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Monday, September 8, 2008

A Wine Junket through West Sonoma County

Dick Starr takes us on a wine retail/tasting room drive through the hills and towns of Sonoma County, including: Healdsburg, Sebastopol, Monte Rio, Occidental, Duncans Mills and Bodega Bay. This column was part of the 2007 Annual Small Town Shopping Tour, published every November in the West County Gazette and designed to get holiday shoppers out into our towns where we can support our local economy and our neighbors. In the November 2008 edition, we'll have more shopping adventures, people to meet and places to learn about in this lovely place we call home…Sonoma County.

A Wine Junket

by dick starr

Sonoma’s West and North County presents a rich selection of wine retailers for those that seek an array of domestic and international wines to choose from. On hand, at least with the retailers that I’m reviewing, is an informed mentor to channel you through the labyrinth of juices, accouterments, and pairing suggestions.

Why visit a wine specialty shop in lieu of a winery? Actually, I support the patronage of both wine sources, but a significant advantage to shop at a specialized retailer is personalized service (anyone that has been to a crowded winery’s tasting room can appreciate that) and to glean information on a wide range of relevant wine and wineries based on your taste, pocketbook, and occasion. Additionally, if the retailer is worth his or her salt, will be the propensity to keep you informed on future wines based on your personal interest.

For those of you that want a piece of Carmel without having to drive south for four hours, just amble up to the Healdsburg square with its vibrant, eclectic, and esoteric shops alive with art, food, jazz, crafts, nouveau boutiques, and the ambiance of wine weaving throughout the amalgamate. Of special interest is the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, a Café Jazz Series at the Palette Art Café throughout November. And, at, you’ll find a walking tour of the wineries and artisan food producers downtown.

The Wine Shop

One wine retailer of import is the Wine Shop on the square. Manager and wine buyer Pedro Rusk and assistant manager Mark Friedrich confidentially hold the reins to guide patrons through a wide range of local and international wines. A grape repartee is established over a flight of tastes for $10. If you want to peruse an extraordinary selection of Pinot Noir, this is the place. The Wine Shop is located at 331 Healdsburg Avenue on the square.

The Wine Emporium

Meandering southwest of Healdsburg, our first stop is The Wine Emporium located at 125 North Main Street in the heart of downtown Sebastopol. Ever since its inception in February 2006, owner, James Haug, has endeavored to provide an accommodating milieu for tasting and consulting as well as general information about the region. Like a personalized dating service, James, or a member of his staff, will match you with an affectionate and adoring grape that will adorn any occasion. About four dozen wines are available for tasting with prices starting at $1.50 per ounce. The store’s fine art gallery is currently featuring art by Jose Maro Alvarado. The Emporium is open noon to 6pm Wednesday through Sunday and by special appointment.

Monte Rio
Sophie’s Cellars

Four miles west of Guerneville is California’s original “Vacation Wonderland,” harking back to the days when big bands played to thousands at Monte Rio’s famous outdoor dance pavilions. John Haggard brought 25 years of food and wine experience with him when he opened Sophie’s Cellars in June 2005. He has maintained a viable and visible source of Russian River wine energy. John provides an extensive collection of hard-to-find limited production wines. About 75% of his wine inventory is local with almost two dozen available exclusive outside of restaurants. There are about 40 imports with Italy gaining ground. About half of the 80 cheeses are local with an emphasis on goat cheese. Also available are freshly baked breads and pies as well as chocolates, olive oils, and vinegars. Sophie’s Cellars is open from 11am to 7pm and closed Wednesdays.


Sonoma Fine Wine

Heading south on Bohemian Highway from Monte Rio along the same latitude is the charming former logging village of Occidental. Sonoma Fine Wine is located in historical digs in the hub of downtown, 3625 Main Street. Like the Wine Emporium, owner Benjamynn Gabriel, considers the nub of his service to customers to be wine consulting. He utilizes a state-of-the-art database software that allows the tracking of personal preferences and ordering history. The shop will feature artist Dee Andreini at an art opening November 30 from 4pm to 8pm. Heintz Wines will be pouring their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Duncans Mills

Wine Tasting of Sonoma County

Returning to Highway 116, 7 miles west of Guerneville, minutes west of Monte Rio, and 3 miles east of the ocean is another former logging community, Duncan Mills, where the population has recently exploded from 20 to a teeming 85. If not a destination, this should be a must-stop for west as well as east bound trekkers. The historic railroad depot gives resonance to a time in the 1870s when a group of San Francisco journalists and artists gave birth to the Bohemian Club that started using this area for their summer encampment.

Among the unique mélange of specialty shops, restaurants and galleries is Wine Tasting of Sonoma County under the new (about a year) sway of Prairie Silva. Once located on Pig Alley on the south side of town, Duncan Mills’ oldest building, dating from the early 1870s, was moved to its present location where Prairie pours and discusses the fruit-of-the-vine with both locals and tourists over a Sonoma Sampler consisting of five tastes for $5. It might be an extension from her previous activity, that of catering manager for rock & roll groups like the Eagles, but where food is concerned, wine follows. Friday evenings from 6pm to 8pm is a good time to visit when a full glass of wine is served for a $1 off of regular price. Regular hours of operation are 11 am to 6pm weekdays, noon to 6pm on weekends, and closed on Tuesdays. (New Owners in 2008 - just as delightful)
Bodega Bay

Continuing west three miles to the ocean and south on the famed coastal highway 1 for 16 miles or about 25 minutes, is the ocean community of Bodega Bay. As most of us already know, Alfred Hitchcock facilitated visibility of Bodega and Bodega Bay as a consequence of his film, “The Birds” released in 1963 after taking three years to complete. Politely cutting me short on the subject in an interview I had with the film’s star, Tippi Hedren, about six years ago at the Sarasota Film Festival, she was totally focused on Shambala which she and her daughter Melanie Griffith support. Shambala is a refuge that she supports for endangered species that were born in captivity and abandoned or retired from circuses or exceeded homeowners expectations as pets. She did admit to a number of wounds from the birds. The most horrific scene – that took a week to shoot – was near the end when she was being ravaged by the birds. They were attached to her clothes by a long nylon thread to prevent escaping.

There are 950 residents and untold number of tourists that fill out the area’s extent. An event that you might want to mark on your calendar is the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department’s Annual Christmas Fair November 24 and 25. And, for you ocean and sea life aficionados, the UC Bodega Marine Laboratory on Bodega Head conducts ½ hour tours from 2 to 4pm every Friday. For hikers and whale watchers, there’s Bodega Head, a no-charge state park. And, if you’re inclined to beaching or camping, Sonoma County’s Doran Beach is the place. It has one of the most aesthetically lovely beaches in northern California.
Gourmet au Bay

Steve Hecht and Tammi Salas trekked up from Silicon Valley in 2002 to preside over 200 hand-selected award-winning California wines at Gourmet au Bay. Located approximately in the center of Bodega Bay’s business area and leaning out to the bay, Steve and Tammi retained the boutique ambiance fashioned by the shop’s creators, Ken and Connie Mansfield in 1995. They carry a wide assortment of gifts and wine accouterments to peruse while enjoying your wine. Wind Surfing is their presentation to the wine tasting experience. This consists of two ounces each of three wines from a daily list of six wineries and, weather permitting, can be enjoyed on Kaya’s deck. (Also new owners in 2008 - and also just as delightful!)