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August 8, 2022

H’Burg Now Top Wine Town

Wine lists dominate in 2022 Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards

Three quarters of Sonoma County’s best wine lists can be found in Healdsburg, according to the industry’s leading magazine.

Six Healdsburg restaurants were recognized for their wine lists, garnering 2022 Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards. Their names are familiar, and perhaps not surprising: Dry Creek Kitchen (on the list since it opened in 2002), Valette and Barndiva (both in 2016), joined by SingleThread (2021), the Matheson and Little Saint. 

Of the six, three of them received a higher recognition for Best of Award of Excellence, and one—SingleThread Farms—was a coveted Grand Award Winner, a tier of appreciation with fewer than 100 restaurants nationwide out of thousands of applicants. 

Healdsburg’s Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau CEO, Tallia Hart, was elated by the recent awards. “We absolutely love it and think Healdsburg is getting the recognition it deserves in the culinary space,” Hart said.

The list was published online in late June and in the July issue of Wine Spectator (WS). The magazine is based in Napa, and it’s perhaps inevitable that Napa County won more awards than Sonoma County, 17 compared to eight. The other local winners are Salt & Stone in Kenwood and Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. Napa boasts 17 winners, with both St. Helena and Yountville matching Healdsburg’s total of six each. 

If you don’t see the corner diner on the list or the pizzeria you so thoroughly enjoy, there is a certain selectivity to the list. To wit, the restaurant has to list a lot of wine selections, ranging from 90 selections (Award of Excellence) and 350 (Best of Awards) to no fewer than 1,500 selections for the Grand Award. 

Turns out, that’s not a deterrent. There were more than 32,000 restaurants in the wine world that won an award, “bolstering their lists and cellars now that dining out has resumed” in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, according to WS. The lists are international, including restaurants in Verona, Florence, Mexico City, Macau, Copenhagen, the Bahamas, Rome, Hong Kong and elsewhere, though most are in the U.S. 

Healdsburg had quite a heady representation for a former fruit-farming town tucked along the Russian River. The fact that the eldest of the six restaurants dates back 20 years is significant. When Charlie Palmer opened the Dry Creek Kitchen in the then-new Healdsburg Hotel, in 2002, the word “sommelier” was all but unspoken in town, and a “wine list” probably meant part of the weekly shopping trip to Molsberry’s.

Each restaurant has to apply for the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards, submitting a current menu and a cover letter, photos and a $550 entry fee. 

Does an application alone mean an award is forthcoming? Not necessarily, said Tara Golthi of the Rosen Group, representing Wine Spectator. “Once an application is complete, it is submitted to one of the judges on our panel for review. Not all applicants receive awards.”

The first requirement is simply the listing of how many wine selections they have available for purchase—how many different types, labels, vintages and varietals. The criteria also specifically says that everything must be spelled correctly and be otherwise accurate, and it’s likely that some of the rejects couldn’t fulfill those conditions alone. 

Once they pass the quality check and spelling test, the award is enough to boost a restaurant’s credibility, visibility and bottom line. For any one of the six Healdsburg restaurants on this year’s list, their commitment to a world-class wine list probably predates their application for the awards—although not necessarily. 

Case in point is new winner Little Saint and its first wine director, Alexandria Sarovitch. A smart and persistent 29 year old, Sarovitch labored to produce a wine list for competition before the restaurant even began seating diners—the doors opened April 22, a week after the magazine’s extended deadline for entry.

“I live by a quote that says, ‘Shoot for the moon—even if you miss, you land among the stars.’ And so when I was compiling the list, I was shooting to create the best possible list that I think I could create within the confines of our program, and what we are trying to achieve at Little Saint,” said Sarovitch. She ended with a list of nearly 300 selections from their soft openings, and slipped in under the deadline for an Award of Excellence (at least 90 selections). 

The Little Saint program is constricted by its commitment to veganism and a seasonal menu. So if big tannic cabs don’t really find a place where the menu is free of grilled animal protein, that only helps focus the sommelier. For instance, what goes with roasted beets? 

Sarovitch answers without hesitation. “I love roasted beets and pinot noir—especially with Sonoma Coast pinot noir, because of the earthy savory notes that are found from the vineyards closer to the Pacific.” 

