Thursday, July 7, 2011

Home Sweet Home: Sonoma Bound

I grew up in the lovely town of Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Now it's a mecca of wine, cheese and other great culinary experiences and a San Francisco bedroom community, but back then it was a small, rural town with a single traffic light, no McDonalds and a single, one-screen movie theater and three or four feed stores. My family moved to Sonoma in 1975 just before the Judgment of Paris and the subsequent explosion of California wine. The wineries were there and were good, but even into the '80s, Sonoma wineries tended to be owned by small, family farmers instead of the well heeled wine legends of nearby Napa and the later crop of tech and show biz tycoons with their vanity vineyards and cult cabernets.

In the ten years after I left, Sonoma changed completely, losing some of its small town character but gaining some great food in the process. Now, of course, Sonoma is just as chic, hyped and expensive as its neighbor counties, Napa and Marin. It's wine is as well regarded as Napa's. The great, recently deceased Ig Vella, who made artisan cheese for decades out of his stone shop, helped birth a movement of artisan cheese makers in which the North Bay Area became one of the major loci. (I was gratified to see that the little bridge over the Sonoma Creek on Napa Street had been renamed the Ig Vella Bridge).

Early twenty-first century Sonoma is a funny composite. Still hanging on are some of the old school, down to earth places that were favorites when I grew up in the '70s and '80s (Mary's Pizza Shack is there, but not dear Moosetta's which taught country kids how to eat Russian peasant food). These hangers on are now outnumbered by the the upscale restaurants and gourmet shops that make Sonoma a culinary destination. But down the road in the Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood there are taquerias, ice cream parlors and other shops opened by the members of the growing immigrant Mexican population, most of whom hail from Michoacan and Jalisco.

It's been a while since I spent more than a weekend in the place that was my home from age 5 to 18, but on a recent vacation, I was able to spend a week there visiting old favorites, newer favorites and a few brand new spots as well as some of what San Francisco and the East Bay have to offer. I'll be sharing some of these reports over the next few weeks. As Dorothy says, there's no place like home.

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