Travels & Traditions: Sonoma County - #303

BURT WOLF: Sonoma County starts just above San Francisco and runs north along the coast of California for about 70 miles.  During the first half of the 1800s, a Russian fur trading company came down from Alaska and took possession of the northern part of Sonoma.  Spanish explorers who came up from Mexico were in control of the southern part. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1832, Father José Altimira, a Spanish priest in San Francisco, decided that his mission was to build a mission in Sonoma.  It turned out to be the most northerly mission in the Spanish mission system that ran all the way down to the bottom of South America.

Within a few years, the newly independent government of Mexico decided to secularize the missions and return their lands to the people.

Twenty-eight year old Lieutenant Mariano Vallejo was sent here to do the job.

He started out by taking 100,000 acres for himself.  Hm, good start.  It made him one of the wealthiest men in California.  Then he sold or gave huge tracks of land to his friends and relatives.  But in defense of Vallejo I should point out that he never pardoned any fugitive financiers.

The word back east was that there was free land to be had in the West, and all through the 1830s and '40s settlers had been coming into northern California.  The Mexican government did not allow ownership of land by anyone who was not a Mexican citizen, which created a considerable amount of tension.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  In 1846, rumors spread that the Mexican government was going to force all of the Americans out of the territory. So on June fourteenth, an armed band of 30 Americans rode into Vallejo Sonoma Fort and took control without firing a single shot.  Since Vallejo was asleep and the fort was virtually empty, firing a shot would have been, A: a waste of good ammunition, B: a rude awakening for Vallejo, C: totally revolting.  It turned out to be all three. In addition, some historians believe that Vallejo phoned a friend to confirm his belief that he was better off being in business with the Americans than being in the Mexican military.  I can understand that.  In the end, his final answer appears to have been to discreetly welcome the revolt.

BURT WOLF: A flag with a bear on it was raised in the town square, and for 25 days Sonoma was the capital of the independent Republic of California. Today, Sonoma is one of the best towns in the county to get a bite to eat, buy some wine, go to a spa, or shop.  And it's all within walking distance of the town plaza, which is the largest in California. The town of Sonoma is also the place where Father Altimira had been making wine for sacramental purposes.  But when General Vallejo took over the mission, he secularized that aspect of the church by going into business as California's first commercial winemaker.

Sonoma is also the home of the Sears Point Raceway where you can take a course at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School. Today, the Jim Russell Driving School is one of the most respected institutions in the automotive world and they offer an extraordinary range of classes.  On the simplest level you can come in and learn how to get the most from your own car.

You'll find out about maximum braking without loosing control from wheel lockup, how to stop in the shortest possible distance, skid control techniques, and avoiding accidents on wet or icy roads.  You could end up being the Mario Andretti of your kid's carpool.  Or you can take a series of classes that will either let you live out a limited fantasy as a racing car driver, or put you on the road to actually becoming one.  I could have taken any one of those courses and ended up as a great race driver.  But there's only one course guaranteed to deliver real power and big money.  And it's the little-known but highly respected Jim Russell School for Mechanics.

BURT WOLF: Okay, how we doin'?

MECHANIC: Tires ...

BURT WOLF: Tires 280! Oil 40 bucks…What about suspension?

$390.  All right, will that be cash or charge?

Charge!  Great.  Good luck!

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I was gonna do his windshield free but he doesn’t have one.

BURT WOLF: See that car in the lead, I put on those tires. 

Sonoma County is also the home of a man known as the garden wizard, a man who forever changed the world's fruits, vegetables and flowers.  His name was Luther Burbank and he was born in 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts.  At the age of 27 he moved to Sonoma County California.  He was a horticulturist who spent his life trying to improve the quality of plants and increase the world's food supply.  He moved to Sonoma because he felt it was the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature was concerned.  And it certainly worked for him.

He introduced more than 800 new varieties, including some of our most important fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and the Burbank potato, plus hundreds of ornamental flowers, including the Shasta daisy.  Cathy Stevenson took me on a tour.

CATHY STEVENSON: Here we have an example of the Shasta daisy.  It took Luther Burbank 17 years to develop this plant.  When he was a little boy running around the hills in Lancaster Massachusetts, he loved the little bitty oxide daisies that grew wild there.  And when he came to California in 1875, he had found the same little daisies in California.  So he decided that he wanted to make it bigger and better and brighter and whiter.

BURT WOLF: Some people are never satisfied.

CATHY STEVENSON: That's right. And that was true of Luther, he was never satisfied.  Some say that the rose was Luther Burbank's favorite flower, and so this rose garden is in honor of that.

BURT WOLF: The rose is the symbol of the Virgin Mary and originally the rosary was 165 dried rose petals wound tight and made into a chain. In addition to roses he loved the cactus.

CATHY STEVENSON: This is Burbank's spineless cactus and, he got the idea to develop a spineless cactus because one of the goals he had was to help feed the world.  And in areas of drought there ... they couldn't grow alfalfa, they didn't have the water to grow your traditional crops to feed cattle and other animals.  And so he came up with the idea of the spineless cactus.  It took him many, many years to develop this, and finally he did come out with a cactus that has very few spines on it.  You know, not every single thing that Burbank did was a huge success.  The cattle ... they liked it, they ate it right down to the ground and it didn't come back.

