Vintners talk about terroir as the way a specific plot of land expresses itself in the bottle. What about the expression of a people? Imagine distilling our collective experience into a reflection of our passions that is “so Sonoma,” it can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.
With that in mind, we’ve come up with our definitive list. More than just a roll call of heroes and hangouts, refuges and revelries, it’s the spirit that makes this place “the chosen spot of all this earth,” as Luther Burbank once put it.
Our journey through the seasons appeals to all the senses. You taste Pliny the Younger for only two weeks in February. Wildflowers set spring on fire. A river cannon blows eardrums in July. Starlings paint the sky for fall harvest, and Winterblast lights up our days cut short.
It’s the reason we moved here, why we come together around tables, and why we gather in the streets. It’s what inspires us and what attracts hordes of tourists every year. For some it only exists in travelogues and foodie blogs. But we call it home.
Click through the above gallery for photos of the people, places and things that capture the spirit of Sonoma County.
THE ADVOCATE: Jennielynn Holmes, Director of Shelter and Housing for Catholic Charities
Jennielynn Holmes deftly navigates the divide between policymakers, police, the public, and the homeless people who nightly lay down their heads on a cot or the hard ground.
As the director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, the region’s largest provider of homeless services, the 32-year-old Holmes is both empath and realist. She knows how hard it is to unpack the complex issues that lead people into a nomadic purgatory on the streets.
But her optimism, warmth, and ability to listen and turn strategy into action has made her one of the most effective and admired social advocates in Sonoma County.
She’s won the trust of the people she is called to serve: tough critics wary of politicians and social workers whom many dismiss as all talk and little action. Those in the establishment also respect Holmes as someone who, as one local attorney put it, is “looking for solutions and not offering up excuses.”
The native Santa Rosan, first in her family to go to college, was on her way to law school 10 years ago when a short-term job at Catholic Charities proved to be her “personal mission.”
Homelessness, she has said, is “a social injustice, and it’s a system failure.”
It may be the way things are, Holmes acknowledges, but it’s not the way they have to be.
She “always meets people where they are,” says one client, “and leads them to envision the way that things could be better.”
— Meg McConahey
THE BEACON: St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, Bodega
Shining bright white in foggy Bodega, the St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church has weathered many a storm while continuing to inspire generations of refuge-seekers over the years.
In 1860, San Francisco street surveyor Jasper O’Farrell donated the land and the redwood lumber used by a crew of New England ship carpenters to build the church atop a hill in the small rural town.
Over the years, the landmark church has had a few brushes with fame. You can see its steeple rising above the nearby Potter School House in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” In fact, the director attended services at the church while filming in the area. You can also see it in the stark 1953 black-and-white photo “Church and Road” by Ansel Adams.
A California Registered Historical Landmark, St. Teresa of Avila owns the bragging rights to being the oldest Catholic Church in continuous use in Sonoma County.
— John Beck
THE FLOAT: The Russian River
Every stretch of the Russian River poses a different adventure. The whitewater plunge near Cloverdale. The narrow overgrown canyons from Healdsburg to Forestville. The lazy lull that opens up from Forestville to Guerneville. The pit-stop sandbars perfect for midday picnics. And the bobbing sea lions at the mouth by Jenner. Even in this age of low-flow water levels, the Russian is still the go-to retreat to forget about it all.
Around every bend in the river lies a new surprise.
That splash you heard behind you? It was either a sneaky sea otter giving chase or an osprey diving for lunch.
One of the most reliable river outfitters since the 1940s is Burke’s Canoe Trips in Forestville, where you can stake a tent and rent a few canoes or kayaks for an easy float down the river to Guerneville, where they’ll pick you up a few hours later and bring you back to camp by bus.
THE PIONEER: Dona Frank, Founder Natural Cannabis Company
Nothing about Dona Frank’s resume — vinyl record purveyor, coast guard photographer, postmaster — really screamed high priestess of the marijuana trade. But it did prove she could pull off anything she set her mind to.
When Frank opened her first marijuana dispensary in 2005 just outside Santa Rosa’s city limits, she simply wanted to create a safe haven for women to buy weed. Facing restrictions and permitting obstacles every step of the way, today — thanks to the will of voters — she oversees an emerald empire with her Natural Cannabis Company product line and dispensaries in Santa Rosa, Hopland, and Oakland.
Following the business model of local wineries, she’s adopted direct marketing programs, engaging customers through quarterly community-supported agriculture boxes and hosting a farmers market. Taking it one step further, she stages the annual High Art competition with Juxtapoz Magazine and promotes celebrity collaborations with porn stars, comics, and hip-hop artists.
THE BEER: Pliny the Younger
When Russian River Brewing Company owner Vinnie Cilurzo first dreamed up Pliny the Younger in 2005, it was a winter’s lark. His goal was to brew a seasonal triple IPA high in malt and alcohol (around 10.25 percent) but super-hopped to make it unusually dry. By 2010, rhapsodic beer bloggers had elevated it to the stuff of myth. Lines wound around the block in downtown Santa Rosa until all 600 gallons sold out in eight hours.
