If granny's home in the country did exist, So-noma County highways could be the "over the river and through the woods" you'd take to visit her. A little over an hour's drive north of San Francisco, the Sonoma Valley is the epitome of Northern California farm country. That broad area of undulating hills stretches like a cat lounging in the afternoon sun. It touches the Mayacamas mountain range on the east and is northbound by the Russian River, with San Pablo Bay and Marin at its foot. It lies east of U.S. 101 and includes such towns as Sonoma, Healdsburg and Glen Ellen. We're talking about crystal-clear skies and tree-lined roadways dotted with barns, antique shops and manicured farms.
This is an ideal area for a pre-Christmas visit, not only because of the beauty of the land and charming bed and breakfasts along the way, but mostly because you can pick up unusual and inexpensive holiday food gifts directly from farm-home sources.
One of the highlights of the Sonoma Valley is that county farmers take the time to preserve the fresh flavors of their summer fruits and vegetables by canning the best of their crops. It is not unusual to find roadside stands offering homemade apple butter, pickles or tomato chutney, as well as sausages from a nearby pig farm. Over the years, the families here, many with Pennsylvania Dutch, German or Italian backgrounds, have expanded their prepared food sales to the point that they not only sell their conserves \o7 in situ, \f7 but also ship to customers who may never visit the Sonoma area.
(Shopping by phone and fax can bring a taste of Sonoma's best without hopping on a plane or in a car, but all food producers in this story insist that orders be made immediately or delivery cannot be guaranteed by Christmas.)
Visitors to the Sonoma Valley region will find an abundance of produce and livestock far beyond the riches of the vine. Berries, tomatoes, melons, organic vegetables, kiwi fruit, corn, peaches, prunes, walnuts, garlic, onion, pumpkins and mushrooms offer seasonal credence to the fact that the mix of Sonoma soil, sun and fog is ideal for growing. If you're seeking wall-to-wall grapes, drive to the Napa Valley east of the Mayacamas, where a herd of cattle or acres of apple orchards would be quite rare.
Following are two days of roadside shopping for the best of preserved, shippable foods within Sonoma Valley. Each day is geographically self-contained and offers time to roam about the region. While in the area, don't hesitate to stop along the roads for fresh seasonal treats, such as still-warm pumpkin muffins served with homemade apple cider, or cinnamon-spicy apple pie with a side of vanilla ice cream chock-full of local walnuts. Just look for the signs by small shops, farmsteads or near stands of mailboxes.
(For addresses, telephone numbers and mail information, see Guidebook on L16.)
DAY ONE: VINEBURG, SONOMA AND KENWOOD
\o7 Directions\f7 : Head north from San Francisco on U.S. 101. Take the Napa-Vallejo exit to California 37, then follow until making a left turn toward Sonoma at California 121. For these locations, stay along 121 or, for Kenwood, take California 12 north out of Sonoma.
\o7 Driving time:\f7 From San Francisco to the south end of 121, about 1 1/4 hours. From Vineburg to Kenwood and back, including stops and lunch, 3-4 hours.
The Cherry Tree--The signs announcing "Ice Cold Juice!" and "No Sugar, No Preservatives" are almost larger than the place itself. The Cherry Treeis a good roadside stop on your way in or out of the Sonoma Valley. There is enough parking space, although there are usually a number of customers inside, so expect to take your time.
A sip of the namesake's black Bing cherry juice is a sweet, bracing start for a journey, and you can purchase a variety of Sonoma-based products such as cherry peppers (three 1-pint jars for $17.99) and foods from nearby, such as Sacramento Valley unsalted almonds (2 pounds for $11.99). Expect to see a mix of items for sale--for instance, jawbreakers right next to jalapeno-stuffed olives (10 ounces for $4.75).
Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace--Pass stately eucalyptus trees and drive a few miles from the Cherry Tree to this new winery that sits atop a hill like a small Tuscan villa. Owners Sam and Vicki Sebastiani sell Vicki's homemade fresh Italian picnic fare (such as torta Milanese and stuffed tomatoes), plus cheeses, sausage, wine and breads for hungry visitors who sit at outdoor tables and take in the valley panorama.