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A Salt-of-the-Earth Town That Sparkles

After he closed Cyrus, the Healdsburg, Calif., restaurant for which he’d earned two Michelin stars, in 2012, it took the chef Douglas Keane a decade to scout the dream locale for his new restaurant.

Mr. Keane finally landed last year at a former prune-packing plant overlooking vineyards where the Russian River snakes through the Alexander Valley. Those vineyards are not in Healdsburg, Sonoma County’s unofficial gastronomic headquarters, but eight miles north in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Geyserville.

“Geyserville is real, rural wine country: Farmers are out at 5 a.m.,” said the 52-year-old chef on what drew him to the town. “Everyone knows each other’s name; there is a yearly tractor parade.” The new version of Cyrus is putting Geyserville on the itineraries of more travelers, who are enjoying the town’s buzzy bar and stylish eateries, the home goods shop that feels like a beefed-up flea market, and intimate, tucked-into-the-landscape wineries.

The whole town may be just two blocks of Wild West-looking storefronts, but its charms take an entire weekend to uncover. Here, some of the highlights.

Roam the kitchen in a 15-course feast

In Japan, there is no culinary experience held in higher regard than kaiseki, the formal, multicourse meal that showcases seasonality with dishes served elegantly but without pretense. At Cyrus, Mr. Keane, who has visited Japan many times, presents his version of kaiseki through a California lens, a paean to local agriculture (though a few ingredients come from far-flung spots). The presentation wows with a whisper.

The meal unfolds in various locations throughout Cyrus’s 8,000 square feet. It kicks off with champagne and snacks that play on different aspects of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Guests (there are four seatings of 12 diners four evenings a week) gather in the leather-accented lounge or outside among the olive trees, where the Mayacamas Mountains and surrounding vineyards shimmer on the surface of the reflecting pool.

The chef Douglas Keane invites diners at Cyrus to wander around the kitchen while the staff works to prepare a 15-course meal that unfolds in various parts of the restaurant.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

For the next courses, the group proceeds to a moodily lit area adjacent to the open kitchen, where diners are invited to roam the kitchen as courses like sake-steamed abalone with shio koji corn consommé are being prepped. While diners ogling chefs in a gastronomic kitchen is not new, a midservice invitation to interact with them is.

More substantial savory dishes are served in the dining room, where floor-to-ceiling windows give the landscape center stage. Among the dishes: a seared scallop bathed in matsutake-mushroom-spiked dashi; a fillet of beef, cooked sous-vide and then plancha-seared; honey-glazed goat’s milk shokupan bread alongside custard blooming with puffed barley and nasturtium and mustard flowers. The meal culminates in a cocoon-like room with a bite of black-sesame-and-dark-chocolate pavé and a parting gift: boxed chocolates that hit the five tastes again.

Pine nut and white-miso cremeux with persimmon and goat’s milk ice cream at Cyrus.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
The Mélange cheese, gâteau Basque and poached pear course at Cyrus.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Fifteen courses is a lot. But Mr. Keane’s umami- and acid-forward approach (meaning he uses less dairy and carbohydrates) translates into a lighter-feeling meal. (Cost: $295 without pairings; an additional $280 for wine pairings or $140 for nonalcoholic pairings.)

A downtown straight out of the Wild West

Just off the Highway 101 exit ramp in Geyserville, a sculpture garden draws visitors and sometimes features installations of local students’ artwork.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

You get a sense of Geyserville as soon as you take the exit ramp off Highway 101 and encounter a field of large sculptures by various artists — a 25-foot-tall steel horse mid-gallop, a towering man made of wine barrels and a galvanized-steel trout with blue-cereal-bowl eyes — in a formerly derelict lot, thanks to a collaboration between Geyserville Community Foundation and the landowner, Bryce Jones. The sculpture garden is ever changing and sometimes includes installations of local students’ artwork; most pieces are for sale.

Though Geyserville proper extends between two exits on Highway 101, the actual town is tiny: It’s one main drag with a handful of family-run businesses operating from buildings that look straight out of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

There is Gin’gilli’s Vintage Home, a 1930s Ford dealership turned flea market emporium with 45 vendors selling everything from old tools and kitchen gadgets to classic toys and cool tote bags made of Pendleton blankets. (A stall with patched and studded vintage Levi’s provides some fashion forwardness.)

The owner of Bosworth & Son, a shop in Geyserville, combined family photos, memorabilia and relics donated by the community to create a museum.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Bosworth & Son sells Western wear and cowboy hats out of a building that it has occupied since 1904.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Bosworth & Son has occupied its building since 1904, first as a mortuary, then a wagon-painting shop and, finally, a general store that sold feed and, later, hardware. Now, it’s a cowboy hat and Western wear shop that doubles as a museum. In 2018, the current owner, Gretchen Crebs Bosworth, 51, combined four generations’ worth of family photos and memorabilia with relics donated by the community to tell the story of the town’s evolution. On display: dozens of 19th-century photographs featuring the town’s early settlers in covered wagons and log cabins and timeworn kitchen tools like a “pitter splitter” from the days when the crops were primarily apricots and prunes instead of grapes.

Neapolitan sass and glass antlers

Geyserville’s restaurants are supremely 21st-century on the design and flavor fronts. Corner Project, which inhabits the former parts department of the Lampson Ford Dealership, serves up craft beer and a simple menu of dishes like tacos and sandwiches made using locally sourced meats and produce ($12.50 to $20). On tap are dark and light beers, ales, pilsners and lagers, along with ciders and hard seltzers with whimsical names like Surly Temple.