Now, every February, hop heads from around the world make the pilgrimage to Santa Rosa, to wait for hours to sample at most three 10-ounce glasses of the prized triple India Pale Ale that’s poured for only two weeks. This year, Pliny connoisseurs face a tough decision: stand in line in Santa Rosa or at the company’s new $50 million brewpub in Windsor.
The namesake Roman writer Pliny the Younger once said: “An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.” He clearly never tried his own beer.
THE PARADES: Occidental Fool’s Day Parade and Healdsburg Twilight Parade
Every spring blooms a classic Sonoma culture clash, when two lively factions take to the streets — one in Day-Glo wigs and clown masks, the other in cowboy hats and work boots.
The first week in April, the Occidental Fool’s Day Parade floods the small one-block town with a motley crowd of revelers armed with makeshift instruments and chants culminating in the annual crowning of the King and Queen of Fools.
Then in May, Healdsburg townies stake out their favorite parade-route viewing spots at least a day ahead for the Healdsburg Twilight Parade, kicking off a three-day Healdsburg Future Farmers Country Fair. You’ve never seen so many straw hats pulling tractors.
Two tribes staging their own version of a parade couldn’t be more different: west county sleight of hand meets down-home salt of the earth. But it’s what makes Sonoma County such a cross-cultural conundrum: Without the farmers we’d have no food, and without the clowns we’d have nothing to laugh about.
THE CONCERT: The Old Grove Festival, Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, Guerneville
Almost sacred beneath a cathedral canopy of redwoods, Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville has become a magical place for rare musical collaboration.
Built in the 1930s, the hidden outdoor theater was closed in the 1980s for fear of trampling the environment. It reopened in 2006 to stage very limited live music shows.
Every September, the tiny amphitheater (picture rows of 2-by-8 bench tops with no back rests) hosts a bluegrass, picking-’n’grinning crowd for the Old Grove Festival. But the day after this year’s festival, San Francisco promoter NoisePop took it to another level as fans flocked from all over the Bay Area to see indie-rock stalwarts Built to Spill play an intimate benefit to raise money for Save the Redwoods League and Stewards of the Coast of Redwoods. More than 450 fans raised enough money so that 3,000 children can experience the majestic grove of coastal redwoods in the future.
Concerts will remain few and far between, but it seems the bar has been raised: Who will sing next in the forest of giants?
THE LEGACY: Charles Schulz
No one could have known the dreamy kid from Minnesota, who gave birth to Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang and launched a global TV and merchandising empire, would one day settle down to raise a family in Santa Rosa.
But Charles Schulz chose us, and we forever claimed him as our own. To those who knew him, he was “Sparky.”
To those who didn’t, he was the unassuming, white-haired gentleman eating lunch at the Warm Puppy Café in his favorite hangout, Snoopy’s Home Ice.
Launched in 1952, the “Peanuts” comic strip introduced the lovable loser Charlie Brown, and suddenly the mundane daily life of kids and pets was elevated as Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and Woodstock shared existential moments that resonated with everyone.
Schulz died in 2000, but his spirit lives on in a perpetually rerunning comic strip and annual holiday TV specials like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Today his widow, Jeannie Schulz, oversees the “Peanuts” empire. Proving there’s no end in sight, “The Peanuts Movie” in 2015, written by his son Craig Schulz and grandson Bryan Schulz, grossed $246 million worldwide. Even the neurotic Charlie Brown would crack a smile at that.
THE TRACK: Sonoma Raceway
It’s an anomaly on the NASCAR circuit — a winding road course in a sea of oval tracks.
Welcome to Sonoma Raceway, a high-octane motor sports mecca for those who “feel the need for speed.” It’s where Pixar cofounder John Lasseter was once inspired to produce the first “Cars” movie. And where Vallejo native Jeff Gordon raised the trophy five times.
Since it was built along Highway 37 in 1968, the track has weathered many name changes — Sears Point Raceway, Infineon Raceway. And although IndyCar racing recently moved to Laguna Seca, there’s still plenty of burning rubber and fumes to be had in the Toyota/Savemart 350 NASCAR race, NHRA Sonoma Nationals drag-racing, and the Winter Jam drifting series.
But on some level, it’s no longer just about cars — it’s a culture: The RV camping, the flags, the tattoos, the beer, the music. People-watching alone is worth the price of admission. Here’s a perfect example: Every year, the homemade “Redneck Train” winds through the crowd pulled by its owner on a riding lawnmower, pulling someone in a saddle atop a wine barrel, pulling someone on a La-Z-Boy, pulling someone riding an ice chest on wheels. And on it goes.
THE WINEMAKER: Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne
There is no one more synonymous with Sonoma County Pinot Noir than Dan Kosta. It’s his lifeblood — an obsession with that most delicate and thin-skinned of grapes.
Not surprisingly the Sonoma County native comes from good rootstock. Legend has it he began drinking Burgundy (aka Pinot Noir) at the tender age of 5. His father owned Cellarmaster Wines in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, where young Dan tasted local Pinots by Williams Selyem and Joe Swan.
Later, working as general manager at John Ash and Co. restaurant in the late ’90s, he pooled his tips with sommelier Michael Browne, and together they bought a half-ton of Pinot grapes. After experimenting for a few years, Kosta Browne’s first commercial release was in 2000. In 2002 critics started gushing, and soon ridiculously long waitlists added to the demand. It didn’t hurt that around the same time the 2004 film “Sideways” championed Pinot on big screens around the world.
