There’s so much more to Sonoma County than wineries

Sea and shoreline combine in splendor in Sonoma Coast State Park along California Highway 1 between Bodega Bay and Jenner.
Sea and shoreline combine in splendor in Sonoma Coast State Park along California Highway 1 between Bodega Bay and Jenner. TNS

There 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.

“You 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 four.”

I wasn’t there earlier, 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.

And you don’t need a flight of pinots noir or a spit bucket. Which is the point of this story.

Napa 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:

Sonoma County doesn’t need the swirl-and-sniff-and-sip-and-spit routine — at least not as much — to be a memorable experience.

A 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.

Change 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.

“Originally 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. “But we have 30-plus creameries within a 64-mile radius. And you can visit some of them.”

In Healdsburg alone there are 22 galleries. Healdsburg, by the way, is really spiffy. Wasn’t always.

“It was always ‘ag,’ ” said Bob Johnson, whose namesake gallery on Center Street is one of the town’s more fascinating. In its heart, Healdsburg is still ag. “You can go out here and go to a Michelin-star restaurant — and also see the Future Farmers parade go by.”

Chris 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.

“On 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 the Smithsonian.”

Today it’s a smaller version of all the best things about Beverly Hills, without the arrogance.

Quick 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.

Every other road is winding and lovelier: California Highway 116, where it hugs the Russian River. The Bohemian Highway 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 will).

The Pacific Coast Highway leads to Fort Ross, built in the early 1800s by the Russians in part for strategic and commercial reasons (sea otter pelts were big business until trappers ran out of sea otters). It was also a supply station for Russia’s 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.

The 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 there.

Now that we’ve slipped into tourist stuff: Peanuts and its creator are celebrated in the sparkling Charles M. Schulz Museum in 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.

In both Bodega and Bodega Bay, 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.

Horticulturist 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.

Sofia 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 facade, 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.

But 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.

And, OK, have a little sip — to toast the whales. Wherever they are.