trees reach for the sun in Armstrong Redwoods State
Park, north of Guerneville.
was no need for the morning fog to chill the air. It was
chilly enough without fog. A dozen or so people on the
bluffs at Bodega Head were staring at the Pacific Ocean,
looking for whales.
see spouts, and maybe a back," a woman said, her
stylish binoculars at rest for the moment. "People
who were here earlier this morning said they saw
wasn’t there earlier and didn’t stay long that day and
never made it back, so this day I never saw whales. But I
know that up and down the coast, from Bodega Head on the
south to Gualala Point to the north, if you time it right
and the leviathans cooperate: whales.
you don’t need a flight of pinots noir or a spit bucket.
Which is the point of this story.
is Wine Country, and it’s gorgeous and can be fun and
delicious. Sonoma County, immediately west, is Wine
Country too —also gorgeous, with locally produced grape
products and all that — but here’s the difference:
County doesn’t need the swirl-and-sniff-and-sip-and-spit
routine — at least not as much — to be a memorable
generation or two ago, Sonoma was grazed by cattle (dairy
and beef) and enriched by crops deliberately grown, and by
forests of centuries-old redwoods and by fish and other
harvestable sea critters.
happens. There are 400 wineries in Sonoma now, about the
same number as in that other county. But grazing and
cultivation and redwoods and fishing still happen in
Sonoma County — and many other good things — and it’s
this diversity that make this place its own place.
we had more dairies than wineries, and now we have more
wineries than dairies," said cheese maker, chef and
educator Sheana Davis, the force behind The Epicurean
Connection, a culinary one-stop in Sonoma, the town.
we have 30-plus creameries within a 64-mile radius. And
you can visit some of them."
— 22 in Healdsburg alone. Healdsburg, by the way, is
really spiffy. Wasn’t always.
was always ‘ag,’ " said Bob Johnson, whose
namesake gallery on Center Street is one the town’s more
fascinating. In its heart, Healdsburg’s still ag.
"You can go out here and go to a Michelin-star
restaurant — and also see the Future Farmers parade go
Blum, a graphic artist and filmmaker who had been working
out of San Francisco, stopped in Healdsburg to buy gas on
the way somewhere else — and stayed. That was in 1975.
the left-hand side coming in was a classic Texaco
station," he said. "There was a lumber mill on
the right. There was a fabulous maybe 1930s movie theater.
There was a saddle-maker, a (facility of ill repute) …
You could’ve picked this whole place up and put it in
it’s a smaller version of all the best things about
Beverly Hills, without the arrogance.
timeout for a few obligatory facts: Sonoma County is about
twice the size of Napa County, larger than Luxembourg but
not quite as big as Delaware. U.S. Highway 101, an
interstate without the official designation, bisects it
lengthwise but, being too fast and too boring, is to be
avoided whenever possible.
other road is winding and lovelier: California Highway
116, where it hugs the Russian River. The Bohemian
Highway, which snakes ridiculously from the river through
forest down to Freestone, home of Osmosis Day Spa
Sanctuary, celebrated for its cedar enzyme baths (unique,
this side of Japan) and its Japanese garden (if the bath
and massage don’t decrease your stress, the garden
Highway 12, just about everywhere it goes. Armstrong Woods
Road, into the redwood forest of your dreams. California
Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from Bodega Bay past
Jenner. Breathtakingly beautiful.
coast highway leads to the Russian fort.
Ross (1812-1841) was built by the Russians in part for
strategic and commercial reasons (sea otter pelts were big
business until trappers ran out of sea otters) but mainly
as a supply station for its Alaskan settlements farther
north. Only one structure from the Russian era survives
— the 1836 Rotchev House, which has had a colorful
history since — but the reconstructed Russian Orthodox
chapel gives it plenty of atmosphere.
fort was founded while the Spanish Franciscans were still
building their California missions. It’s only right then
that the county has its own Spanish Franciscan mission:
Mission San Francisco Solano (1823), in Sonoma, the last
of them. Rebuilt in 1840, it’s not the grandest, but it’s
that we’ve slipped into tourist stuff:
"Peanuts" and its creator are celebrated in the
sparkling Charles M. Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa. A
re-creation of his studio is there, plus original strips,
many of his awards and just enough — but not too much
— about the man himself.
Bodega and Bodega Bay (he used both locations), Alfred
Hitchcock scared the bejabbers out of Tippi Hedren (and
us) in "The Birds" — and there are scattered
reminders, including a familiar schoolhouse and church
and, in the Bodega Country Store, what owner Michael
Fahmie insists is the world’s largest collection of
"Birds" memorabilia anywhere.
will be drawn to the Jack London State Park, near Glen
Ellen, where among the vineyards and hiking trails is the
cottage where the writer did his last work (1911-16). His
writing space remains intact, and his own story is an
was a good novel writer," park historian Lou Leal
said of the man who gave us "Call of the Wild"
and "The Sea-Wolf," "but he was a master
short-story writer." He also knew how to give a party
— at that cottage.
Luther Burbank is faintly remembered now, but in his prime
his genius was compared to contemporaries Thomas Edison
and Henry Ford. He developed, among other things, the
blight-resistant Russet Burbank potato (which
revolutionized the potato industry), all kinds of flowers
and, to prove he could, white blackberries and spineless
cacti (both of which flopped on the market). Much of his
hybridization was done at Gold Ridge Farm, near
Sebastopol, which can be visited.
Coppola’s father was already producing wine in that
other county when, in 2010, he opened Francis Ford Coppola
Winery in Geyserville. It’s a winery with a touch of
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens (castle façade, pool,
restaurants), but the draw for us was Vito Corleone’s
desk, Robert Duvall’s cavalry hat and boots (without the
smell of napalm in the morning) and one of the Tuckers’
cars, all viewable without buying or spitting anything.
all the above pales to that drive along the Pacific Coast.
Bring a camera. Bring a sketch pad. Bring someone you care
about to Sonoma County.
OK, have a little sip — to toast the whales. Wherever