Today, their classic cult wines are the gold standard for California Pinot Noir. Kosta has since moved on to new projects, teaming up with chef Emeril Lagasse for AldenAlli Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
His passion for Pinot lives on in one of his favorite sayings: “Wine is not about perfection. It’s about the pursuit of perfection.”
— John Beck
THE MURALIST: Bud Snow
In her youth, Vancouver native Julia Davis — who goes by the pseudonym Bud Snow — performed onstage and with the circus, published a ’zine, and immersed herself in skateboard culture.
When she started doing graffiti art in her 20s, however, the die was cast. Her hard-to-miss murals can now be found everywhere from San Francisco to Long Beach, but Davis left her mark most indelibly in Santa Rosa, where she studied art at the junior college.
“I probably have the most public art in Santa Rosa of any artist,” she says. “It’s a little bit psychedelic, and a little bit primitive. It’s storytelling on walls in simple, organic forms that all people can relate to.”
You can see her art for yourself at a Juilliard Park fountain, an old feed plant near Roseland, Perch & Plow restaurant, and a 62-foot-tall sliver of the Roxy Theater, among other spots.
People always ask, “Who is Bud Snow?” “He was my late great-uncle,” she said. “I never met him, but he was a known eccentric.”
— Diane Peterson
THE BACKYARD: Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa
Sonoma County’s version of Golden Gate Park, the 5,500-acre Trione-Annadel State Park is a rolling wooded paradise for explorers, hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
To gaze upon the untamed hills today, it’s hard to believe the property was once slated as a 5,000-home development to be called Santa Rosa Lakes. The dreamer was former Oakland Raiders owner Wayne Valley. And the savior was Henry Trione, who donated significant funds to the California State Parks Foundation to save Trione-Annadel State Park from development.
Today, after the 2017 fires burned more than 3,000 acres, Annadel is bouncing back, hosting nearly 150,000 visitors a year. The steep climb to Lake Ilsanjo (where you can take a dip on a hot day) is a favorite hike. Spring wildflowers are an annual delight, and it’s not uncommon to spot a black-tailed deer along the trails or to hear the chorus of threatened red-legged frogs near Ledson Marsh.
THE ACOUSTIC EXPERIENCE: Weill Hall, Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center
Weill Hall at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center was built with so much wood — birch, pine, and fir line the floors, railings, and 1,400 handcrafted seats — that it feels like you are entering the heart of a musical instrument.
Thanks to the same shoebox shape as that of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, also designed by William Rawn and Associates of Boston, the hall sings forth the quietest pianissimos of a soprano and projects the rich sonority of a full orchestra with warmth and resonance.
Adding to its visual and acoustic appeal, the retractable rear wall makes performances accessible and affordable to hundreds more audience members in the summer, who picnic on the terraced hillside. Though it took 15 years to build, this masterpiece was worth the wait.
THE MARKET: Valley of the Moon Certified Farmers Market, Sonoma
Every Tuesday night, from May to September, what feels like the entire town of Sonoma pours into the downtown plaza for live music, fresh produce, and a massive block party for several thousand locals and lucky tourists.
How many farmers markets ring an opening bell to kick off the season every year?
Now officially called Valley of the Moon Certified Farmers Market, the focus is still (somewhat) on the farmers, who peddle seasonal fruits and veggies from as near as a block away (tomatoes from The Patch) and as far as Fresno (juicy oranges and grapefruit from Schletewitz Family Farms). Every week, a new bounty of fresh greens, honey, oysters, flowers, and more arrives in booths.
But what makes it a party is the live music in the horseshoe, a small fleet of food trucks (the girl & the fig and TIPS Tri-Tip Trolley among them), local beer and wine on tap, and zucchini car races for the kids.
Competition for vendor spots can be contentious, with controversy erupting in 2016 when the girl & the fig was denied a permit.
Every season, expect a new delight — last year it was Popo the Clown’s chocolatecovered banana dippers.
THE REINVENTION: The Barlow, Sebastopol
Change has always been a central theme in the history of Sonoma County agriculture. Hops were big for a century and then fell off the map. Petaluma was once the “Egg Basket of the World.” Prunes were king, then apples, then grapes.
On the site of an old apple cannery, The Barlow has transformed more than 12 acres, four city blocks, and 18 warehouses into an epicurean’s dream rendezvous with cheesemakers, distillers, artists, winemakers, brewmasters, and much more.
The aesthetic opposite of a mall, it’s a communal open space where kids and adults alike frolic and dance to live music. Distinctly local and seasonal flavors are on offer as one strolls from venue to venue with one foot in the past, the other in the future. Here’s how much things have changed: Where apple farmer Paul Kolling once delivered his Gravensteins at harvest, now his wife Kendra Kolling makes gourmet sandwiches at her Barlow restaurant The Farmer’s Wife. (Tip: Order “The Works” sandwich off the menu, with grilled cheese and chorizo.)
THE GUIDE: LandPaths
Led by charismatic naturalist Craig Anderson, LandPaths makes the leap to nature almost seamless. For many children and families who have never taken a hike together or camped overnight in a forest, a LandPaths outing is often their first foray into the Sonoma County outback.
