Mill Valley musician and veteran lunch pal Jim Mitchell was revealing the secrets of songwriting as we cruised along Highway 12. We were hopping from Marin County to Sonoma County. Destination: the cheese- and wine-centric town of Sonoma. Purpose: Grab a bite and take a look.
The winding two-lane highway is also known as the Valley of the Moon Scenic Route, and it was evident why, as spring had arrived early. We passed rolling hills splashed with bright-yellow mustard and saw stands of oak and blossoming fruit trees, artfully landscaped vineyards and shaded walnut groves, imposing stone wineries and dilapidated barns.
Like two other tourist-dense towns – nearby Healdsburg, and Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County – the centerpiece of Sonoma is a park surrounded on all sides by commerce. On walkabout around Sonoma Plaza, we ducked in and out of antiques emporiums and gift shops, fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies, wine-tasting rooms and ethnic-themed restaurants – Mediterranean, Irish, Basque, Italian and others. It's estimated there are 30-plus restaurants in the vicinity of Sonoma Plaza. We didn't count them, but that number felt right.
Sonoma County is covered in 60,000 acres of vineyards and populated by hundreds of wineries. Sonoma the town reflects that, but its other dynamic is its saturation in history. That's reflected in the vintage architecture and palpable vibe of well, age. If Sonoma were a distant relative, she'd be your great-great-grandmother.
Sonoma was the capital of the California Republic, which existed for 26 days in 1846 under the Bear Flag (that's where our state flag got its grizzly bear insignia).
The tree-lined Sonoma Plaza itself dates to the 1830s and became a National Historic Landmark in 1961. The stone-built city hall is part of it.
Sonoma State Historic Park is home to the adobe Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823, the dawn of the town.
Across from the mission is the Blue Wing Inn, originally a military garrison that became a Gold Rush-era hotel-saloon, and is a California Historical Landmark.
Sonoma Hotel, 101 W. Spain St., (800) 468-6016, www.sonomahotel.com.
Down the street is the refurbished Sonoma Hotel, from 1880. Its charming lobby is a quiet respite from the traffic-jammed streets outside, all French country furniture and stained glass. Take a minute in front of the stone fireplace.
The Girl & the Fig, (707) 938-3634, www.thegirlandthefig.com.
The Sonoma Hotel leases space to the adjoining The Girl & the Fig Cafe and Wine Bar, one of the town's most upscale restaurants. The menu shows the likes of quiche Lorraine, game hen roulade, wild flounder meunière and braised lamb in rosemary-balsamic reduction ($7-$24).
Sonoma Cheese Factory, 2 Spain St.; (800) 535-2855, www.sonomacheesefactory. com.
Back on the sidewalk, the fragrant smoke from a grill led us to the outdoor dining area of the Sonoma Cheese Factory. Two guys were stuffing grilled sausages into buns as fast as they could, calling out order numbers to seemingly famished diners.
Navigating the crowd inside was more difficult, as hundreds of people milled about and formed long lines to buy cheeses (200 kinds), hot and cold sandwiches, salads, prepared picnics and much more.
"This reminds me of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco," Jim said, and we moved on from the hectic scene.
Vella Cheese Co., 314 Second St. East; (800) 848-0505, www.vellacheese.com.
Sonoma is famed for its Jack cheeses, and the Vella Cheese Co. has one that's unique. Among its 14 artisanal cheeses is mezzo secco, in the Jack family but made from cultured raw milk instead of pasteurized milk, giving it a unique flavor and texture.
The family-run business opened in 1931 in the former site of a brewery dating to 1904. Of course, the building is made of stone.
Centre du Vin, 80 First St. East, (707) 996-9779, www.theledsonhotel.com.
Later we wandered into the six-room Ledson Hotel, built in 2000 but designed to fit in with downtown's vintage flavor.
"This looks like something you'd find in the French Quarter of New Orleans," Jim said rightly.
"I designed it to make it look like an old building that had been here a long time," said owner Steve Ledson on the phone later. Good job.
We settled on the patio of the hotel's sidewalk bistro, Centre du Vin, watched a parade of passers-by and cruised a menu full of tempting dishes (french fries tossed with blue cheese-infused butter, vegetarian risotto, croque monsieur; $4-$24).
We asked for bowls of mussels with lardons (bits of fried pork fat), garlic, scallions and white wine over fried potatoes. Sorry, sold out.
Plan B was a plate of three cheeses (goat, triple-cream Brie and blue), with crostini, water crackers and sweet fig compote. The cheeses were excellent, but the chunks could have been bigger.
We shared a plate of duck confit (leg and thigh; crisp skin and tender meat topped with rich demi-glace) and a bowl of beef bourguignon (fall-apart-tender beef short ribs with plenty of mushrooms and bacon bits, but too much onion in a tasty but soupy sauce that needed tightening). Next time, we'll go for the half-pound shortrib burger with Gruyère and mushrooms.
La Michoacana, 18495 Highway 12; (707) 938-1773, www.ytupaleta.com.
On the outskirts of Old Sonoma, we found the bright and spotless La Michoacana, specializing in dozens of flavors of hand-crafted fruit-based ice creams, sorbets and paletas (frozen bars of juice and fruit). We shared cups of pineapple-coconut and pine nut ice creams, and coconut and chocolate paletas.
In a word: Wow!
Sonoma County will showcase its wine and food bounties at various venues in upcoming events. Sample this trio. Meanwhile, visit www.sonomacounty.com.
Savor Sonoma Valley, March 16-17: Twenty-two wineries match their finest vinos with small-plate menus (www.heartofsonomavalley.com).
Sonoma County Restaurant Week, March 18-24: Specially priced prix-fixe meals will be at participating restaurants around the county (www.sonomacountyrestaurantweek.org).
California Artisan Cheese Festival, March 22-29: Handmade cheeses and specialty foods meet in a celebration of gourmet goodies (www.artisancheesefestival.com).