Eat the Map

West County's profile rises

West Sonoma County—known to locals as West County—is the most delicious place in America. It’s still something of a secret to the outside world, but I predict that will soon change as more people catch on.

West County is America’s Tuscany—a land of word-class wineries, cider houses, artisanal cheesemakers, heritage breed goat and cattle ranches, family-owned organic farms, wild mushrooms, fresh Dungeness crab, wild abalone, king salmon and, thankfully, an absence of pretense. Nowhere else in the country has as many great raw ingredients and food products in one place. That bounty has inspired generations of chefs, home cooks, foragers, fishermen, winemakers and brewers who celebrate West County’s abundance.

“In Sonoma’s West County, we know that food quality and abundance are within arm’s reach—we almost take it for granted,” says Heidi Herrmann, seaweed harvester, farmer and agro-ecology instructor at Sonoma State University. “This little pocket of land on the left edge of the continent is a culinary wonder.”

In spite of all this great food, the region still flies under the radar. Back before I knew better, I filed West County under “Need to check that place out; seems cool.” Before I relocated here in 2011, I’d pass through Sebastopol a couple times a year on weekend drives out to the Russian River to escape cold San Francisco summers or during a search for affordable housing, a game my wife and I used to play called “Should we move here? How about here?”

Each time we drove through Sebastopol—the commercial if not spiritual heart of West County, I’d come to learn—and the surrounding vineyards, apple orchards and redwood forests, I’d inhale deeply. I slowed down. There was something about this place I couldn’t quite identify, a rugged charm and bohemian spirit I found alluring.

As a food writer, what really haunted my dreams was my unconfirmed belief that West County was an authentic source of great food and drink, raw ingredients and craftspeople that hadn’t been spiffed up and reconstituted to appeal to a mass audience. It was the un-Napa, a land of milk and honey and exceptional Pinot Noir without the tourists and bachelorette party limos. That’s what my foodie radar told me. But I knew my short forays there weren’t enough to confirm my suspicions. And anyway, if West County was this culinary nirvana, why wasn’t it already overrun with visitors and celebrity chef steakhouses?

Fast forward 10 years. Life, kids and work had taken me in different directions, but I was still, consciously or not, on the trail of West County. I was researching a documentary series for PBS about Americans reforming our food system called

Food Forward, traveling in a 26-foot, refurbished 1966 Airstream trailer with my wife and two young children. As I put together the itinerary of farms, dairies, ranches and restaurants to visit, I knew I wanted to include a stop in West County to see once and for all what was up with that place. Long story short, we showed up and never left. It was the place I had been looking for.

I’ve spent the years since exploring West County, turning down new roads to see where they go, pulling over at farm stands, eating at new and old restaurants and drinking my share of local wine, beer and cider. One of my first dining experiences in West County was at Lowell’s in Sebastopol. I think it was over a bowl of their beans and greens for breakfast that I realized I was on to something good. Founder Lowell Sheldon—who went on to open Handline with partner Natalie Goble in 2016 and is building a third business called Fern Bar, a cocktail lounge and small-plates restaurant in Sebastopol due to open this fall—has long been a champion of West County as a culinary region with his rigorous local sourcing and commitment to sustainable agriculture.

But he’s not alone. Restaurants like Ramen Gaijin, Zazu, Farmhouse, Fork Roadhouse, Casino Bar and Grill, Hazel, Boon and others all raise West County’s profile.

To raise awareness of West County’s community of like-minded businesses, Lowell Sheldon and his team have been at work on a map of the area’s many splendid things for the past 18 months, and it’s going to be available this week. It’s a must have. The “West Sonoma County Field Guide” is a piece of marketing, but it’s more than that. It’s the first document to draw a circle around the region and showcase its many delicious things. It puts West County and its unique business and destinations on the map by creating the map.

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Rather than list restaurants and businesses by price, the field guide is built around a shared ethos of local sourcing and environmental sustainability, very West County values.

“It’s the community of businesses that I want to associate with,” says Gia Baiocchi, owner of the Nectary in Sebastopol and now Healdsburg. She likes it because it’s a collaboration between businesses rather than a competition.

The guide, which features a detailed, hand-drawn map, offers a curated list of restaurants, wineries and businesses, as well as hikes and must-stops along West County’s long and bumpy roads. If you’ve got out-of-town guests looking for something to do, hand them this. It’s a good resource for locals, too.

Sheldon is eager to see if the map drives more interest for sustainably minded businesses like those in the field guide.

“Hopefully, it will have some-lasting impact,” he says.

West County’s left-of-center, countercultural spirit, born of hippies who relocated here in the 1960s and ’70s, still reverberates in the hills and back roads and accounts for some of the area’s low-profile and slow-growth politics. Add infamously pot-holed, winding roads and a relatively sparse tourist infrastructure, vast forested wildlands and sprawling cattle ranches, and West County can feel unknowable.

Of course, West County isn’t really a secret. In a 2017 article on coastal Sonoma County Chardonnays, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov called the area his favorite place in the world. If Napa is pink polo shirts and loafers, West County is flip-flops, flannel shirts and Patagonia fleece. The area attracts a different kind of visitor, those with a DIY spirit willing to make their own discoveries. It hasn’t become another Napa Valley—wall-to-wall grapes and tourist-focused development that often leaves locals choking on the dust and stuck in traffic—but the threat looms large as small-scale farmers fear rent increases and another apple orchard or oak grove falls to vineyard development or, more recently, cannabis cultivation.

West County’s farms and orchards have supplied San Francisco with fresh produce, butter and milk for more than 150 years. Until the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, steamboats and other vessels moved apples, berries and dairy products down the nearby Petaluma River into San Francisco Bay. An electric train used to travel down Sebastopol’s Main Street loaded with fruit for the big city to the south.

Famed botanist Luther Burbank developed many of his prized plants, including the Shasta daisy, the Santa Rosa plum and the russet Burbank potato—for better or worse, the main potato now used in McDonald’s fries—in an experimental garden in Sebastopol that still stands in Sebastopol. West County produce travels down Highway 101 in box trucks now, but is still as revered by San Francisco chefs as it was in the 1800s.

Geographically, West County is easy to define. To the east it’s bound by the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a vast wetland that rises and falls with winter rains. On warm mornings, a band of fog rises from the Laguna like a force field, exhaling vapor into sky before the gathering day. The Laguna serves as a flood relief valve for the Russian River, the northern boundary of West County.

The favorable climate for Pinot and Chardonnay in due in large part to the Pacific Ocean, West County’s western border. And, finally, to the south is the Petaluma Gap, a break in the coastal hills that draw in roaring wind and fog from the coast, a perfect climate for more cool-weather grapes and the region’s dairy ranches and artisan cheesemakers.

But for me there is a something more elusive about West County, a culture and a state of mind that is harder to define. And that’s part of its appeal. I realized this anew as I was trying to find a view or image to capture West County. But what one image could do that? An orchard of the region’s famed Gravenstein apples? A lone salmon boat returning to port at sunset? A weathered, surfboard-topped VW bus chugging up Highway 1? Rather than one image, I think West County is defined by its food and people.

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