Locally Handmade Gifts

Made in the North Bay

Our annual guide to gifts made close to home

By Paula Harris and David Templeton

Santa’s workshop is a great place, and his elves work harder than a tech employee whose boss just walked by with a folder full of pink slips. But let’s be honest: Does anyone really believe that one small production facility (apparently using fairly old-fashioned techniques) can make all the toys and trinkets needed for Christmas morning in a world of six billion people?

Yes, Virginia, it’s true: We’re telling you that Santa has help. And some of his best auxiliaries are right here in the North Bay. In fact, creative crafts people and clever entrepreneurs offer more locally made holiday gifts than you can shake a reindeer at. And–here’s the best part–none of them require Santa to pilot his sleigh through the mall parking lot.

Robert Janover True Images

For eight years now, local photographer Robert Janover has been putting out vibrant calendars that illustrate the visual beauty of Sonoma County. The 2002 Sonoma County photo and events calendar is graced with 65 color photos and lists more than 300 upcoming local events of interest to tourists, day-trippers, and locals alike. Check out the glossy pages: The county’s redwood trees, apple orchards, vineyards, rivers, coasts, and mountains never looked this good–even in real life! The calendar retails for $12.95. Janover’s popular Sonoma County picture book is also available for $24.95. Buy them at Janover’s studio at 555 Fifth Street, suite 101, Santa Rosa. 707/566-0984. –P. H.

Torch Candles

If you think Twiggy, Chunky, Brickhouse, Mama, and Fat Daddy are (respectively) a washed-up model, a candy bar, a bad disco song, the woman who gave you life, and a gansta rap singer, then you haven’t seen these colorful candles. These fun-shaped (and oddly named) little things are produced at Torch Candles, an innovative Forest Knolls business run by Collen Grimes. Conceived as an all-female endeavor–business cards read, “Torch Candles: Handmade by fiery women”–Grimes’ company has begun crafting a whole line of candles that frequently inspire people to mutter words like “lovely” and “breathtaking.” According to Grimes, she’s the only candle maker in the Bay Area who uses natural herbs and spices–like cayenne pepper and spirulina, which make a “lovely” red and a “breathtaking” green. This ingenious concept is sometimes more difficult to execute than you might think. “It took me a year and a half to find something that makes a natural blue,” Grimes says, describing her ultimate discovery of woad, a European herb of the mustard family. “It’s what Braveheart used to make his face blue,” she adds. Currently sold mainly at crafts fairs and farmers’ markets, Torch candles run from a few dollars up to $36. They make one-of-a-kind gifts that will be as fun to give as they are to name out loud. For locations where you’ll find Torch candles, call 415/488-4797. –D. T.

Judy’s Breadsticks

Listen up, ’cause this is a snackers delight! San Rafael-based Judy’s Breadsticks has recently introduced Twigs, a crunchy new addition to its line of organic goodies. Choose from savory flavors such as sunflower and garlic-fennel (encrusted with fennel seeds) or sweet flavors such as currants and cinnamon (studded with whole, sweet currants), and espresso bean-vanilla, which tastes chocolatey. “They’re sure to lift your spirits during the holiday season,” says Lynda Najarian, who owns this baking biz. Made with organic whole wheat flours and natural vegan ingredients, the texture of these rustic-looking, irregular twigs is dry, satisfyingly crunchy, and crammed with flavor. Indeed, samples brought by the office were so addictive we chomped them down in a jiffy. At around $3 for a pretty seven-ounce bag, these are perfect to pop in a Christmas stocking or gourmet gift basket. They are available at gourmet grocers such as Whole Foods, Fiesta Market, Andy’s Produce, and Petaluma Market. –P. H.

Napa Valley Beverage Company

Sure, you could guzzle sickly sweet, caffeinated, carbonated beverages during the holiday season, but why? Whether you’re a designated driver, a teetotaler, or simply searching for pure refreshment, Napa Valley Beverage Company has a flavorful alternative to alcohol when you have to bring a bottle to the party. The Napa-based company has launched a line of fruit-flavored sparkling beverages that are not only caffeine-free but sweetened with Splenda brand sucralose, a zero calorie sweetener derived from sugar. Choose from sweet strawberry, medium peach, or less sweet black cherry flavored sparkling beverages. The 20-ounce plastic bottles are sold nationwide and retail for 99 cents, as low as 69 cents in some markets. Available at most grocery stores. –P. H.

