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Sonoma, Calif.: Wine Country Destination

No more chickens in the plaza, but Sonoma still has plenty of pluck. At last, a spa town with passion and wit.

Dan Noreen owner of the Wine Exchange in Sonoma California, image
Photo caption
Dan Noreen, owner of the Wine Exchange, touts syrah as the next big thing.

Sonoma Valley hums with the fruits of its labor. Grapevines rise and fall along the surrounding hillsides in perfectly ordered rows, like the sinewy staves on a vast piece of sheet music. Sonoma winemakers harvest glissandos of grapes, imbued with subtle half notes of persimmon and asparagus, and squeeze them to release an endless arpeggio over French oak.

Just down the valley from such winemaking giants as Benziger and Kunde Estate, past the natural hot springs that attracted the first high rollers to Sonoma Valley a century ago, is the town of Sonoma, where eccentricities are just as fiercely cultivated as the grapes.

Better than anyplace else in the California wine country, Sonoma mixes the bounty of its countryside with bohemian fun, perhaps best exemplified in and around its historic Plaza. Until three years ago, a flock of free-range chickens made Sonoma's leafy central square their home, often strutting into the surrounding shops and restaurants, clucking over the prices like tourists.

"We had several chickens who were regulars in here," says Dan Noreen, standing among his nonpoultry regulars at the tasting bar in the Plaza's Wine Exchange. "Especially when it was cold out, they'd come in and sit by the warm-air vent."

The chickens are a symbol of the town's past, having arrived in Sonoma after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when a clutch of shaken urbanites fled north to become poultry farmers. Sonoma has clung to its history, stubbornly resisting any attempts to transform it into just another wine country destination like some of the boutique towns of nearby Napa Valley, where family farms have given way to bland McMansions.

After several children reported acts of retaliatory pecking, the chickens were banned from the Plaza. (The chickens' defenders darkly hinted that the kids were rabble-rousing "outsiders," though one was just 3 years old.) It wasn't the first time that Sonoma's rustic affection for semidomesticated animals had caused trouble. A wealthy, eccentric resident of an estate that's now Bartholomew Memorial Park once ran afoul of her Victorian neighbors for keeping as many as 200 cats. A quirky museum at nearby Bartholomew Park Winery traces the estate's history; a horse buggy and a potbellied stove from that era remain.

Chickens no longer come home to roost in Sonoma. But you shouldn't let that stop you, particularly if you're feeling peckish. With its abundance of memorable cheeses, prizewinning breads, and great wines, Sonoma Valley is a gustatory delight. "It's definitely a magical place for food," says Craig Ponsford, an owner of Artisan Bakers and winner of the 1996 World Cup of Baking in Paris.

California's fabled wine country—and the $33 billion industry that flows from it—actually got its start on the Plaza, though you won't find so much as a squashed grape on the pavement to commemorate it. After Padre José Altimira founded the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma in 1823, he planted grapes on the mission grounds for what would become the first winery north of San Francisco.

Altimira's plans for the wine were devoutly sacramental, but when the mission was secularized in 1834, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo replanted the vines on his own land and dominated winemaking in the region for 25 years.

Vallejo even fermented wine in the barracks of the garrison he commanded. That was just after leaders of the Bear Flag Party seized the building in 1846, throwing Vallejo in prison and declaring California a sovereign nation. The U.S. Navy showed up 25 days later and decanted Vallejo from the jug. But Sonoma never quite got over the notion that it was supposed to be the capital of something, and to this day views its Plaza as a sort of national rotunda to the wine country.

Vallejo was overthrown twice, the second time as the valley's leading winemaker by Agoston Haraszthy, an exiled Hungarian nobleman who came to town in 1857 after being accused of embezzling gold from the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. Haraszthy opened Buena Vista Winery, was acquitted of all charges, and later moved to Nicaragua, where he was eaten by a crocodile.

This would never have happened if Haraszthy had just stayed in Sonoma, where there was little appetite for the rich until recently. Napa Valley—not Sonoma—was where the wealthiest San Franciscans historically built their country estates to escape the summer fog, often traveling there by private schooner.

"Napa was always upscale, so they had the estate attitude there," says Ignazio "Ig" Vella, a crusty second-generation Sonoma cheese maker whose Vella Cheese Company is just a block off the Plaza in an old stone brewery. "Sonoma was a lot harder to reach, so we became the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. The two places developed divergently, and stayed divergent."

There are still a whole lot of differences. "Sonoma has been called 'the poor man's Napa,' " says Suzanne Brangham, who has done as much as anyone to make sure that isn't the case, developing a charming inn and spa called MacArthur Place for neohipsters like Sharon Stone, who is a regular. The number of wealthy residents may be on the rise, but the diversity of industry in the valley still fuels its working-class character, Brangham says. "If you drive around Sonoma, you see a real mix of heavy farmland and vineyards. And we're going to try and keep it that way."

Most Sonomans would still rather have a 100-gallon propane tank in their pasture than a bronze nude by Henry Moore. But this fabled combination of Brigadoon and Dogpatch has grown far too savvy for the kind of class skirmishes that erupted in the late 1980s. That's when a merlot militia of Sonoma Valley winemakers calling themselves the Wine Patrol hijacked the Napa Valley Wine Train.