It’s a nonprofit model built on camaraderie: Backed by hundreds of volunteers and docents, LandPaths acquires land from generous landowners willing to sell their property far below market value with the reassurance it will be returned to the community.
The five signature LandPaths properties are the 122-acre Rancho Mark West outside Santa Rosa; the 900-acre Bohemia Ecological Preserve outside Occidental; the 33-acre Grove of Old Trees outside Occidental; the 400-acre Ridell Preserve outside Healdsburg; and the Santa Rosa city-owned Bayer Farm & Community Gardens in the Roseland District.
Popular programs include In Our Own Backyard for students, summer camps, year-round family outings, and multiday camping expeditions through TrekSonoma. But whether it’s a school field trip or an overnight journey, the LandPaths call to action harkens back to the days of John Muir and Luther Burbank: Get outside.
THE KING: Art Ibleto, The Pasta King
Green spaghetti sauce?
Generations of noses crinkled as Sonoma County kids and adults braced for their first taste of pesto.
Again and again, the look of doubt melted away into a wide smile, and in that instant the Pasta King had won another loyal subject.
For more than 40 years, Italian immigrant and World War II veteran Art Ibleto of Cotati has fed Sonoma County at his Spaghetti Palace on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The Pasta King has ladled his pesto and marinara, too, at caterings for schools and soccer teams and you-name-it, and at countless benefit feeds that he’s hosted to raise money for people and animals in crisis across the county and the world.
Having introduced Sonoma County to pasta with pesto, he now wins converts from those among his faithful who thought they didn’t like polenta.
— Chris Smith
THE SANDWICH: Spud Point Crab Sandwich, Bodega Bay
On weekends, you have to earn your seafood by waiting in long lines — but the crab sandwich (somehow even tastier than the award-winning clam chowder!) is worth every second spent salivating outside the Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay. As an added bonus, you’re standing across from the Spud Point Marina, where the bustle of fishing boats provides entertainment and the next batch of tasty crustaceans arrive in towering bins.
Served on a soft, buttery French roll, the crabby sando is stacked with a healthy heaping of fresh Dungeness crab (you can see them boiling in pots out front) that is not to be drowned or outshined by the mayo dressing — a major sin committed at too many other crab shacks.
These are challenging times for the Bodega fishing industry, so it’s always worth celebrating a locally owned and locally run operation. Owners Carol and Tony Anello — he a longtime Bodega fisherman and retired firefighter with Sicilian roots — recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. And if your crab fix needs a second helping — remember the also-delicious crab cakes are only served on weekends.
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THE CLIMBER: Kevin Jorgeson
At the age of 2, Kevin Jorgeson scaled a ladder onto the roof of his uncle’s house — and it’s been an uphill climb ever since. In 2015, the Santa Rosa rock star made headlines around the world when he and buddy Tommy Caldwell were the first to free-climb the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
You can see it unfold in razor-sharp granite and bloody fingers in the stunning documentary “Dawn Wall.”
A newfound celebrity to many who don’t normally follow rock climbing, Jorgeson made the most of speaking gigs, sponsorships, and media appearances in the last few years. Now the next challenge looms for the 5-foot-9, 145-pound Maria Carrillo High grad: He plans to open Sessions Climbing, a 23,000-square-foot gym in a $6 million building near downtown Santa Rosa. Filled with climbing walls, a fitness center, a cafe, a lounge, and even a yoga studio, for Jorgeson, it’s just another place to hang.
THE FESTIVALS: Rivertown Revival, Petaluma and Winterblast, Santa Rosa
One celebrates a once-thriving waterfront, the other pays tribute to the power of art to transform a neglected neighborhood — both draw huge crowds as shining examples of the power of renewal.
Launched nine years ago, Rivertown Revival took off as a reminder of Petaluma’s maritime roots. Every July, the oddball carnival of curiosities, games, and live music on multiple stages takes over Steamer Landing Park to benefit Friends of the Petaluma River.
Now in its 15th year, Winterblast converts Santa Rosa’s SOFA (South of A Street) district into what organizers like to call “a poor man’s Mardi Gras.” The highlight is the annual sofa parade, an eclectic procession of decorated and bedazzled couches wheeled down A Street, flanked by fire eaters, bubble blowers, and stilt walkers.
Miles apart only in geography, both embody that same DIY, funky, “surrural,” vibe you get when festivals are not only dreamed up by artists but also run by artists (instead of bureaucrats) for all to enjoy.
THE MOVIE-SET SELFIE: Potter School, Bodega
If you see a group of people running down a hill in Bodega flapping their arms and screeching, there’s no need to call 911.
This scene of terror plays out over and over like a giphy in the little town on the way to the coast, always with a different cast and ending with a click. For more than 50 years tourists have made pilgrimages to the old Potter School for creepy photo ops.
In a county filled with movie locations, the eerie school, made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s campy classic “The Birds,” remains the ultimate Sonoma movie selfie spot.
Who doesn’t remember the scene of terrified children fleeing the school while under attack by a bloodthirsty flock of killer crows and sparrows?
For guaranteed “likes,” reenact the scene in gross exaggeration, or just snap yourself standing in front of the cinematic landmark, virtually unchanged since it was built in 1873. Just stay on the street side of the fence. The school is inhabited — and not just by ghosts.
