Fabulous California Magazine

. . . by Alison Bailin Batz . . .

A handful of years ago, my mom and I wandered the streets of Healdsburg, checking out the urban tasting rooms. While I tend more toward full-on vineyard vistas and experiences, there are hidden gems tucked along the city sidewalks in most proper wine regions well worth discovering. That day all those years ago, we found one of Williamson Wines’ tasting rooms (there are two in Downtown Healdsburg).

Sitting right in the tasting room preparing for a wine and small bite pairing was Bill Williamson himself. For the next three hours, we enjoyed his bellowing laugh, deep Aussie accent and so-crazy-they-had-to-be-true stories as much as the wines.

There is a twinkle in this man’s eyes that lights a room. Bill has lived what feels like a thousand lives – that of a farmer, a software engineer, a computer science wizard, an entrepreneur, a father and husband and finally an ambitious winemaker and wine adventurer. In partnership with his wife, Dawn, Bill is relentless in his pursuit of creating the perfect wine country experiences, some simple but most unbelievably over the top.

How over the top?

Each year, he gathers wine members (which my mom and I are now) along a creek at his vineyard, which is about five miles from the downtown tasting rooms and puts on the biggest lobster boil you have ever seen. There must be 500 lobsters being rolled down tables along with prawns as big as my hand, fresh sourdough, a river of drawn butter and all sorts of seasonal veggies. There also happens to be about two dozen of his wines from which to choose throughout the day. Plus live music. Plus dancing. Plus – thankfully – copious bibs to prevent a blouse full of buttery lobster by day’s end. It is on another level; what you might see in a TV show or movie but didn’t think existed in real life.

And that just scratches the surface.

There are also pig roasts on property annually, and Bill and Dawn physically take wine members on a wine cruise once a year. They also plan and host full-on wine adventures across their native Australia, South America and other far-away lands annually.

Even the regular tastings are on another level. If visiting one of Williamson Wines‘ two downtown tasting rooms, you may enjoy a small bite pairing or multi-course luncheon with a curated selection of wines.

During the tasting, you can watch the chef making several of the dishes you will enjoy thanks to a professionally produced cooking show – it looks as if you are watching the Food Network and takes a few minutes to realize it is their own programming – that runs on closed circuit televisions throughout the property.

Each dish is flavored using Williamson’s own brand of spices, Herbie’s, which of course you can sample and purchase to take home as well (we always get the Aleppo pepper flakes and Katsu Japanese Curry Blend then go home and pour them on everything save for ice cream and cereal for weeks).

With reservations, there are also grand luncheons hosted at the vineyard, in Bill’s personal cellar, and the boldest tasting experience I’ve ever heard of in the Helicopter Experience.

This $395-per-person adventure starts at Santa Rosa airport, a few miles from Healdsburg. There, you are whisked away in a private helicopter for a 30-minute tour across Sonoma, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the vineyards, waterways, forests and valleys that make up the region. Once you touch down, the wine portion begins, with a multi-course paired lunch with what feels like a never-ending parade of flavors, textures and sips.

Speaking of sips, we are 600 words into this story and have yet to talk about the actual wines!

When I first walked into the urban tasting room, I was admittedly not sure about how the wines might taste.

Why? Their names.

Several of what turned out to be nuanced, balanced, bold varietals are named to honor an emotion it may evoke – Allure, Amore, Amuse, Cherish, Arouse, Relish, Bliss, Caress and so on. The skeptic in me thought the winemaker (a k a Bill) was just being silly.

I was wrong. So very wrong.

Hearing Bill talk about naming each of these wines while sipping them, I did find myself loosening up and allowing feelings of bliss and amusement to sneak in. I relished in Relish. I cherished every taste of Cherish. Bill and his wines reminded me that day – and every quarter when I get in a new shipment via my wine club membership – that wine, like life, is supposed to be fun. And seriously good things need not always take themselves so seriously.

There are three wines I must get in each shipment. If you have never tasted a Williamson Wines bottle, I recommend starting with these, and then you can thank me later.

Bliss Sparkling Shiraz: This was the first of Bill’s wines I ever tasted. It is offered toward the start of most tastings as well. And it sounds weird, right? Bold red bubbles? And a Shiraz in California? As it turns out, when you visit friends in Australia, it is all too common to be offered chilled red bubbles! I have no idea why it isn’t more of a thing in the United States, because this is a winner, even with non-wine drinkers. It is refreshing yet complex and rich at the same time. It is full-bodied yet delicate. It has a tang, yet soft black fruit. Pro tip: enjoy in a Champagne flute and do not swirl.

Amuse Mélange: For those who may not know (as I didn’t) “mélange” is French for “a mix.” So as you might guess, this wine is a blend. Each year, Bill chooses extra-special wine barrels to make this blend in French Bordeaux style. It is only available each year until it sells out and then no more is made of that blend ever again. It is a kick to order a new varietal each year to see how it changes, and honestly just to see what Bill does with it next.

Adore Rosé: A Provence-style rosé, the acid and fruit – strawberry and raspberry primarily – are in perfect harmony here. I add ice to this one and enjoy it by the pool and lake year-round. This is also a go-to for parties as it is always a hit, and the name alone gets the party going (and talking). I also love that it is a mix of Grenache and Shiraz, something you do not see often in California.

For more information, and to start your own romance with Williamson Wines, visit williamsonwines.com

Published on July 5, 2022 in Food & Drink, Restaurant of the Week