On a clear, sunny January afternoon, when the oak-covered Mayacamas Mountains are so brilliantly green that you have to squint, State 12 is one of the prettiest roads around. Rick Kasmier still remembers how that road struck him and his wife, Sandi, when they first came to the Sonoma Valley 19 years ago. "It was just the most beautiful place ― the view, the sunset...Then and there we both decided, 'This works,' " he says.
So the couple bought 2 acres of land just off State 12 and began making wine out of their basement. In June 2003, they opened Kaz Vineyards & Winery tasting room. Kaz was, and still is, the smallest Sonoma Valley winery with a public tasting room; it produces about 1,000 cases a year. "I'm the only full-time employee of me," Kasmier jokes.
There are plenty of "onlys" about Kasmier. He may be the only commercial winemaker to make his own labels out of vintage, hand-colored family photos, and the only one to welcome kids with toys and juice in the tasting room. And, he says, he's one of only two California growers of Lenoir, an obscure French-American hybrid grape that produces some of the darkest juice of any grape. Kasmier likes to work with what he calls the "third- and fourth-tier" varietals: Lenoir, Malbec, Barbera, DeChaunac. "I wouldn't enjoy just doing the Cab-Merlot-Chardonnay thing. I dislike commercialism. It's just not fun."
Kasmier is in good company in the Sonoma Valley, where creative types find their muse and residents work hard to maintain the valley's quirky, small-town character. Go this month, when tourism is at its slowest and local winemakers, shopkeepers, and artists have more time to visit.
Providing for locals and guests
Visiting with customers is one of the reasons Ditty Vella loves running her tiny cheese boutique, the Cheesemaker's Daughter. Ditty is the daughter of Ig Vella, whose handmade dry Monterey Jack cheese was California's first artisan cheese before the term "artisan" was even being used in the context of food. Ditty grew up selling her father's cheese, but instead of taking over the family business, she chose to open her own cheese store, selling up to 80 unusual imported and domestic cheeses.
"I feel like cheese is at the white Zinfandel stage," Ditty says. "People still don't know that much about it. A lot of my customers go straight for the brie. I like to lead them, gently, in other directions." Educating people about cheese is one of Ditty's passions; the other is providing a place for locals to gather close to the historic Sonoma Plaza, which, these days, is dominated largely by big, commercial enterprises. "We need to work hard to maintain a sense of community," she says.
That's exactly what Ditty did when she helped to protect the 55-acre wooded hillside north of the plaza, now known as the Sonoma Overlook Trail. Five and a half years ago, the city almost leased this land to a resort, but Ditty and other Sonoma Valley citizens worked with the Sonoma Overlook Trail Task Force to save the land. Now a gorgeous 3-mile trail runs up and over the hills, past soaproot, buckeyes, and manzanitas and across a babbling brook.
"The Sonoma Overlook Trail was, to me, the epitome of a grassroots effort," Ditty says. Still, winning the initiative wasn't easy. "Sonoma somehow fosters individuality. That can make it hard to find a common ground. But once you find an issue that unites all those dynamic individuals, it can be a very powerful thing."
Art and eats on the plaza
That common ground is much in evidence at the reopened Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The museum, located just off the plaza, is "the best thing that has happened to Sonoma in decades because it provides what the town has been lacking: a cultural meeting place," says metal sculptor Jim Callahan. "It places the arts in the center of town, where they should be. And it's meant to attract residents, not just visitors."
Callahan is a member of the LaHaye Art Center, a working commune near the plaza for six artists. On any given day, you can walk in and watch Callahan working on one of up to 50 thought-provoking sculptures, such as a pair of rebar-and-barbed-wire draft horses. If you're lucky, you might see Callahan pouring 150 pounds of molten bronze into molds ― on a cold winter day, Callahan says, it's like seeing, hearing, and feeling "liquid sunshine."
Callahan feels fortunate to be able to make a living as an artist right in the heart of downtown, especially in a place like Sonoma, which he considers rural enough to feel like home yet close enough to San Francisco to have the cosmopolitan spirit that artists crave. "People here appreciate art, which gives me the freedom to express myself any way that I want to," Callahan says.
Kasmier agrees, but he has his own individual way of expressing that thought: "I've found Sonoma Valley the perfect place for a nutso winemaker to do his thing."