THE WINERY: Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Geyserville
A fairy-tale castle of a winery, Coppola is truly a one-stop shop, making it a favorite for time-pressed tourists. Filmmaker Frances Ford Coppola brings together a tasting room, movie memorabilia, a stunning community pool and music stage, restaurant, and bocce court — all with spectacular views of the Alexander Valley.
Tuesday is “a tavola” night, where you’re literally part of the family as the waitstaff play out a loosely organized Italian-family dinner (complete with odd uncles and sassy sisters) while serving up family-style platters. Feel flattered if you get a serenade.
THE REFILL: “Guadagni” at Preston Farm and Winery, Healdsburg
Until the 1960s, filling up a jug with everyday “table wine” was common practice. Then came a torrent of inferior, Central Valley grapes, and the unpretentious jugs fell out of favor.
In 2002, Preston Farm and Winery in the Dry Creek Valley decided to restore the romance by launching a refill program on Sundays. Dubbed “Guadagni,” the wine honors the old-timer field blends of Preston’s Italian neighbors: a big dollop of Zinfandel, topped off with Carignane and Petite Sirah.
Jugs covered with refill labels are a point of pride now. And the red wine — meant to be an early, easy quaff — changes each year, depending on what Mother Nature serves up. Salute!
THE ELEVATED EXPERIENCE: The Emerald Cup, Santa Rosa
What started as a small harvest gathering for marijuana growers, the Emerald Cup has grown into the ultimate cannabis celebration. This OG competition picks the best bud of the year while throwing a dank party that’s not just for growers, but instead welcomes anyone over the age of 21 now that the state has made recreational use legal.
Over the last several years the event has grown from a loosely organized stoner shindig into a professionally produced cannabis gathering featuring speakers, education, VIP tents, and required testing for all competition entries. Whether you’re there to imbibe or simply see how the 420 lifestyle has evolved, it’s worth visiting at least once. Usually held the second week of December.
THE RESERVATION: Single Thread, Healdsburg
The immense wooden doors of 131 North Street in Healdsburg are a portal to a perfect world created by chef Kyle Connaughton and his team at Single Thread. The three-Michelin-starred restaurant is a whisper-quiet sanctuary where guests are greeted by a stunning tablescape of local moss and wood with tiny amuse-bouche hidden like fairies. Staff cater to every whim with elegant choreography, and each of the 15 or so courses gets progressively more jaw-dropping. The Japanese-inspired menu reflects micro-seasonal changes that take advantage of Katina Connaughton’s of-the-moment produce and flowers.
The restaurant is on track to become one of the world’s top dining destinations, so we recommend reserving your spot for this once-in-a-lifetime experience soon.
THE CONNECTOR: Herman J. Hernandez, Co-Founder Los Cien
A Guerneville real estate agent turned community leader, Herman J. Hernandez sees the great cultural divide as an opportunity, rather than an impasse. Whether it’s bending the ear of local newspaper editors and politicians, convincing them to step outside their comfort zones and look through Latino eyes at a given issue, or co-founding the Latino leadership council Los Cien, his goal is to find a way for all of us to work together as a community.
It only makes sense, considering he grew up in a cross-cultural household.
His El Salvadoran father and German mother met in college in San Francisco in the 1930s, and they raised Herman and his siblings in the Mission District. In the kitchen, common ground showed up in the daily rotation of papusas, yucca, sausage, and sauerkraut. But it wasn’t until Hernandez married his wife, Guillermina, from Guanajuato, Mexico, that he truly began to identify as Latino.
Part of the inspiration for Los Cien, which was launched in 2009 in the back room of a Mary’s Pizza Shack and has grown to 1,500 members, was based on his simple observation: “Our political leaders were making decisions about the Latino community without consulting the Latino community.”
Today, that is changing, thanks to Hernandez and the next generation of Latino leaders he’s inspired.
THE BOOM: Villa Grande 4th of July
Come July 4, no community embraces the spirit of independence more than Villa Grande, the loud-and- proud unincorporated village along the Russian River between Monte Rio and Duncans Mills.
Preserving a tradition that goes back to the 1900s, locals and able-bodied villagers don 17th-century wigs, knickers, dresses, and tricorne hats to recite the Declaration of Independence. Fired up by righteous words of equality, a rag-tag parade armed with kazoos marches down to the river where a few wannabe revolutionaries wheel what looks like a tiny toy cannon down to the water’s edge. But when they light the fuse and run away, it explodes like a powder keg — kabooom! As the deafening reminder of hard-fought freedom rings for miles around, a cloud of smoke wafts downstream and the party continues into the night.
THE AMBASSADOR: Dustin Valette
A hometown kid, chef Dustin Valette spent years in the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurateur Charlie Palmer, striking out on his own in 2015. Despite an haute menu (dayboat scallops en croute with squid ink and fennel pollen is the must-have dish) the restaurant has a vibrant neighborhood vibe, and the bar stools are always full of locals grabbing a bite. It’s the kind of approachable-fancy that’s ingrained in the Sonoma psyche.
