What Makes Sonoma Like No Place Else

Sonoma’s beauty and history make it a town like none other.

The truth is, Sonoma really is unique. There’s no place in California, nor the entire country, that combines beauty, history, wine and real estate into a genuine community that has not, and probably never will, become Carmel.

For those of you who don't know, Carmel is another quaint, historic village in California, but it has been priced beyond the reach of all but the super-rich, overrun by tourist traffic and robbed of its soul by commercial development. It's a gorgeous, spectacular setting with a rich history. For years, Clint Eastwood owned and hung out in the Hogs Breath Inn and once was mayor. But it's now the kind of town many people would agree is a great place to visit but they wouldn't want to live there.

In contrast, Sonoma is a real town, and the celebrities who live here like it because it allows them to be real.

True story: A young boy was playing alone in the Plaza one day while his mother shopped in the nearby Cheese Factory. A stranger walked up, sat down and talked with the boy, who then invited him home to play. The mother returned to the Plaza, found her son had left and accurately assumed he had walked the few blocks home.

When she got there, the boy was sitting on the floor with his toys and his newfound friend, the strange man from the Plaza. “Mom, Mom,” he shouted, “Look, it’s Mork!” Mork, in case you’re too young to remember, was one half of “Mork and Mindy,” Robin Williams’ first TV show. Williams has lived in and out of Sonoma Valley. That Plaza encounter is more than 20 years old.

Nature in Your Backyard

Sonoma is the kind of place where The Valley of the Moon is bisected by Sonoma Creek, a sizable watershed that still harbors salmon, steelhead, beaver and otter, and it flows from the rocky slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park down to San Pablo Bay. It is a wilderness corridor that shelters both numerous deer and an increasing number of mountain lions who have a largely venison diet.

In the winter, when heavy rains fill the creek, it is possible for expert kayakers to paddle through class III and IV whitewater from Kenwood all the way to the bay. You could, with enough flow, motivation and madness, slide a boat into the water beside Landmark Winery on the edge of Kenwood and not take it out until you reached Aquatic Park at the foot of Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.

An Artist's Haven

But if harebrained paddling isn’t what floats your boat, you could visit a different artist and art gallery every day of the week and never see the same work twice for at least a month. Sonoma is a true artist’s haven, blessed with Mediterranean light, dramatic contours, redwoods, oaks, vineyards and olive trees with blankets of mustard, poppies and lupine every spring. It’s the kind of place where people stop routinely along the side of the road, set up an easel and start painting.

Sonoma is the kind of place that drew Chester Arnold, the internationally acclaimed painter whose “Accumulation” series illuminates the excesses of our consumer culture. It’s home to Brian Tedrick, who creates visceral and highly collectible horses, fish, dragonflies and various indefinable creatures out of discarded pieces of steel and wood (Drive by Kenwood restaurant and look at the 10-foot salmon outside). Sonoma has also attracted Dennis Ziemienski, the nationally known illustrator whose bold representational paintings of Southwest scenes are in galleries and collections around the country. And they represent a mere fraction of the artists at work around Sonoma.

So when you add all this up (the fun, the food, the art, the wine, the mountains, the valley, the wildlife and the waterways) and park it less than 40 miles from San Francisco, 50 miles from the wild Pacific coast, throw in redwood groves, the nearby Russian River, salmon and steelhead fishing, and a Mediterranean climate, a lot of people would say it’s their definition of heaven. With very good wine.

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