BURT WOLF: To the north of Burbank's home sits the town of Healdsburg.  In 1857, Harmon Heald gave up his gold digger’s dream of striking it rich and bought some nearby land.  Humbled by his failure to find wealth beyond his wildest dreams, he laid out a town plan and modestly called it Healdsburg. Then he created a central park in the middle of his plan, which is now the town plaza. Then a school, a cemetery, and finally a church. Today, Healdsburg is filled with boutiques, art galleries, spas, wine-tasting rooms, and restaurants.  In the early '90s I filmed a story about Healdsburg's Downtown Bakery and Creamery and it's still here, making great sticky buns, breads and Fig Newtons, which are named after Isaac's brother who hated apples.

Eight miles from the center of Healdsburg is the Jimtown Store.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this historic landmark served as a general store, post office, and neighborhood hangout. Today, it still serves as the area’s general store but the current owner, Carrie Brown, has given it a special edge. In addition to selling basics, like elephant watering cans, birds that serve toothpicks and ant farms, the Jimtown Store is filled with antiques, vintage toys, American memorabilia, old-time candies and an eclectic assortment of bazaar stuff that Carrie and her husband found during their travels.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The secret word for tonight is Sonoma County.  Anybody says Sonoma County the duck will come down, give you $200.  You look like a nice couple.  Where are you from?

To the southwest of the Jimtown Store is the Armstrong Redwood State Reserve, which contains some of the tallest and oldest trees in California.  The park is filled with trails and you can wander through all 805 acres of ancient redwoods.  Laura Ayers is a naturalist who takes people through the forest on foot or on horseback, and she showed me around.

LAURA AYERS; These are coastal redwoods.  They grow primarily along the coastal fog belt in California, up into southern Oregon.  They need that fog to get through our dry summers.  And they also like these canyons where they can get water for their very shallow roots. The roots go out, they interlock, they’ve traced them to grow out as far as a mile, and they will grow together in such a way that trees closer to the water source can send roots up the hillside to water trees that are further away from it.  So the redwood forest, through this root system, is all interconnected.

BURT WOLF: The redwoods have developed this system of helping each other stand up and share in limited resources. 

And speaking of trees, while we were in Sonoma, we stayed at a placed called the Doubletree Hotel, Sonoma Wine Country. Just an hour's drive from the San Francisco Bay area and within 30 minutes of some of the world's finest wineries, it's perfectly situated for anyone coming to Sonoma for either business or a vacation.  When it was originally built, it was a roadside inn offering clean, inexpensive, and comfortable accommodations, and serving a community that was largely based in agriculture.

Over the years, Doubletree has managed to keep those positive attributes while becoming a 245-room resort.  Spread out over 22 landscaped acres it has tennis courts, an outdoor heated swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, and a fitness center, surrounded by the 36-hole Mountain Shadows Championship Golf Course and is adjacent to a shopping plaza with a spa and a number of shops.  And a Japanese restaurant that is considered one of the best in northern California.  Doubletree has its own internal restaurant called Bacchus, which specializes in dishes based on ingredients grown or raised in Sonoma County.  Executive chef Eric McCutcheon prepared a starter of tomato bruschetta, diced tomatoes sautéed with garlic and shallots and served on grilled bread.  The main course was locally produced rack of lamb rubbed with an herb crust that's served with buttery mashed potatoes and roasted walnuts.  Another option was seared Petaluma duck breast on a bed of braised leeks and creamy polenta, topped with fried eggplant skins.  There's also a wine bar with an extensive list of Sonoma wines by the glass.

In 1920 Sonoma’s wine production was interrupted by a series of federal laws that prohibited the ale of alcoholic beverages including wine.  They were enforced for ten years, wasted millions of dollars of public money, gave organized crime its first big chance to get organized and totally failed to achieve any of its objectives. The only positive benefit that came out of prohibition was to force a number of winemakers in California into using their knowledge of fermentation to make great cheese.  Today, California is the center for the production of some of the world's finest cheeses.  Cheese is very much in fashion, not only as an ingredient, but once again as its own course.  One of the most respected restaurants in Sonoma County is John Ash and Company, and it's always a pleasure to spend time in the company of John.  John believes that the cheese course is coming back in restaurants because of the talent of the cheese makers.

JOHN ASH: I think it's because we're making such extraordinary cheeses in America.  And I know me being here in California, we have so many artisanal cheese makers and they're cropping up everyday, it's sort of to me it's like the wine business was 30 years ago.  Once you taste great cheese, it's unforgettable.

BURT WOLF: He also has some suggestions on how to get the most taste and pleasure from a restaurant cheese course.

JOHN ASH: Don't try to get too many things on the plate.  Three of three different kinds, and that way you can sort of bounce around and sort of see what's going on.  One of my favorite things in the world, quite honestly, is a great blue cheese with a little drizzle of an aromatic honey and a good red wine, and I'm in heaven.

BURT WOLF: Archaeologists have found evidence that cheese making goes back to 6000 B.C.

