Artisan Sonoma

Wine Country locals reveal their off-season discoveries
Amy Wolf

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."

Cozy sleeps

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.

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