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Reflections on Sonoma

Tracing the changes that 18 years have brought

Tim Fish
Posted: May 17, 2007

When I was a kid growing up in Indiana, my dad used to drive through our small town giving history lessons. "Your Uncle Frank and I used to play ball there," he would say of a long-abandoned lot. It was just casual stuff, trivia really, and I only hazily paid attention. To an 8-year-old, it was prehistoric information.

Lately, I've been thinking about the passage of time and how our perspective on it changes.

Earlier this year I was researching an article, The New Sonoma, for the June 15 issue of Wine Spectator when it occurred to me that I had lived in Sonoma for 18 years. Eighteen years is something of a milestone in the way we track time. Eighteen is the age in life we set out to become adults, the year we first convince ourselves--naively--that we have already lived a lifetime.

I'm an observer by profession, and if my wife is correct, by nature too. As someone who has watched it up close, the past 18 years have been good to Sonoma County.

When I first moved to Santa Rosa in 1989, California was just entering the boom times. The 1985 and 1986 vintages--particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon--had people excited. Momentum was building.

Even then, Sonoma and Napa counties were like fraternal twins--so much alike, yet so different. Napa was already living on a grander scale and was becoming as well funded as it was well manicured.

Sonoma always had a maverick streak and a little more dirt under the nails, but if it was more untamed than Napa, it was somehow a lot more fun. I took to the place from the first day. I had been living in Ohio prior to my move, and it had been a stubborn winter, but in Sonoma in mid-February it was already spring. The daffodils were out, the dogwoods were big, white bouquets and the mountains were incandescently green.

That first impression, for me, has always symbolized Sonoma's abundance. Here's a place that not only grows some of the best wine in the state, but while other wine regions become monocultures, it continues to help feed the Bay Area with apples, milk and cheese, salmon, Dungeness crab, mixed greens and vegetables, fresh duck, lamb and free-range chicken.

Sonoma may have taken too long to learn that it couldn't go toe-to-toe with Napa when it comes to Cabernet, but any wine lovers who thought that Napa was leaving Sonoma in the dust didn't see what was happening behind the scenes.

It certainly wasn't a tidy process. Sonoma comes at things organically. There's seldom a grand plan, a unified focus. (Most of those who tried to organize the wine community over the years are now sedated and resting someplace comfortably.) But the rugged individualists have won out.

By taking its time, by being less fixed in its thinking, Sonoma has figured out what it does well and is second to no one. The Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays now coming out of the Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Carneros are the most exciting in the state. No place produces a more diverse and fascinating collection of Zinfandels, and the Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernets aren't bad either.

I've been lucky to watch it all happen and to write about it. Still, it's hard to believe it has been 18 years. As you get older, you perceive the years differently, of course, and time passes on a sliding scale. Something that labors in your memory as "just the other day" makes a quantum shift and suddenly it's 18 years later.

Not long ago, I was driving with my daughter and pointed out a tall tree along the road. "I remember when they planted that," I said.

I turned to her. She was listening to her iPod.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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