They also tell us that man has been using kayaks to travel over water since 2000 B.C.  And you might think that these two facts were unrelated, and that could actually be the case, but not today, because I've decided to spend the afternoon learning to kayak on Sonoma's Russian River.

The place to rent your kayaking gear is King's Sport & Tackle Shop in Guerneville.  In addition to the stuff you would expect to find in a tackle shop, he has a few unusual things.

SINGING FISH: “Take me to the river; drop me in the water.  Take me to the river, put me in the water.”

BURT WOLF: If he could fly he’d have a great act.

The place to meet your guide is Guerneville Graphics, which is just next door.


And the man who's gonna put me in the water ...

That's fabulous.

... is river guide, George Zastrow.

BURT WOLF: Sonoma has a number of ideal places for kayaking.  It’s a relaxing sport and not difficult to learn.  Of course a lot depends on the strength of the river you choose.

So this is the way Louis and Clark got started, huh?

It appears that kayaks were developed by native tribes living at the top of the world and used for hunting seals.  Unlike a canoe, a traditional kayak places the paddler in an almost water-tight shell and gives them a much safer and more maneuverable vehicle.  These days, kayaks are primarily used by sportsmen exploring rivers and competitive athletes in the white water trials.  Kayaking events have been part of the Olympics since 1936.  And as you can clearly see, once again, I will not be a contender.

Today, Sonoma County is one of the world's most important wine-growing regions and an ideal place for tourists to get a taste of what's going on in the California wine business.  A good place to start is DeLoach.


BURT WOLF: The first time we filmed Cecil and Christine DeLoach walking together, their dog Daisy kept running in and out of the picture.  So we shot it again and we told the dog to heel.  Bad choice of words.  Cecil DeLoach's ancestors were French Huguenots who were forced out of France in the 1600s and ended up in Georgia.  After 300 years in the American south, the DeLoachs headed west where Cecil became a fireman in San Francisco.  In the late '60s, he decided to buy a weekend place in Sonoma. It was an easy drive from San Francisco and he thought it would be a good place to relax. A 24-acre ranch near the Russian River looked like his dream come true.

Cecil's wife Christine introduced me to the property.

CHRISTINE DELOACH: Spent some time talking to Louis Barbieri who owned it then.  It had been planted by his father Italo in 1905.  And he wanted to see it continue as a family farm . And even then things were beginning to sub-divide in this area.  So he spent a year teaching us how to grow grapes.

BURT WOLF: Today, Cecil's son Michael runs the winery.

MICHAEL DELOACH: We have quite a bit of vineyards now.  We have a little over 800 acres that we own and farm up here.  And, we make about 200,000 cases of wine with that, so we've grown quite a bit.  Aside from the Zin and the Chard that we're known for, we also make a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon, from right here on the Los Amigos Ranch.  Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir, Fumé Blanc and 14 other varieties.


Another winemaking family are Don and Rhonda Carano.  He started with a resort in Reno called the El Dorado, but because they could never afford the big-name entertainers that drew crowds to Las Vegas, they decided that their attraction would be great food and wine, including some excellent wines from their own winery.

Their wine property is called Villa Fiore, which means the house of flowers.  And that is a very descriptive name.  Both Don and Rhonda were born into families that preserved their Italian heritage, and both the villa and the gardens were designed to feel like a home outside of Florence.

RHONDA CARANO: The gardens of Ferrari-Carano are as equally as important as the a wine, I might say.  We have five acres of gardens here.  Right now, you can see that we're in full bloom for spring.  It's always in full color.  We try to change the gardens at least twice a year, an annual color change.  As you're crossing the bridge here, you can hear the water.  Water element is very important for us here.

BURT WOLF: The Caranos own 17 separate vineyards spread out over a 50-mile radius and strategically located so they can select their grapes from different soils and micro-climates.  Their wines are presented under the Ferrari-Carano label.  Carano is the name of Don's father's family and Ferrari comes from his paternal grandmother.

DON CARANO: Our first was a Chardonnay ... Alexander Valley we produced in 1985 and released in 1987.  And of course that got us off and running.  But now, you know, we've gone to the reds and now we're making Merlot, San Giovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and also two blended wines, one's a French blend, that's Tresor, which is a Bordeaux style wine, and one of Italian blend, which is a San Giovese Cabernet blend.  Late harvest El Dorado Gold.

BURT WOLF: Sonoma is clearly vineyard country and one of the most interesting ways to get an overview of the place is to take a ride with Chris Prevost at Sonoma's Vintage Aircraft Company.

He has a meticulously-restored fleet of vintage aircraft, including authentic Boeing Stearman biplanes. These were originally built to train pilot candidates for our army, Air Corps and Navy during World War II.  These vintage aircraft are popular with pilots because they are strong, durable, they have a rugged beauty that's easy to admire. For over 60 years, they've been used for flight training, fire fighting, crop dusting, movies and stunt flying.

You can choose from the scenic flight, the aerobatic flight, and the kamikaze.  Scenic sounds like it's just my speed.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: As the Red Baron used to say, Whose idea was that?  From Sonoma County, California, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I'm Burt Wolf.