Sonoma, about 45 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of the wine country, is a small, picturesque town that played a big role in California's colorful history.
The tree-filled Plaza, surrounded by historic adobes and stone buildings, is where the Bear Flag Party raised the flag that established the independent Republic of California in 1846.
But Sonoma is also attuned to California's contemporary life style. The Plaza's early California storefronts are filled with trendy fashions, home furnishings and exemplary contemporary crafts; it is a great shopping stroll.
Champagne Taste (497 1st St. W.) bubbles over with unusual pricey apparel. Most novel: a black strapless dress encrusted with silver safety pins ($1,200). Washable silk outfits by voguish designers cost from $280. Locally made accessories include leather belts with hand-tooled roses and ornate silver buckles (about $230).
Mission Hardware (198 1st St. E.) sells everything from baby bottles to electric fans. This abundantly stocked, old-fashioned, impeccably clean family-owned emporium seems to have survived from a quieter, gentler era. Rows of neatly arranged shelves are full of amusing surprises: nutcrackers shaped like 1940s models of rocket ships ($12.50), colorful Marimekko plates for kids ($5.25), Top Notch tool boxes (everything necessary to fix the kitchen sink, $40), plus other useful curiosities.
The Hattery (El Paseo de Sonoma, 414 1st St. E.) allows shoppers their own creativity: buy a straw bonnet ($3.50) and add trimmings (from 25 cents). Hand-crocheted cloches cost $24, metallic visors are $8. Men's selections ($12 and up) include cowboy, safari and top hats.
Old City Gallery (El Paseo Courtyard, 414 1st St. E.) sells Robert Richard's made-in-Sonoma functional pottery. Intriguing ceramic "pie birds" (small, upside-down funnels that look like open-beaked baby birds waiting to be fed) are placed inside baking pies to prevent top crusts from sagging and keep fillings from getting soggy. Six birds and matching pie plate are $60. Sets of decorative earth-tone ceramic "stones" are packaged in wooden boxes ($80). Toothbrush holders ($18) are pretty enough to double as small vases. There are also platters, pitchers, mugs and dinnerware sets.
Arts Guild of Sonoma (460 1st St. E.), a cooperative gallery, shows the varied work of 60 local artisans. Included are John Curry's blue ceramic plates with leaf-like shadow patterns ($44), Tony Lydgate's fabulous wooden five-drawer jewel boxes ($900), Houlgate Davenport's paper plates made of watercolor paintings that have been cut up and reassembled ($100), Eileen Ternullo's hand-woven cardigans ($215) and dozens of additional decorative and functional objets d'art.
St. Francis Church Mouse (15 E. Napa St.), a charming thrift shop, sells a wide variety of clothes and curios at very reasonable prices: children's blouses are $1.50, hand-knit sweaters are $3, slacks $3.50. Sets of three white ceramic wine country canisters are $5.
Wine Country Pottery (130 E. Napa St.) belongs to Greg Olsen, a self-taught potter whose style reflects Sonoma's magnificent scenery. Olsen applies grape motif patterns to big bowls and large platters ($45), small pots filled with long-burning candles ($15), mugs ($7.50) and vases for cooking spoons and utensils ($15).
Things for Kids and Tots
Children's Treasures (130 E. Napa St., in a space shared with Wine Country Pottery) offers toys, books and some furniture for tots and teens. Especially see the unusual puzzles ($9 and up) and playpens (from $150).
Robin's Nest (140 E. Napa St.) has fine kitchen, home and personal accessories at discount prices. Items range from children's plastic musical mugs ($6) and plates ($3) to hand-painted Italian tableware ($40 for serving platters), from modish white plastic pocketbooks ($30) to elaborate picnic playthings.
C. T. Man (103 W. Napa St.), the men's edition of Champagne Taste, is full of fine fashion, including Byblos' Bermuda shorts ($125), Verri Uomo's linen jackets ($235), Axis' sleek silk shirts ($57) in gray, purple and olive drab, washable silk trousers ($165) and silk T-shirts ($50).
Joan's (100 W. Spain St.) gift items include chenille teddy bears ($46), costumed rag-doll rabbits with floppy ears ($23), pretty posies sealed in plastic cubes ($13), Belgian tapestry pillow covers ($23) and hand-loomed cotton couch throws or table covers ($46). Children's aprons in gaily-patterned fabric are $11.
San Francisco Solano Mission (20 E. Spain St.), built in 1823, is a historic site and museum. Stop in for a glimpse into Sonoma's past and buy books, pamphlets and maps ($2 and up) about local history and lore.