With his dad, Bob, as the unofficial greeter and brother Aaron keeping everything running smoothly behind the scenes, Valette always has a friendly hug and hello for guests. That is, when he’s not cooking those dayboat scallops at exactly 384 degrees for precisely 11 minutes and 24 seconds.
THE HIKE: The Sea to Sky Trail, Jenner Headlands Presrve
After a decade of planning and negotiating, the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve finally opened to the public last September along the rugged Sonoma Coast just north of the mouth of the Russian River.
For the adventurous, the most prized hike is the Sea to Sky Trail, a 15-mile loop that leads trekkers to the top of Pole Mountain — at 2,204 feet, the highest peak along the coast. Along the way, you pass through redwood groves and cross a creek. The reward at the summit is an epic view of the Pacific Ocean usually reserved for hawks and osprey. Perched along a stretch of coastline once slated for development, it’s a rare vista we can finally all share — if you have the legs to make it to the top.
THE OUTPOST: Estero Cafe, Valley Ford
Free-range eggs, Estero Gold cheese, and Stemple Creek beef — these are a few of the reasons Valley Ford’s Estero Café has earned a loyal following among foodies and farmers for its menu packed with locally sourced, organic ingredients.
The breakfast/lunch cafe owned by Samantha and Ryan Ramey was among seven restaurants across the county to receive a coveted Slow Food “Snail of Approval” award in 2018.
So what’s the big deal? Dig into the Sonoma Omelet studded with king trumpet mushrooms or the cinnamon French toast made with brioche, and you’ll get it.
This farm-to-fork gem is worth a detour, even if you aren’t headed to the coast.
THE SEED FEST: The National Heirloom Expo, Santa Rosa
If it weren’t for fanatical seed savers like Jared Gettle, many of the world’s native plants might have gone the way of the dinosaur. Reviving heirloom breeds of tomatoes, potatoes, fruits, and all manner of squash, corn, and beans, the annual National Heirloom Expo is more than a gardener’s delight. Combining activism, gardening, music, and food, it defies traditional categorization but is nonetheless a must-attend — and usually falls during the second week of September.
THE ENDURANCE TEST: The Grasshopper Adventure Series
Two decades ago when an adrenaline junkie doubling as a high school Spanish teacher launched the Grasshopper, it was simply a wild ride for several dozen friends. For cyclists armed with photocopied maps, it was something to brag about if you won, but only until the next ride.
Now Miguel Crawford’s hardcore lineup of multi-terrain bike rides is one of the most daunting reasons Sonoma County has catapulted to the top of the list of endurance capitals in the nation. A recent Old Caz ride — a 50-mile course climbing 4,500 feet in elevation — sold out at 500 riders, with another 200 holding their breath on the waiting list.
Officially called the Grasshopper Adventure Series today, the rides are “hoppers.” Sponsored feed zones with energy-drink shots dot the course. It costs $50-$60 to enter. And victors take home Iron Spikes, Golden Spikes, jerseys, and even wine. But, whether you win or not, it’s still a badge of honor to say you completed the suffer fest of gravel descents, creek crossings, and thigh-burning mountainous climbs.
THE NATIVE SON: Jack London
Born in San Francisco, Jack London may have chased adventure all over the world, but he put down roots in Sonoma. In Glen Ellen, he found his Shangri-La, building the mythic Wolf House (before it tragically burned) and farming the land on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain.
A larger-than-life celebrated author, London is often mentioned as the first writer to earn a million dollars. His classics “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” “John Barleycorn,” “Sea Wolf,” and the Yukon gold-rush short story “To Build a Fire” are still widely read today.
But his lasting legacy was a work in progress. As one critic famously remarked, “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” In only 40 years, he penned 50 books and travelled the globe as a sailor, war correspondent, farmer, and reporter. Today his ashes lie beneath a mossy rock overlooking the Valley of the Moon in what is now Jack London State Historic Park. For the tourists who flock from all over the world to pay their respects, his words live on: The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
THE PLACE TO SPOT CUTE CHICKS: Butter & Egg Days Parade, Petaluma
Small-town parades are one of our favorite things about living in Wine Country, but the Butter & Egg Days Parade takes the cake — or at least the eggs and butter.
Paying homage to the rich dairy and poultry history of the former “Egg Basket of the World,” the city throws an all-out celebration of spring with a “Cutest Little Chick in Town” contest for costumed toddlers as well as plenty of musical marching, classic cars, firetrucks, equestrians, and waving beauty queens.
THE FARMERS: Steve and Joe Dutton
Steve and Joe Dutton were born with dirt running through their veins and an inescapable urge to coax crops from Sonoma County soil. The Dutton family has farmed here since 1852, growing everything from potatoes to prunes in the evolving agricultural landscape. Today the Dutton Brothers — first-class, fifth-generation farmers with a reverence for fine-tuned farm machinery — keep Sonoma County’s agriculture identity in the forefront, bridging the dusty past with the manicured Wine Country image.
The duo, in partnership with their mother, Gail Dutton, manage money and manpower to produce world-class wine grapes from more than 1,000 acres of vineyards. The Duttons’ highly coveted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are sold to more than 50 top-tier wineries, with some of their fruit allocated to their own wine labels, Dutton Estate and Dutton-Goldfield.
