Sonoma County, the Past and Future

A tour of the region shows how much has changed
Sonoma County, the Past and Future
Tourists and locals alike enjoy an afternoon tasting on the lawn at Arista. (Alanna Hale)
May 18, 2016

The first time I saw Sonoma County I knew I was home. It was a brilliant day in mid-February, a sort of false spring when the trees and daffodils were flowering and the mountains were so green they glowed.

Meanwhile, back home in the Midwest, the snow was dark and crusty. But it wasn't just being tired of endless winters. I grew up in a small town in eastern Indiana, on the edge of the flatlands where the Ohio River Valley started carving out hills. It was also farm country. For those reasons, I guess, Sonoma reminded me of home, an idealized version perhaps.

Twenty-seven years later, a lot has changed in Sonoma County. I was reminded of that while researching the June 15 cover story, "Touring Sonoma Grape by Grape."

Our goal for the package: let the region's major winegrapes be your travel guide. It's loaded with advice on which Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon wineries to visit and—since you're on holiday, after all—where to stay and what restaurants you can't miss.

For details, check out the link above or pick up a copy on your local newsstand. Meanwhile, I've given a lot of thought to how Sonoma County has changed and continues to change. Some observations:

• Sonoma was once a far second to Napa Valley, but the playing field has leveled, thanks in large part to the popularity of Pinot Noir and the diversity of the county's growing regions.

• The mom-and-pop days are fading. Drive through Sonoma Valley and most of the wineries are now owned by large companies: Arrowood, Kenwood, Ravenswood, Sebastiani, Benziger, Landmark, B.R. Cohn. Even some of the newish family-owned producers—Patz & Hall, Siduri and Copaín—have been snatched up. The stakes are higher, the money bigger.

• Tourism has become big business. Twenty-five years ago, not a single Sonoma winery charged for tastings or tours. Now $25 or more is not unusual. Sonoma tourists were once mainly from the Bay Area and California. Now it's not unusual to see a bus full of Japanese tourists. The county says tourism brings in $1.6 billion a year.

• Sonoma County has gone upscale, and visitors and locals alike are more sophisticated in their tastes. In the early 1990s, there were empty storefronts on Healdsburg Plaza. Today, moneyed clothing stores, affluent restaurants and art galleries abound, and good luck finding a parking space.

Do I miss the old days and ways? Of Course. We all idealize certain places and times in our heads. "If only it could be like that again," right? Yet even now, Sonoma still has an untouched beauty to it, a certain easy charisma. It will always be home.

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