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A passion for endless flavor

Paula Wolfert's found her bit of heaven here, with gorgeous views all around and a reverence for food that runs deep.

June 01, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Sonoma — The best way to get to Paula Wolfert's house is to start out by the duck pond in the Sonoma town square. Drive east through a neighborhood of beautifully maintained Victorian and Craftsman-style homes. After a couple of blocks, you'll hit vineyards. Turn north and drive through more vineyards. Follow the winding road up the mountain. The vineyards give way to expanses of rolling hills dotted with California oaks. Eventually you turn onto another small road and then a long driveway. You're there.

Wolfert hollers through the screen door to come up. It's a modern structure, all unlikely angles and walls of windows looking out onto uninterrupted vistas of gorgeous hillsides. You can't see another house; it's a neighborhood rule. She's in the kitchen, which seems to occupy half of one floor. There's a tile-faced wood-burning fireplace, double ovens, a six-burner range with grill and a central island that seems as big as most living rooms, topped with rough marble tiles.

It's an idyllic spot Wolfert has found, an isolated bit of Sonoma heaven that, even with all the twisting and turning and climbing, is only about a 10-minute drive from town. The only catch is that Wolfert doesn't drive.

Welcome to Paula Wolfert's World, where a little inconvenience means next to nothing -- whether it's an obscure ingredient, a time-consuming technique or being stranded halfway up a mountain -- as long as there is sufficient payoff.

"It's like the line from 'Streetcar,' " she laughs. "I depend on the kindness of strangers."

That could be her motto. Wolfert has spent the last 45 years wandering into unfamiliar kitchens from Marrakech to Istanbul and emerging with recipes that her new friends have entrusted to her. "You kiss each woman on each cheek, and you touch your heart. Then she's at ease," she once said.

It's not quite that simple, of course. After the rough sketch has been collected, each recipe takes on a life of its own. Wolfert doesn't rest until it has been honed to its best possible version, thoroughly annotated with every possible bit of advice that could make its preparation easier, and then credited to everyone who contributed to it.

Through seven books, her readers (an ardent if somewhat obsessive bunch) have delighted in following Wolfert every step of the way, even if that means making couscous from scratch, putting up quarts of duck confit or tracking down sources for the newest dried pepper from Aleppo.

Compared with that, what's a little ride down a mountain?

Tomorrow Wolfert is cooking lunch for a few friends, who just happen to include Bob Sessions and Jean Arnold Sessions, of Sonoma Valley landmark Hanzell Vineyards, and Wolfert's old pal Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, and her husband, mystery writer Kirk Russell.

Most of the preparations are already finished and tucked away in her beloved food-saver bags in the refrigerator and freezer, waiting for finishing. But there is still some last-minute shopping to do, so off we go.

If you know Wolfert's recipes, you probably can guess a lot about her personality. She's alternately bossy and generous, scholarly and gleeful, and always passionately involved and obsessively consumed with getting things just exactly right.

It must be said that Wolfert is almost as bad a passenger as she is a driver, given to apparently spontaneous emergency braking maneuvers even on deserted country roads. But you get used to the sudden flailing of arms and the stomping of feet on where she imagines the brake pedal might be.

And you get used to that peculiar sense of direction -- or lack thereof -- that comes with being a constant passenger. On a tour of her Sonoma, Wolfert never can seem to pin down whether the place you're going is to the right or the left, ahead or behind.

But somehow you always get there, and it's always worth the trouble. There's the Friday farmers market, where she picks out some early tart-sweet Bing cherries. This is her stopgap market. The big one is at the Sonoma town square on Tuesday evenings.

"It's really a wonderful thing," she says. "Everybody turns out for it. There's music and food, and people eat on picnic tables or just spread a sheet on the ground and drink wine."

This works out well because Tuesday is also Wolfert's day to meet with her collection of fellow East Coast expatriates for vodka tonics on the porch at the Swiss Hotel. ("Their pizza is very good, and the bartender gives a very generous pour; they know better than to give me more than two.") A friend in the neighborhood gives her a ride.

A New Yorker relocated

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Wolfert shocked her friends by moving to California nine years ago, following her husband, bestselling crime writer William Bayer, who had always been fascinated by San Francisco. Six years ago they bought the place in Sonoma. She fell so deeply in love with it that now he lives and works in the city during the week and drives up on the weekends to join her.

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