Healdsburg is always a fun day trip on its own, but getting outside the downtown shopping area adds a new level of enjoyment. A recent trip found us scoping out the Russian River Valley wineries, then meeting friends for dinner Downtown.

Two winery gems just up 101 to the north that share the same driveway at 11455 Old Redwood Highway are Rodney Strong Winery and J Winery. Both are picturesque, have unique, even elaborate, tasting rooms and beautiful grounds.

Start at J Winery, which produces sparkling and specialty wines, and pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris. The cooler temperatures make for some really good pinot noirs, and when you enter the winery, you encounter a hostess station where you are offered your first taste—a sparkling wine. A light appetizer or two, made on the premises, are a nice added extra. Most tasting rooms provide only crackers, if anything at all. You progress to the sleek, modern J Signature bar for your next taste, which is adjacent to their boutique store. You can linger there and taste different varietals before heading upstairs to the loungy, comfortable space where more exceptional appetizers add to the experience. This tasting room is really unique; and well-worth the trip.

Just up the lane is Rodney Strong, which is a spectacular facility. The gardens and terrace are lush and architecturally interesting, even though it was raining hard when we arrived in the late spring. The large tasting room sits upstairs in the center of the production facilities. You can walk all the way around the outside of the tasting room and look down over the tanks and barrels, and read about how the wine is produced, the soil composition and climate. Or take the winery tour, offered every day, which gets you out into the vineyard.

We tasted cabernets, which are quite different than the cabs from Napa or Sonoma wineries. They are not as big—they are softer, without the full-spectrum flavor palette found in the wines from the warmer climates. It took a shift in perspective, but these cabs won us over and we purchased several bottles for the cellar. Rodney Strong is a concert and event venue and has picnic facilities.

After taking our time familiarizing ourselves with the wineries and the wines, we headed back downtown (a 10 or 15 minute drive) and had a great meal at Willis Seafood and Raw Bar. Willis is one of those rare places where you can get really good food in an intimate, yet hip environment. Along with the raw bar (incredible oysters!) Willis features grilled skewers and small plates to share. It’s fun in the summer with outside dining, and warm and cozy in winter or shoulder seasons. Exploring Healdsburg, only an hour and a half from Benicia, can be a low-key shopping, dining and art gallery trip, a great winery experience or both.