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Sonoma's Struggle With Authenticity

As the Napa Valley Became Disneyland for Wine Lovers, Sonoma Remained the Real Thing--a Genuine, if Unglamorous, Farm Region. Now It, Too, Is Succumbing to Tourists' Notions of What 'Wine Country' Should Be.

April 28, 2002|SHAWN HUBLER

'Course you know the standing joke about Healdsburg," Bruce Campbell is deadpanning. We are rumbling through Sonoma County in a livestock truck. Behind us, his tiny hometown, the new star of wine country destinations, is a study in privileged leisure: bird song, pink sky, dew in the vineyards, executives in line at the artisan bakeries muttering into cell phones.

Campbell is a study in something else entirely: plaid shirt, red beard, thick belly, work boots that reek of--how to put it?--barnyard. He's a sheep rancher. Actually, he's more like the sheep rancher, the guy behind CK Lamb, which produces some of the most famously succulent Sonoma lamb in the United States. Spago? That's his lamb. The Bellagio hotel? That's his lamb. Campanile? Etc. To an extent, this 4-H judge with the national food media write-ups shares the blame for the popularity that has made over Healdsburg to the point that it now has its own punch line.

"Best bread in the world," Campbell says merrily, pinching some snuff from a Skoal can. "But no place for a man to buy underwear."

It was not always thus. "Healdsburg used to be just a sleepy little farm town," he continues. "Now . . . ."

He spits into a foam cup. Now the old City Hall is a luxury food market. Now smart, well-meaning people trail him into his driveway, sweetly pestering him for designer lamb parts. His town square sports a new hotel with $695 suites and a facade that appears airlifted from Soho; in October, celebrity chef Charlie Palmer opened his new Dry Creek Kitchen on its ground floor. Boutiques selling French antiques, flowers, European clothing and high-end purses are opening next to an international newsstand on the town's main drag. East Coast wine merchants fly in for grade school fund-raisers on the chance that some local has raided a private cellar for auction items.

Now a low-gear community of 10,700 is hurtling into the fast lane--a bittersweet shift even for those whose livelihoods depend on it.

"I don't spend a lot of time bemoaning that what used to be ain't," Campbell says. "But, oh, yes. This place has changed."

Sonoma County used to be the spot that tourists visited when they had an extra day to spend in the wine country. Sprawling, lovely and boring, it was the farm annex to Napa Valley, where the real action was.

In truth, Sonoma County is much larger than Napa and its wine industry is far older (the birthplace of premium California winemaking is at the Buena Vista headquarters near the town of Sonoma). But Napa was the place with the chateaux and the "Falcon Crest" ambience and the European connections and the marketing juggernaut of the Mondavi wineries. It was Napa wine, mostly, that put California on the map at the now-historic 1976 Paris wine tasting. Sonoma County had wineries that outsiders thought were in Napa, ocean breakers that outsiders thought were in Mendocino, redwoods that outsiders thought were in Yosemite, and the Russian River and the Bodega Bay school where "The Birds" was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. For many years--unless your turn-on was golden light or utter quiet or rolling acres of emerald farmland--that about covered it.

No longer. Now it's chic to come to Sonoma County. It is "Napa the way Napa was before it got discovered," fans say. It is "Provence without the ruins," "the New Normandy." It is the cradle of Liberty duck and Laura Chenel goat cheese and Rocky the Range Chicken and some of the best Pinot Noir on the planet. As a socialite told me over organic Sonoma mixed greens one day in San Francisco, it is "where everyone is buying now that Napa is all taken"-- meaning everyone in the market for country houses and status wineries.

It is also, to people who live there, still just Sonoma County--a vast green swath of preposterous beauty shot through with the great California fault lines of class and sprawl. Mention the place to someone who grew up there and you'll get a dissertation on farm economics or the redneck-on-Mexican high school race wars of the 1980s. Examine its stereotypes and you'll get hippies who run for public office and cowpokes with college diplomas. Its best known suburb is the town where Polly Klaas was kidnapped. Visitors gush over the "authenticity" of the landscape, but to the folks in the scenery, those fields and barns are legacy and livelihood.

For them, the news in Sonoma County is that the pressure to evolve has been ratcheted up, big time. Sonoma County has had its share of tourism for generations--some of its hot springs have been vacation spots since the mid-1800s--but natives say that its profile has risen sharply in the last several years.

Sonoma datelines now riddle San Francisco society pages: Here's Kirk Douglas partying at the Sonoma home of the Bay Area plastic surgeon Jack Owsley and his wife, Sharon. Here's San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown arriving by helicopter at the Sonoma retreat of philanthropists Gary and O.J. Shansby. Multimillion-dollar villas now sprout from 160-acre homesteads.

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