Inside the largest of the town’s buildings, the husband-and-wife team of Sonja and Dino Bujica, both 47, run Diavola, a trattoria-style pizzeria with Neapolitan sass. Pizzas with toppings like pork belly and Sicilian meatballs ($22) are the calling card of the restaurant, but there are also housemade pasta ($25 to $26) and dishes like brick-roasted chicken with seasonal beans and greens ($32) that nod to the decade that Mr. Bujica spent cooking in places like Forte dei Marmi and Pisa, in Tuscany. The sass unfolds on the plant-draped patio where laundry (including naughty lingerie) dangles from a clothesline à la the alleys of Naples.

The Geyserville Gun Club, a bar and live music space in a former shooting range, has the edgy ambience of a Brooklyn lounge.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

The couple also own the bar and live music space next door, the Geyserville Gun Club, named for the building’s former life as a shooting range. Cocktails like the mezcal-based She-Devil ($13) are good, but the ambience is what wows. A mash-up of taxidermy, blown-glass-antler lighting and salvaged claro walnut tables with kicky metalwork gives the place the edge of a Brooklyn lounge.

Along the same promenade, Catelli’s, an Italian mainstay for decades, offers classics like cheese ravioli ($23.50) and chicken Parmesan ($26). And nearby Fermata, which opened in 2022, has raised the town’s coffee game. The owners, Ellen Lin, 40, and Jefferson Drudge, 47, not only offer barista-made beverages and pastries, but also showcase the wares of local makers and open their space for live music.

Catelli’s offers classic Italian dishes like ravioli and chicken Parmesan.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Most of these businesses have exuberant floral bouquets on their countertops. Their origin? A pollinator garden created by Mr. Jones of the public sculpture garden. He hand delivers them, at no charge.

Terroir with a taste of history

The wines from the tasting rooms in Geyserville probably won’t be available in your corner wine store. Small, family-run operations mean bottles are sold mainly through wine clubs and local distribution. In contrast to larger wineries, tastings at these vineyards are conducted by oenology-obsessed managers who tend to get so engaged with storytelling that they often forget the sales pitch. Which, of course, is part of the charm.

The Pedroncelli winery, which describes itself as “on the big end of small,” began supplying grapes to households in 1927. Post-Prohibition, it evolved into a premium brand with 14 varietals. Tastings include an appreciation of the winery’s history, which includes the Pedroncelli family’s role in placing the Sonoma County appellation on labels, and the appointment of Montse Reece as its first female winemaker in 2015. The tasting rooms are lined with family photos and feature redwood from the vineyard’s original 1940s tanks on the walls and ceiling. Tastings start at $20.

The Pedroncelli winery began supplying grapes to households in 1927. After Prohibition ended, it evolved into a premium brand that now offers wines made with 14 varietals.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Zinfandel vines at the Pedroncelli winery, which was instrumental in putting the Sonoma County appellation on labels.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

The Mazzoni family has been involved in grape growing and winemaking in Geyserville since 1897, when Giuseppe Mazzoni, along with scores of other Italians, immigrated to Sonoma to work for the Italian Swiss Colony. The Zialena winery is run by two of his great-grandchildren, the siblings Lisa and Mark Mazzoni. The sleek metal-and-wood-sided tasting room where visitors sample cabernet and zinfandel reflects the modernity that they bring to the 120-acre vineyard. Tastings start at $30.

As a collective, Locals Tasting Room offers an expansive experience where visitors can do varietal tastings from eight small-batch wineries. Opened in 2002 as the first independent collective tasting room in California, it is now owned by Dick Handal, 82, and his daughter, Doralice Handal, 51, who imbue the vintage-barware-filled tasting room inside the Bosworth building downtown with a welcome-to-our-family vibe. “We encourage visitors to discover lesser-known varietals not normally associated with California, such as verdelho, grenache blanc and graciano,” said Ms. Handal. Highlight: Winemakers are routinely on hand to pour and hang out with visitors. Tastings are complimentary.

Get out on the water

Lake Sonoma, near Geyserville, offers hiking trails as well as water sports like kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and boating.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

If the weather is warm enough — this is California, after all — head over to Lake Sonoma, in the coastal foothills. Fringed with live oaks and rugged terrain, this recreation area, an outgrowth of the construction of Warm Springs Dam in 1983, offers hiking and a lake with 50 miles of shoreline and a marina where sport boats, pontoons, stand-up paddle boards, jet skis and kayaks can be rented by the hour.

Where to stay

There is one frill-free 41-room hotel in town, the Geyserville Inn (rates start at $335). An alternative is the just reopened Madrona Hotel in Healdsburg (about an eight-minute drive), whose co-owner is Jay Jeffers, a noted San Francisco interior designer. Mr. Jeffers deftly transformed the Victorian mansion into a 24-room inn brimming with patterned wallpaper, statement lighting, sumptuous textiles and a dynamic mix of artwork. A wraparound veranda and pool area are ideal perches to take in the spectacular scenery (rates start at $650).

To truly interact with what locals call “Geyserville grit,” you could book a stylish barn turned one-bedroom cottage on a private farm within walking distance of Geyserville’s shops. The farm and rental are part of a nonprofit owned by the animal rescue activist Danae Blythe Unti who uses all proceeds to shelter the goats, wild mustangs and cows that you’ll see roaming the property ($325 per night).


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