In a nod to their farming past, the Duttons still grow Gravensteins and other apple varieties visible at their agricultural headquarters, concentrated along a stretch of Graton Road locals have dubbed Duttonville.
THE LAWN GAMES: Bocce and Petanque
Early Italian immigrants introduced bocce ball to Sonoma County in the 1800s. Old-timers like vintner Jim Pedroncelli still remember as kids playing endless Sunday bocce ball before family feasts.
It’s a simple game: After tossing out the pallino (a tiny egg yolk of a ball), players try to bowl grapefruit-sized bocce balls as close to the pallino as possible.
Conveniently, one hand is often free to hold a glass of wine. You’ll find bocce courts at several dozen wineries — from the lakeside court at Armida to the four regulation runs at Coppola. Over the past decade, bocce leagues have become super-popular. In Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Bocce Club takes over Juilliard Park five nights a week.
But now the upstart pétanque — originally a French peasants’ game — is catching up. Preferring smaller metal boules over bocce’s ceramic orbs, the Valley of the Moon Petanque Club is more than 100 members strong.
The difference is all in the wrist. Bocce is more about bowling with the palm up, and pétanque is all about tossing the ball with the palm down to get backspin. Whichever way you go, it’s always a good excuse to get together, polish off a bottle, stoke a rivalry, and toss the rock (aka the pallino or cochonette).
THE MIGRATION: Whale Watching Along the Sonoma Coast
Every year in January, around 20,000 gray whales swim from Alaska to winter calving lagoons in Mexico. That’s when whale watchers descend on the Sonoma coast for the southern migration, and a few months later for the mothers returning northward with calves in tow.
Wayward sightings are the stuff of lore: To see a distant spout blow 10 feet high is a hint of magic. To see a tail slap the water is something majestic. To see a soaring gray whale breach, rising skyward for a 30-ton body slam atop the waves, is truly an awe-inspiring spectacle. But to see a mom leading her newborn 12,000 miles northward gives hope that ocean life is somehow still thriving.
The closest vantage point can be had from Bodega Bay charter fishing boats that double as whale-watching vessels during the winter season. For more than a quarter century, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods docents have been stationed at Bodega Head from January to June, helping visitors spot the massive mammals. The 3-mile coastal Salt Point Trail in Salt Point State Park is a favorite whale-watching spot. And at Sentinel Point in the newly opened Jenner Headlands Preserve, a new telescope for whale watching was recently installed.
THE INSTAGRAM FEED: Farmer T
With more than 45,000 followers, Tucker Taylor — or Farmer T, as he’s known on Instagram — may be the most popular gardener in Wine Country.
And for good reason, because Taylor is responsible for much of the produce used in the kitchens of the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. His subjects range from closeups of honeybees and rainbow chard to oddball herbs like crosnes (a luxe tuber) and oyster leaf (which tastes a bit like oysters). No matter the visual feast of the day, life’s always an adventure in the garden of @farmert
THE SHOW: Broadway Under the Stars, Transcendence Theatre Company
Staging mesmerizing summer sing-alongs at dusk in Jack London State Historic Park,
Broadway Under the Stars brings in a rotating cast of veterans from Broadway productions such as “Grease,” “Les Misérables,” “Mamma Mia!,” and “Mary Poppins” to belt out the most enchanting musical theater you’ll find in Wine Country.
It’s a mash-up of both coasts: Jack London’s Beauty Ranch meets the Big Apple. What starts with a pre-show picnic beside the vineyards in the ruins of a 19th-century winery often ends in standing ovations for themed medley nights (“Fantastical Family Night” is a favorite) produced by Transcendence Theatre Company.
It’s no surprise USA Today named it the No. 2 outdoor concert venue in the country and the regional nonprofit company has won numerous Broadway World awards. Stars under the stars have included Carrie Manolakos and Tony Award winners Ben Vereen and Sutton Foster.
Helping save the park from imminent closure in 2012, Transcendence has since donated nearly $500,000 to keep it operational. Moving beyond the summer months, it’s now a year-round rotation with Broadway Holiday Spectacular in December. In the same way that Ashland is synonymous with Shakespeare, Glen Ellen is earning an unlikely reputation for Broadway musicals amid the vineyards.
THE STORYTELLER: Gaye LeBaron
The grand dame of Sonoma County letters, Gaye LeBaron knows the lay of the land like no other. Her history books — “Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town” and “Santa Rosa: A Twentieth Century Town” — are revered as great yarns and the definitive historical record.
From Mexican land grant lottery winners and Italian grocers to land speculators and famous bank robbers — they all come to life in LeBaron’s columns and books.
Born in Humboldt County, she interned at The Press Democrat before starting out as a general assignment reporter and soon taking over as community columnist in 1961. Quick with a turn of phrase and a historical aside, LeBaron was also tough enough to take politicians to task, aided by her alias confidant “Sam the Shark” feeding her newsworthy tips. More than 8,000 columns later, she retired in 2001, but still writes two Sunday columns a month.
Her latest book, “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove,” delves into a Utopian cult that sprang up in Santa Rosa in the 1870s. Told in her trademark warm, conversational tone, it unfolds like someone telling a story at a bar, no matter how odd the characters or the context may be.
