A Taste Of The Wine Country

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There are few places richer in early California history than the town of Sonoma. Its centerpiece is an eight-acre plaza, the largest in California, laid out in the 1830s by the Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. During the 25 years of Mexican rule (1821–46), the general, by all accounts a most agreeable man, was the leading landowner in the territory. He was briefly imprisoned in 1846, when John C. Frémont led a group of Americans in the Bear Flag Revolt, an unofficial attack on the Sonoma garrison; after a few weeks, the United States annexed California and Vallejo was freed. He went on to live in amiable coexistence with the new leaders, although under United States rule he was forced to sell off his vast holdings, piece by piece.

The heart of Vallejo’s domain was the 66,000-acre Rancho Petaluma. In 1880, after he traveled back there, he wrote to one of his sons: “I ordered a picture taken of what was my old house … and although almost in ruins, it nevertheless doesn’t fail to show what it was in those days … I compare that old relic with myself and the comparison is an exact one; ruins and dilapidation. What a difference between then and now. Then youth, strength and riches; now age, weakness and poverty.”

Recent years have been kind to his old ranch, now a state park that beautifully evokes the period of his and Mexico’s rule. And yet, I was told, without further explanation, that except for school parties, it is one of the least-visited parks in the California system.

Sonoma, where Vallejo built two homes, one of which survives, is pristine. Although his impressive plaza soon degenerated into a muddy eyesore where militia drilled and locals held coon fights, it was rescued and replanted around 1900 by members of the local Ladies’ Improvement Club. This period also saw the restoration of buildings important to early California history that surround the plaza, among them the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the Sonoma Barracks, and the Toscano Hotel. Their present-day incarnations present a more immaculate sight than would have met Vallejo’s eye, but it’s also an undeniably appealing one. Nearby streets hold elegant homes, shops, and restaurants, some housed in rare old adobe buildings and the rest in a medley of nineteenth-century structures.

North of Sonoma lies Healdsburg, home to a smaller Spanish-style plaza. The town is named for Harmon Heald, who settled in the area in 1850, as did many others, after a failed attempt at gold mining. The era’s migrants stayed on to build riches in agriculture, cultivating prunes, hops, apples, and, of course, grapes. Located at the convergence of three wine-growing valleys—Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River—Healdsburg claims more than 60 wineries in its vicinity. In the town itself, several of them have set up attractive tasting rooms located within a block or so of one another. Here, you can put down a dollar or two to sample some of the best.

I confess I didn’t patronize any of them. I indulged instead in a pastry from the Downtown Bakery and ate it on a curbside bench facing the square while late-afternoon autumn light bathed the old brick buildings around me. By then I had gotten wined out. All those little sips were starting to blur in memory: I never could quite hone in on such subtleties as a wine’s “tobacco-leaf and saddle-leather notes.”

There are other diversions in Healdsburg, including its historical society, in the refurbished Carnegie Library, which holds the early settlers very close. A sugar jar by itself may mean little to the casual visitor, but that can change when you learn that the Burgett family carried it west with them in the 1850s, or that a delicate Chinese tea set of the 1700s was among the treasured possessions Jirah and Mary Cottle packed for their trip around the Horn in 1858.

The historical society sells a walking-tour pamphlet called “Historic Homes of Healdsburg,” and it goes far beyond the usual details of lintels and dormers to make a wonderfully gossipy companion. How else would you know that a modest dwelling on Mason Street was once the town’s best-known speakeasy and “a house of prostitution that drew customers from as far away as the Bay Area”? Or hear the poignant story of a house “built for a popular couple, both blind, who ran a thriving variety and candy store from 1874 to 1929”? The handsome Craftsman home at 730 Johnson Street belonged to Sheriff Sunny Jim Petray, “gunned down in December 1920, along with two San Francisco detectives, while tracking down the notorious Howard Street Gang.” In the grand residence on East Street lived Martin Scatena, who started out in San Francisco in 1870 as a vegetable peddler and later moved to Healdsburg to become a successful wine producer.

Scatena’s story reminded me of the Martini family, of their founder Rafael and Elmo and his brothers, and their own splendid adventure, played out in the wine country whose beauty matched that of the Tuscan hills.

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