Wine Country hotels, though pricey, are less expensive from January through April. Here are a few of our top picks, in various price ranges.
El Dorado Hotel. Great value given its central location. Restful rooms have French doors that open onto balconies. 27 rooms from $135. 405 First St. W., Sonoma; www.hoteleldorado.com or 707/996-3030.
Gaige House Inn. Tasteful, luxurious hideaway in Glen Ellen; open during the addition of 8 new spa suites (to be completed this winter). 23 rooms from $150. 13540 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; www. gaige.com or 800/935-0237.
Glen Ellen Inn and Restaurant. Opened in summer 2003, 6 charming cottages sit right beside Sonoma Creek. From $110. 13670 Arnold, Glen Ellen; www.glenelleninn.com or 707/ 996-6409.
The Kenwood Inn and Spa. Sinfully luxurious, recently expanded Tuscan-style inn. The guests-only dining room now serves wonderful dinners Fri–Sat ($$$). 29 rooms from $350. 10400 State 12, Kenwood; www.kenwoodinn.com or 707/833-1293.
If you're in the market for wine tasting and eating in the Sonoma Valley, the options are virtually limitless. That's why it's smart to ask the people who live there where to go.
Rick Kasmier's Sonoma
The Fig Café & Winebar. A spin-off of the Girl & the Fig, it serves rustic, country-French fare, with specials such as cassoulet ― perfect for a winter evening. Kasmier appreciates the restaurant's "Rhône Alone" wine list, which features not a single Cab, Merlot, or Chardonnay. $$; dinner daily (closed for renovation Jan 27–31). 13690 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; www.thefigcafe.com or 707/938-2130.
Kaz Vineyards & Winery. Don't miss the 2002 Mainliner ($42), made from the Lenoir grape. 11–5 Fri–Mon; $5 tasting fee. 233 Adobe Canyon Rd., Kenwood; www.kazwinery.com.com or 707/833-2536.
LaSalette Restaurant. A small family-run Portuguese restaurant loved by Kasmier. $$$; closed Mon. 452 First St. E., Sonoma; www.lasalette-restaurant.com or 707/938-1927.
Ditty Vella's Sonoma
Cafe LaHaye. Ditty calls this her benchmark restaurant ― informal, with local, fresh, consistently excellent food, not to mention an artisan cheese plate (supplied by Ditty). $$; closed Sun–Mon, reservations recommended. 140 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707/935-5994.
Gundlach Bundschu Winery. Ditty calls this family-run winery "fun, funny, and refreshing because they have a sense of humor about what they do." $5 tasting fee. 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma; www.gunbun.com or 707/938-5277.
Sebastiani Theatre. Ditty likes to watch weekend matinees in this restored old theater. Tickets from $5.50. 476 First St. E., Sonoma; www.sebastianitheatre.com or 707/996-2020.
Sonoma Overlook Trail. Both Ditty and Jim Callahan say the 3-mile trail, which starts just a few blocks north of the Sonoma Plaza, is a great place to hike in winter. The trail opened in 2002, after a hot debate on whether to turn this oak-covered hillside into a high-end resort. First St. W. at Mountain Cemetery; Sonoma Ecology Center, 707/996-9744.
Jim Callahan's Sonoma
The Cheesemaker's Daughter. Callahan often picks up a cheese-and-prosciutto sandwich at Ditty's cheese boutique. $; closed Mon. 127 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707/996-4060.
LaHaye Art Center. Working art studio managed by Callahan that's right off the plaza. Call for hours; free. 148 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707/996-4373.
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. This month see Artist-Teacher-Artist, an exhibit that explores the creative relationships between major Bay Area artists and their mentors. Works from such standouts as Christopher Brown, Squeak Carnwath, and Viola Frey will be on display. Closed Mon–Tue; $5 (free Sun). 551 Broadway St., Sonoma; www.svma.org or 707/939-7862.
The Wine Exchange of Sonoma. Instead of visiting wineries, Callahan likes to wind up his day at this shop on the plaza. In the back of the store, there's a bar where you can try the owner's favorite wines and beers of the moment (from $1 per taste). 452 First St. E., Sonoma; 707/938-1794.