes that produce fine wines. West of 101, the valley of Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian, is also thick with vineyards, and dotted with small but committed family farms.

Healdsburg, a hospitable town with a sociable, shaded plaza, is literally fed by this land's glorious gifts to table and glass, making it a great base for a country weekend.

Late October through November is quietly spectacular. The days are bright but bracing, the valley floors go bright gold and then berry-colored with the changing foliage of the vines, and the hillsides redden with oaks and madrones. Even so, because it's off-season, choice B & Bs are available on much shorter notice, and the valley's many restaurants handle drop-ins with greater relaxation.

You can hike the trails around Lake Sonoma Recreation Area, at the head of the Dry Creek Valley; call (707) 433-9483. Or bike the wine valleys (Spoke Folk Cyclery, at 249 Center Street, has rentals and offers an imaginative printed menu of routes; call 433-7171). But this is such fine wine country that many visitors will be happy with a browse in town, some leisurely tasting, good meals, and a reposeful place to sleep.

Winerygoing. In the Alexander Valley, some good bets are Chalk Hill, Field Stone, Jordan (phenomenal Cabernet Sauvignon), Murphy-Goode (ask to try the Fume Blanc reserve), de Lorimier. Be sure to stop at the Jimtown Store, a 99-year-old country store updated with gentle wit and a glowing palette of colors, where you can settle down to a tasty patio picnic or pack one to go.

The Dry Creek Valley actually holds more wineries. We especially liked Quivira's Sauvignon Blanc, Rafanelli's famous zin, and the architectural heritage of Hop Kiln. And don't miss the produce at Dragonfly and Westside farms on Westside Road.

Shopping around Healdsburg's square. Inside high-ceilinged old retail spaces, local entrepreneurs express their individuality. The bakeries are legendary: try a sweet from Downtown Bakery & Creamery, the French bread at Costeaux French Bakery, "veggie bread" at Kilkenny Bakery.

As you wander and make your own discoveries, check out Fabrications (cottons, ethnic fabrics, quilting supplies), Animal Town (quality children's books and toys), Friends in the Country (cheerful faience, unusual dried wreaths), Palladio (classic-lined contemporary metal furniture). Winston-Stanley sells choice gifts for house and garden. Cro-Magnon has intriguing primitive art.

Healdsburg restaurants. Standbys in the square--or within an easy walk--include Tre Scalini (classic Italian), Jacob Horner, and Matuszeks (Czech, with a view). To celebrate the area's Mexican heritage, try a burrito at El Farolito. Newish, lively, and good are Samba Java (you just can't sustain a dark mood in there), Bistro Ralph, and Ravenous, near the Raven Theater.

Overnight. Healdsburg has a decent motel and a handful of B & Bs. Ask the chamber of commerce (217 Healdsburg Avenue, 707/433-6935) for a map locating these and the wineries. Based on our inspection of places recommended by locals, our own top choice for country quiet is Belle de Jour Inn (433-7892). For in-town convenience and elegant antique furnishings, we like the Camellia Inn (800/727-8182).
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Title Annotation:California
Author:Williamson, Marcia
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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