Before it was one of California’s premier tourism destinations, Sonoma County was just home to Dustin Valette. The young chef, who was born 1980, has been working in kitchens since the week after his 13th birthday and he cooked around the world—from Italy to Hawaii to New York to France—before moving to Healdsburg, less than ten minutes from quaint Geyserville, where he grew up, in 2008. After working Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen for several years, he and his brother Aaron Garzini opened Valette on the site where their great grandfather's bakery once stood, in 2015. The rustic yet elegant restaurant quickly garnered attention for its focus on Sonoma County purveyors. To this day, lots of locals, particularly noted winemakers, are among its habitues. We checked in with Dustin for some guidance on what to do, see, and eat around his glorious hometown. His answers had us working really hard to hold back on an impulse to book a flight to California.
“You look at a place like Lyon, France. Lyon screams food and wine," says Dustin. "But in Sonoma County you get the vibes of food, wine, agriculture and family. It feels wholesome, authentic, and real. That’s what Sonoma County is to me: home.”
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
There’s no better source for dining direction than a local chef and indeed, Dustin has lots to recommend. First up, Diavola in Geyserville, which specializes in pizzas from a wood-burning stove. The menu is impressive enough, but Dustin’s go-to is an off-menu selection: the Bambino. It's chef Dino’s twist on Chicago-style pizza. “It’s deeper dish than Chicago, though, and it has this amazing homemade sausage. It’s roasted longer, so the dough gets caramelized on the outside,” he describes. Hungry yet?
In Healdsburg, the place to go is Bravas, a Spanish tapas restaurant, which he loves because you can go for an elegant splurge or you could just hang out on the terrace and order wine and exquisite Spanish snacks.
One of the fun things about a hard-core culinary destination like Sonoma County is that there are incredible dining experiences to be had beyond the restaurants. You can thank local shop-owners for that. Dustin is a fan of Jimtown Store. Styled like an old-timey country store, it's about eight minutes outside of Healdsburg on the way to the wineries in Knight’s Valley. Pick up a few of their excellent sandwiches and sundry gourmet eats—charcuterie, cheese, creative salads—and you have yourself the making of a divine picnic. Alternatively (or additionally!) the Dry Creek General Store is about ten minutes northwest of Healdsburg on the way to the world-class Rafanelli Winery. their provisions, which include everything from classic breakfast fare to hearty salads to baked goods, are made in-house. Dry Creek is also a must for anyone with shopping in mind. Their wine-country-related home décor and knickknacks are made with barrel staves and other objects from the wineries.
And, of course, you can’t go wrong at Dustin’s restaurant. Like Bravas, it’s an excellent option for a splurge, but it’s also perfectly encouraged to grab a seat at the bar (there are only 13 seats, so be patient) and indulge.
A TOAST FOR ALL TIMES
There are more than 200 tasting rooms in the area and over 500 wineries and the drive to each one is even more scenic than the last. Many tasting rooms, in fact, don't charge for the sampling. Sometimes, though, even in Wine Country you might crave a change of pace. Dustin frequents Duke's, a cocktail bar on Healdsburg's main square, for its fantastic negroni and plenty of other meticulously crafted cocktails. One of the owners, Tara Heffernon, loves to make up custom drinks on the fly. "You just tell her the ingredients you like and she’ll create a drink right then and there for you." Dustin explains.
If you need further break from vino, Bear Republic Brewing is in the heart of town. It’s the original brewery/restaurant in the area—opened in 1994, and I think they led the way for microbrewery scene in the area. Red Rocket, one of their standby brews, is his go-to.
GET OUT OF TOWN
Thanks to all the twisting and turning roads, Healdsburg has a reputation for being one of the best bicycling areas in the USA. The biking is such a draw that there are three bike rental operations in the small town. “People literally come from everywhere to bike here,” Dustin marvels. “You can go through the majestic Redwoods and the coast is only about 15 miles away. It’s just such majestic and beautiful scenery.
It’s also one of those bucket-list towns for runners. Dustin urges any and all roadrunners to pop into Healdsburg Running Company not just for attire and sporty paraphernalia, but to visit with Skip, who he calls the “running guru,” what with his unparalleled insight and direction on the myriad running paths throughout the area.
Or, of course, you could just see the scenery from the car. Healdsburg is a 25 minute drive to the ocean. Dustin recommends heading out on Westside Road, along which you'll pass several of Healdsburg's finest wineries, like Williams Selyem and Arista and Thomas George Estates. You can even hit the renowned Korbel en route to the sea. There are several cute hotels and restaurants along the coast. Hog Island Oyster Co. is among the chef's favorites for indulging in bivalves that are "literally harvested fresh out of the water," he marvels.
With so much talk about NorCal’s countless wineries and high-end restaurants, it’s easy to forget that it’s an excellent family destination, and Dustin is the perfect one to reassure that, as he has two daughters, each under two years.
Santa Rosa, just 15 minutes south of Healdsburg, is where Charles Shulz of Peanuts fame is from. There’s an ice skating rink that Dustin likes to go to with his young daughters. Make a day of it and visit the nearby Children’s Museum of Sonoma County or the Charles M. Shulz Museum, a shrine to all things Linus/Lucy/Charlie Brown/Snoopy, or head back to town for a bike ride with the kids.
“Wine Country really is a beautiful place to bring kids to. They can enjoy the views and there’s not a lot of trouble they can get into, like running into the ocean or something. There’s no crazy or extreme place here. Wine country isn’t like Vegas or Chicago, it’s really more like a holistic family place. Plus a lot of wineries are family-friendly.”