Prior to coming to Little Saint, Sarovitch was one of several staff sommeliers at SingleThread, the Michelin three-starred restaurant nearby which also has a seasonal menu. Current wine director Rusty Rastello oversees an enormous wine collection, robust enough to qualify for WS’s Grand Award (1,000 or more selections). SingleThread received the Grand Award last year as well; though restaurants do need to reapply to renew their awards, it’s a simpler process.

Maintaining an award-worthy selection is far from simple: Wine quality varies year-to-year, vineyard-to-vineyard, and there is no rest for a somm worth his or her Meursault. But when you build and oversee a list that’s now more than 3,000 selections, as Rastello does, relaxing is out of the question. He still enjoys those 60-plus hour work weeks, but can see that a time could come when it loses its thrill. 

“I will tell you very candidly, this is the smallest wine cellar that I’ve ever worked with in 15 years,” said Rastello, 40. He was assistant wine director at Eleven Madison Park (also a three-star restaurant) and Gramercy Tavern (one star) during his eight years in New York.

“I manage a multimillion-dollar wine program, and I see the revenue that it makes,” said Rastello. “In the restaurant business, margins are microscopic and wine pays the bills. And so it’s really, really important for us to have healthy programs that are exciting and innovative and pushing the envelope.”

Not all restaurants can enjoy the generous atmosphere of support that SingleThread has enjoyed (where the dinner menu starts at $350 and up, per diner). For instance, The Matheson—another new-this-year awardee—has a solid wine list to match executive chef’s Dustin Valette’s vision. However, the star of the show isn’t its exalted list of 300-plus wines, but something even more visible: a Wine Wall. 

Wine and beverage director Jon McCarthy, 37, first worked with Valette at Dry Creek Kitchen—whose own WS award dates back to 2002—though he too took the New York detour to fill out his experience and resume. There he worked with other Charlie Palmer restaurants, including Aureole at Home and the Archer Hotel and Steakhouse.  

But back to the Wine Wall: It spans almost the entire east side of the Matheson ground-floor restaurant behind the bar, and holds 92 separate bottles—reds, whites, rosés and dessert wines—for individuals to essentially serve as their own sommelier. They may choose a splash of this, a half-pour of that or even a glass to compare and contrast the styles of a varietal or region on their own, and have it all show up on their card appropriately priced. (Or take a guided tour of the Wine Wall with one of the sommeliers, or supervisor Bekah Schloss.) 

“That was part of the vision for this project before I even joined the team,” said McCarthy. “It’s such an incredible treat for us as operators. And our customers have shown such enthusiasm because it’s given us the competence to open up a huge variety of wines from all over the world, all sorts of different styles from the very accessible to the eclectic, really rare, high price-point wines.” 

Such a system would be wasted were it not for the generally high wine literacy of the Healdsburg diner, local or tourist, believes McCarthy. “Finding this concentration of top-of-the industry focus on the culinary arts and hospitality—you don’t find that in small towns in America. That’s really a big-city thing, that’s a D.C., San Francisco, New York, Chicago kind of thing. And to find that energy being put into hospitality and the culinary arts and wine in a small, cozy community in a rural setting like Healdsburg? That’s magic, it’s pure magic.” 

Wine Spectator 2022 Restaurant Award Winners: Sonoma County

HEALDSBURG

Barndiva Restaurant & Gallery Bar (Best of Award of Excellence, since 2016), 231 Center St., 707-431-0100.

Dry Creek Kitchen (Best of Award, since 2002), Hotel Healdsburg, 317 Healdsburg Ave., 707-431-0330.

Little Saint (Award of Excellence, 2022), 25 North St., 707-433-8207.

The Matheson (Best of Award, 2022), 106 Matheson St., 707-723-1106.

SingleThread Farm (Grand Award, since 2021), 131 North St., 707-723-4646.

Valette (Award of Excellence, since 2016), 344 Center St., 707-473-0946.

ELSEWHERE IN SONOMA COUNTY

Farmhouse Inn (Best of Award, since 2021), 7871 River Rd., Forestville, 707-837-3300.

Salt & Stone (Award of Excellence, since 2018), 9900 Highway 12, Kenwood, 707-833-6326.

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