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Savoring the Sonoma Difference

It may lack the panache of nearby Napa, but its fine wines and good food are enjoyed with a bluejeans ease and the authenticity of history.


SONOMA — The Sonoma and Napa valleys lie side by side, separated by the Mayacamas Mountains, about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. Both are agricultural, easy on the eye and prime spots for touring. Both are devoted to gastronomy and the good life.

And, of course, both make wine, unless you believe this line from comedian and vintner Tommy Smothers, which is emblazoned on Sonoma Valley T-shirts: "Sonoma makes wine. Napa makes auto parts."

The Sonoma Valley, home of the Smothers Family Winery, has something of a chip on its shoulder because of Napa's greater fame. But these California wine regions aren't two grapes from the same vine, as I discovered on a four-day visit here last month, well before the busy summer tourist season.

To begin with, the Sonoma Valley is half the length of Napa's, just 17 miles from north to south, wedged between the tawny Mayacamas and Sonoma mountains. It is dotted with 22,800 acres of wine grapes, unassuming hamlets like Glen Ellen and Kenwood, and small farms where old-timers and erstwhile hippies grow organic vegetables and make cheese from the milk of contented cows.

While Napa strives for a traditional French ambience, immigrants from Germany and Italy have put their mark on Sonoma. Idiosyncrasy reigns in the Sonoma Valley, whose residents live la dolce vita in bluejeans.

If you've been to Napa, the differences are striking. I was there researching a story a couple of years ago, and just to be sure I wasn't imagining the dissimilarities, I quizzed nearly everyone I met on my Sonoma trip last month. The results of my informal and unscientific survey were completely skewed, of course, but wryly amusing. For instance, at the sophisticated Cafe la Haye, just off the plaza in the town of Sonoma, I met a woman who said that in one valley "everyone has a smile on his face; in the other, they believe their press."

Perhaps she was biased.

But one thing this town at the south end of the valley can claim undeniably is a unique and compelling history.

Its sweet little Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823, was the last and most northerly Catholic outpost in New Spain. Ten years later, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a native Californio and newly independent Mexico's representative in the north, laid out Sonoma's plaza, a grand eight-acre spread that seems too big for the town.

In 1846, a ragtag band of Anglos seized Vallejo, raised the Bear Flag in the plaza and proclaimed all of California an independent republic, unaware that the U.S. had gone to war with Mexico, partly to gain the beautiful land on the Pacific for itself. Vallejo, by then regarded as the wealthiest man in the region, served on the new state's constitutional convention and was elected to the first state senate.

This colorful history makes the town a favored field trip destination for California schoolchildren, who generally study state history in the fourth grade, said Shelley Brown, who works at the visitors bureau on the plaza.

Sonoma Valley seems cozier to me than Napa. I was certainly cozy for two nights in the yellow frame El Dorado Hotel on the plaza, built in 1843 as a residence for Vallejo's brother. Piatti, a stylish contemporary Italian restaurant, occupies the ground floor, with courtyard tables among wisteria vines and splashing fountains. The balcony of my second-floor chamber overlooked the courtyard and had an elegant canopy bed, terra-cotta tile floors, a large distressed-oak bureau and two cushioned rattan chairs.

When I booked my room, the clerk warned me that guests complain about the noise from the restaurant below. But I slept like a baby. I was also impressed by the helpfulness of staff members who even volunteered to make reservations for me at other restaurants around the plaza.

Though Sonoma is the center of activity in the valley, it is essentially a small, walkable town centered by the plaza-a park with shade trees, gardens, playgrounds, benches, duck ponds, picnic tables and a bronze statue of a valiant-looking rebel waving the Bear Flag.

This oasis is surrounded by a beguiling collection of restaurants; shops like Sign of the Bear for cooking accessories and Plaza Books, specializing in rare volumes on California's mission period; winery tasting rooms like Sebastiani on the Square, where the manager taught me the finer points of tasting wine by swirling it around in the glass, smelling it, holding it in my mouth but not swallowing; and historic sites like the Barracks, built in 1840 for Gen. Vallejo's Mexican troops.

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