It was all terribly civilized. Wearing capes and masks, the viticulture vigilantes boarded the train and started handing out bottles of Sonoma wine to the startled passengers. "We walked up and down the aisles and told people, 'Throw away all your Napa wine and drink something you can afford,' " recalls Lance Cutler, winemaker and author of The Tequila Lover's Guide to Mexico and Mezcal. "We just tried to show them Sonoma was more relaxed—and a lot cheaper."

Ponsford says Sonoma has always had a country feel. "I think people take a lot of pride in being more down-to-earth here," he says. In the morning, his bakery is often filled with customers wearing mud-covered work boots and John Deere caps. Of course, some of them are wealthy, like Bruce Cohn, manager of the Doobie Brothers and owner of the elegant B.R. Cohn Winery on Highway 12. And Landmark Vineyards, with its spectacular chardonnays, is owned by Damaris Deere Ethridge, great-great-granddaughter of the tractor titan himself.

During summer months, when the Plaza plays host on Tuesday nights to a farmers' market with free concerts, Sonoma shows off an amazing larder of local olive oils, cheeses, and fresh produce. The valley has been a culinary destination since Russian explorers arrived in 1812, making Sonoma the southernmost stop in a search for food and furs to support their Alaskan colony. A decade later, the Spanish chose the town as the northern terminus of El Camino Real, the royal road that linked California's 21 missions.

As if lined with seasoned breadcrumbs, these trails brought America's first foodies to Sonoma. It's no coincidence that the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher chose to spend the last 20 years of her life in Sonoma Valley. Or that Chuck Williams launched a revolution in home cooking when he opened his first hardware-turned-kitchenware store there in 1956, aptly calling it Williams-Sonoma. (Oddly, Sonoma is one of the few places in America where you won't find a Williams-Sonoma store anymore, but Sign of the Bear has equally high-end utensils while championing the quirky Sonoma spirit with a collection of books celebrating the chicken.)

Managing somehow to be more "country" than Napa, though it's even closer to San Francisco, Sonoma has retained the flavor of an old mission town. The compound's historic chapel is still open to the public; for $2 you can tour the mission, the barracks, and Vallejo's rose-covered home, Lachryma Montis. Just across the street from the mission stands the wisteria-draped Blue Wing Inn. Though now closed, awaiting a quake-safe retrofit, the inn has served at various times as barracks, brothel, and bar; wine from the cellar was used in 1911 to help quench a fire burning in a neighboring building.

Now it's the wine that heats up Sonoma's summer social season, which arrives early with the Sonoma Valley film festival in April. The event has so many wine and food tastings accompanying its screenings that is has been renamed Cinema Epicuria. In June, the decidedly Sonoman Red and White Ball comes to the Plaza. Some revelers arrive dressed in white dinner jackets and red Bermuda shorts; Brangham once attended clad as a stately white swan. In August, when the vineyards are groaning with grapes, the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction gives winery workers a chance to let off steam while raising millions for local charities and nonprofits. "That's where you see the real zaniness of Sonoma," Lance Cutler says. "It's a total blowout, a see-who-can-do-the-craziest-thing event."

The annual Fourth of July parade around the Plaza is an authentic piece of old-time Americana. And it, too, has a charming wackiness, one highlight of which is the appearance of the Sonoma Town Band. To make the parade seem a tad bigger than it actually is, the band marches around the Plaza, eventually circling back to the parade's tail end, where members don funny hats and wigs and march again—this time behind a banner reading, "The Other Town Band."

It's not surprising that throughout Sonoma a lot of the locally produced art features food, especially on the walls of Ramekins, the culinary school for home chefs that doubles as a bed-and-breakfast. Wooden spindles along the stairway leading up from the kitchens have been painted to look like giant asparagus spears, and hand towels hang from soup ladles on the bathroom walls.

If you're hungry for more serious works, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has fine exhibits, including an annual installation of colorful altars by local Latino families that's centered around Day of the Dead festivities in late October and early November. The valley is home to many migrant workers from Mexico, and the exhibit is meant to bring together two parts of the community that sometimes see each other only from a great distance. "We're not trying to do a Taco Bell version of Day of the Dead," says Jim Callahan, president of the museum's board. "These are authentic works of art."

Out in the valley, the Imagery Estate Winery has its own gallery that exhibits the original art commissioned by the company for its wine bottle labels. From the Imagery tasting room, it's but a quick hike to Arrowood Vineyards & Winery, where winemaker Richard Arrowood is a rising force with his tasty pinot blancs, malbecs, and merlots.

Sonoma restaurants have led a move toward Rhône varietals, which is evident on the wine list at the Girl & the Fig. A wine flight there offers diners tastes of three viogniers, three syrahs, or three ports with such savory dishes as heirloom radish salad or grilled portobello sandwich. Cafe La Haye, chef and co-owner John McReynolds's not-to-be-missed eatery and art gallery, is another exquisite culinary laboratory on the other side of the Plaza.

Merlots and chardonnays suddenly seem so last year. "Syrah is probably going to be the next big deal in terms of a red wine," says Dan Noreen, back at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma, where visitors can sample most of the local vintages, including several from wineries too small to have tasting rooms of their own. "Because the county is so large and we have so many microclimates, we have the opportunity to try things. So there's a sense of experimentation happening here, which is really exciting."


You have to be willing to try the unusual in Sonoma. No chickens allowed.

Photography by France Ruffenach

This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.