THE MATCH: Wine Country Polo Club
Judging by the sky-high fancy hats alone, Wine Country Polo Club soirees and charity tournaments in Oakmont are the closest thing we have to the Kentucky Derby. Swells dressed to the nines often preen for cameras and nosh on local delicacies as a polo match eventually ensues, and topnotch riders jockey their horses for a crack of the mallet against the bocha (er, ball) — and hopefully a goal or two.
The two seasonal tourneys you don’t want to miss are the Wounded Veterans Polo Benefit in August, raising thousands of dollars for soldiers, and the Henry Trione Memorial Tournament in September, honoring the Santa Rosa philanthropist and polo aficionado who donated the immaculate fields. The only rule: Look beautiful, even when you’re stomping divots — it’s a polo tradition.
THE HAPPY HOUR: Stark’s Steak and Seafood, Santa Rosa
Still packed shoulder-to-shoulder nearly every night, the Happy Hour at Stark’s Steak and Seafood is a legendary swill-and-grub fest. Cheap and strong, cocktails like The Rufus, The Lucy, and always easy-down-the-hatch Moscow Mules are the main attraction, polished off with $2 oysters and glorified pub faves like mini burgers, prime rib banh mi sandwiches, and truffle fries.
It’s easy to forget this frugal free-for-all was born out of not-so-happy times. Not long after opening in 2008, owners Mark and Terri Stark were feeling the financial crush of the recession like everybody else. So they rolled out $2 beers and martinis paired with cheap appetizers from 3 to 6 p.m. every day at the Railroad Square steakhouse.
Considering the cheapest steak on the dinner menu will set you back $32, scarfing at the bar is a thrifty move. Happy hour prices have gone up a little over the years (the absurdly delicious potato skin fondue was $3.95 back in 2015, and is now $6), but who’s counting?
Just remember the Classic Beefeater Martini comes with a limit of two per person. Wait, who’s counting?
THE SANCTUARY: The Temple of Reflection
This weathered temple reaches to the sky in a latticework of welded steel. Created by David Best, a Petaluma artist best known for his ephemeral wooden pagodas, the structure known as the Temple of Reflection withstood the 2017 firestorm that leveled nearby Paradise Ridge Winery.
Approach with reverence, as the space is dedicated to remembrance of those lost, their names written on stones or strips of fabric. Visitors sit and contemplate, as wind chimes create a haunting soundtrack to the experience. The winery is closed for the winter, but will reopen the sculpture garden to the public this spring.
THE ROADHOUSE: Washoe House, Petaluma
If only those dollar bills could talk. To hear the tall tales told beneath hundreds of tobacco-stained yellow bank notes hanging from the rafters of the Washoe House, adorning the oldest bar in Sonoma County, it would add up to one of the richest oral histories in the region.
One particular bill has become the stuff of legend: Flash back to 1865, the night President Lincoln was assassinated, when an angry Petaluma Union militia marched toward Santa Rosa to take their frustration out on any Confederate sympathizers. But after stopping for beer and whiskey at the Washoe, they never made it to the county seat.
You can read all about it on the menu at the old stagecoach saloon, founded in 1859. How much is true or not no longer matters. What does are the hair-of-the-dog bloody marys and the prime-rib dinners and killer breakfasts (the Washoe omelette = linguica, bell peppers, onions, and Spring Hill pepper Jack cheese) served every day, even Christmas morning.
THE RODEO: Russian River Rodeo, Duncans Mills
Packing in more cowboy hats per square inch than any other event in Sonoma County, for the past 52 years the Russian River Rodeo in Duncans Mills has been the proving ground for cowhands to test their mettle against thundering beasts of varying sizes and temperaments.
Every June, several thousand roping fans converge on 7 dusty acres off Moscow Road to watch calf roping, bull riding, bareback bronco riding, mutton busting, and the ultimate agility test — barrel racing.
Over the years, the rodeo has changed venues several times. Starting out beside an amusement park in Guerneville, it moved to a Korbel Winery property before finding a permanent home in Duncans Mills, which feels like the Hollywood set of an old Western.
Amid the flying hooves, snorts, yelps, and hollers, hundreds of competitors from around the state compete for cash prizes and bragging rights. Throw in tri-tip, beer, chili dogs, country music, and kiddie sandboxes filled with corn kernels and you’ve got a hoedown. Offering a break from the mayhem, a new Rodeo Queen is crowned every year.
THE FLOCK: Starlings
They’re called “murmurations” — the mesmerizing flocks of starlings that dip and dive in perfect harmony while assuming myriad shapes that change by the second.
Wine Country drivers have been known to pull over to the side of the road to gawk at the mysterious flight of the songbirds as they sweep over vineyards while feeding on insects.
Often marking the end of grape harvest and the onset of winter, the ravenous starlings will hover at one moment, suspended like a fishing net flung across the sky, before rippling outward in undulating waves and adopting various random designs.
It’s only fitting when you consider that starlings were introduced to America from Europe by a Shakespeare enthusiast obsessed with importing every bird ever mentioned by the Bard. To watch them paint the sky at dusk, some might call it poetry in motion.
One thought on “50 People, Places and Things That Are So Sonoma County”
John Beck, re Villa Grande, it’s not the 17th century for the Independence Day rememberance, it is the 1700’s and 18th century.