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Healdsburg, Calif., is the center of the wine universe in North America. Folks over the hill in Napa Valley might tell you something different, but they’re wrong.

What makes Healdsburg great — better than Napa, St. Helena, Yountville or Calistoga?

Just about everything.

This Sonoma County community 15 minutes north of Santa Rosa on Highway 101 is at the crossroads of three great wine regions: the Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. Within minutes, you can be at any of the three and experience completely different styles of wine. In fact, within a 30-mile radius of Healdsburg, you can easily get to more than 200 wineries.

Russian River Valley: This cool-climate region starts in Healdsburg and spreads south to Sebastopol and west to Guerneville. It is a world-class region for pinot noir and chardonnay.

Dry Creek Valley: This is just north of the Russian River Valley, and runs west and northwest from Healdsburg. Here, zinfandel is king. Some of the state’s oldest zin vines are here. If you love serious zinfandel (the red wine, not the California Kool-Aid known as white zin), Dry Creek is for you.

Alexander Valley: This stretches from Healdsburg north to Cloverdale and east across the Russian River. It is home to more than 40 wineries and 15,000 acres of wine grapes. Cabernet sauvignon is the most important grape grown here.

Getting around the wine regions surrounding Healdsburg is easy. Unlike Highway 12 that runs through Napa Valley, half the population of the Bay Area is not clogging the roads. Instead, traveling the byways and back roads of this part of Sonoma County is soothing, not unlike driving through Oregon’s Yamhill County.

And Healdsburg is a great destination in its own right. The focal point is the Healdsburg Plaza, a tree-lined oasis just four blocks from the highway. It is surrounded by tasting rooms and a dozen great restaurants. My longtime favorite is the eclectic Bistro Ralph. You might also like Campo Fina for Italian or Taverna Sofia for Greek.

Though most of the microbrew scene is in Santa Rosa, the Bear Republic Brewing Co. near the plaza has a definite low-key Portland vibe, great seasonal beers and delicious pub grub. Locals and in-the-know wine travelers make up the mix here.

Plan to stay in Healdsburg, where you can choose from B&Bs to vacation rentals or budget motels to luxury hotels. From here, make your way to wineries such as Kendall-Jackson, Jordan, Ferrari-Carano, Simi or Rodney Strong — all big names in the California wine scene that choose to locate in Healdsburg.

And if you want to mix up your activities, you can be on the Pacific Coast in 40 minutes or drive to the city of Sonoma in 45 minutes or San Francisco in 90.

So if you’re heading to Northern California, forget Napa and head to Healdsburg.

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at