Stepping through the doors of Bergamot Alley, the newest addition to Healdsburg’s food and wine scene, I’m greeted with a warm hug from the hostess. A long hug. Let me backtrack. I’m from Healdsburg, a fifth-generation rarity who moved to San Francisco almost 10 years ago and only travels back home sporadically. Every time I do, though, I find that another friend, or pair of friends, or group of friends, has opened up or is planning on opening up a cool new spot in my hometown. Bergamot Alley is one of them.
The brainchild of Kevin Wardell, formerly a sommelier at flour + water and A16, and his partner Sarah Johnson, Bergamot Alley looks like it was born of a machine shop and an artistic city-slicker. The lofty space on Healdsburg Avenue was formerly a jumbled antiques mall filled with woodstoves and tractor parts, and the original brick walls have been carefully exposed. The 17-foot ceilings are finished in their original tin from 1896. Because the building is one of Healdsburg’s oldest, Wardell says, it has a certain landmark status that inspired the décor. In the walls: a wooden brick here, a tin patch there, small iron bars jutting out at random angles. The “wallscape” somehow works together, with a collection of air gardens climbing the bricks and vending-machine bouncing balls shoved onto the ends of the iron bars to turn them into functional coat and purse racks. A plaster wall that divides Bergamot Alley from its next-door-neighbor sports decals by Telluride, CO-based artist Nathan Frerichs, the whimsical squid and octopus looking as at home here in the Dry Creek Valley as they would on a T-shirt sold on Haight Street.
Bergamot Alley is intended to be a “bar without a bar,” says Wardell. “There’s no division between the customer and the people who work here,” he says.
“We wanted to have a space that really felt like a community room, where the flow of the people and the energy is uninterrupted by a bar.”
Large, community-style tables that can fit up to 10 people are hand-welded with kick-plates made from WWII-era hot-dog bun baking trays. The chairs are from elementary schools, with taller legs welded to them to elevate the drinker to barstool height. The vibe: all-encompassing and welcoming. Whether you’re a local, a tourist, or a “new local” with a chateau out in the valley and perfectly mucked designer Wellingtons, you’ll feel at home here.
“We wanted to avoid the ‘me versus you’ of the typical bar,” says Wardell.
“That works great for tasting rooms, but we’re inviting a community-based dynamic here.”
In Healdsburg, it’s rare for a wine bar to serve non-local wine; to not serve any Californian wine at all is practically sacrilege. Yet that’s what Bergamot Alley does! But because of Wardell and Johnson’s deep respect for, and involvement in, the local community, their decision to focus on interesting foreign wines is a welcome breath of fresh air through the old-growth Zinfandel vines–not an affront. Aside from an entirely Mediterranean wine list that offers a large selection by the glass, there’s a wide selection of microbrewed beers, the Alley’s concession to keeping the locavores happy. All draft beers are local, and a medical refrigerator full of eclectic American 750’s and Bombers like Allagash Curieux (Portland, ME), Brother Thelonious (Fort Bragg, CA), and Lagunitas’ Cappuccino Stout (Petaluma, CA) is designed to be self-serve.
Customers are encouraged to grab their own beers as servers bring around stacks of glasses, contributing to the general picnicking atmosphere. Completing the picnic vibe will be a snacking menu, due to debut on March 1.
Some of the best chefs in town, all friends of Wardell, will be contributing to Bergamot Alley’s menu. Expect offerings from the owners of Zazu, Scopa, and Diavola on the “jars and tins,” menu, which will feature items easily shared amongst friends at one of the Alley’s long tables or taken to go with a bottle of semi-sparkling Provenza “Turbiano” Rosato Groppello and enjoyed outdoors at one of the many surrounding wineries’ picnic areas.
The menu will include handmade pickles, pates, rillettes, cheeses, local flatbread crackers, and sweets, as well as imported Mediterranean items like olives and boquerones. The grab-and-go (or grab-and-stay!) menu is designed to be paired with the wines, all of which can be purchased by the bottle and taken with you. Bottles are stacked up eight feet tall on repurposed fitting shelves salvaged from a local machine shop. Wardell’s impressive wine list reflects his years of experience as one of San Francisco’s top Italian-wine sommeliers, showcasing wines from all over Italy, France, and “any country that touches the Mediterranean Sea.”
In the “porn room,” (the staff’s affectionate name for the rare & exotic wine room) the rules are not so strict. A repurposed barn door is counterweighted to slide upward on pulleys, leading the oenophile into a naturally-insulated space made from vintage sliding-glass doors. Ninety percent of the wines are sold at a relatively low cost (between $65-$120), a screaming deal for a wine geek who’s looking for an interesting bottle like a 1982 Casetta “Vigna Ausario” Barbaresco with some bottle age on it.
The proprietors’ enthusiasm for community, groovy art, and eclectic wines is expressed in every aspect of Bergamot Alley, from the collaborative efforts put into the funky interior design, the menu offering tastings from their well-known chef friends, and the hugs at the door from a local hostess who seems to know everyone who walks through the door—or will by the time you leave.
Disclaimer: Ella Lawrence worked with Kevin Wardell at A16 restaurant and considers him a close friend.