La Dolce V Fine Chocolates

“These aren’t hulking great truffles that you need a knife and fork to eat but petite, demure European chocolates,” says Veronica Bowers of her exquisite confections. The owner and artisan chocolatier at La Dolce V calls herself “a one-woman show,” and indeed she both creates and markets Harvest Fair double gold-medal winners such as hazelnut pralines and vanilla bean caramels. Bowers uses all natural flavorings and infusions that include many local ingredients. These holiday delights include dreamy dessert sauces and assorted gift boxes wrapped in sage green and gold with ivory ribbons. Prices range from $2.50 for a chocolate bar to $55 for a pound of sweet decadence. Up until now La Dolce V chocolates were available only through mail order, but Bowers has recently opened a chocolate boutique at 2661 Gravenstein Hwy. S. in Sebastopol. 707/829-2178. Or visit the website at www.ladolcev.com. –P. H.

R. S. Basso

We know you yearn to sink into a plumply inviting custom-made chair and forget the stressful holiday shopping, so treat yourself. At R. S. Basso you can order an overstuffed chair or sofa for yourself or a loved one for half of what you’d normally pay elsewhere in the Bay Area. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Mary Li and Ron Basso, the showcase stores are filled with handsome, finished furniture in all styles. And Basso is packed with a lot more than just couches. They also carry fine art, floor and table lamps, figurines, magnificent mirrors, wrought-iron chandeliers, and framed sketches and photos from eras past. With stores in Sebastopol (186 N. Main St.) and Healdsburg (115 Plaza St.)–along with others in St. Helena, Corte Madera, and Palo Alto–Basso’s has come a long way from its simple beginnings as a reupholstering business. 707/829-1373.–P. H.

Full Circle Farm

To buy a bar of handmade herbal soap from Kathi Karr Province is to engage in an eye-opening experience that is light years beyond the apparently simple act of acquiring a beautiful and practical gift. The soaps made at Sonoma’s Full Circle Farm come with something extra: an informal education in the art of saponification (soap making), a ten-dollar word that Province may just insist you memorize, before or after she tells the story of the Roman washer women who discovered soap. (It was around 1,000 B.C., and the women noticed their clothes got cleaner if they washed them in the sudsy part of the river near the place where animal sacrifices were performed–and aren’t you glad you know that now?) Ranging in form from elegant, palm-sized bricks to wonderfully corpulent Goddess-shaped soaps, Province’s all-natural products are as beautiful to see as her stories are enlightening to hear. The soaps can be found at numerous crafts fairs and farmers’ markets throughout the North Bay. For a schedule or more information, call Full Circle Farm at 707/996-7897. –D. T.

Arrowsmith Farms

“Christmas, though frequently cheerful, can be very, very stressful,” says Shelly Arrowsmith, the earth-motherly proprietress of Arrowsmith Farms. While not an entirely new thought, Arrowsmith’s calm reaffirmation of the season’s mental stresses is made all the more comforting if you are massaging her beeswax-and-olive-oil skin balm into your weary hands as she says it. Made out of beeswax from the 10 thriving hives she manages on her farm in Sonoma, Arrowsmith’s skin balms are gently scented or unscented. At $9.00 a tin, they make excellent stocking stuffers. For that matter, she also makes cow-spotted eye pillows, aromatic dream pillows, and Magic Wishy Beans–what she calls, “My farmer’s version of the Pet Rock”–which are a bag full of glittery beans and an entertaining list of “instructions.” Arrowsmith’s wares can be found at most of the North Bay’s farmers’ markets. For other locations, call 707/935-3420. –D. T.

Valley of the Moon Gift Certificates

Carpool, cell phone, meetings, and junk mail can turn even the most Zen-minded individual into a bumbling, frazzled mess. Sometimes the gift of getting away is the most valued of all. If you’re short of ideas on how to give a loved one some time off, here’s a tip: The Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, which promotes the Valley of the Moon region, one of the most popular tourist areas in the county, has gift certificates that can be purchased in increments of $25 or as packages. Certificates are redeemable at a variety of bed and breakfast inns and guest cottages including Gaige House Inn, Bancroft House, and Valley of the Moon Retreat, as well as at several muscle-melting spas like Bella Luna and Day Spa de Sonoma. All gift certificates are delivered by mail within 72 hours of purchase. Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, 453 First Street East, Sonoma. 707-996-1090. Or log on to www.sonomavalley.com.–P. H.

Wild Oat

Find a myriad of locally made goodies at Wild Oat Gift Shop within the Sonoma County Museum. Select from such diverse treasures as pretty wooden boxes for $13.95, a collection of locally crafted silver jewelry, porcelain collectibles, and unique decorated eggs incorporating trees or angels from $11.95 to $60. The store also carries Smith and Reilly handmade mustards in curry, garlic, or original flavors. Plus, there’s a collection of books by local authors, such as the Santa Rosa Postcard Book and a book featuring aerial views of Sonoma County, in addition to a selection of regional historical maps. And if you’re really stuck for an original idea, Wild Oat has Clo the Cow dolls dressed up like characters from the famous local dairy billboards for $8. Hey, maybe next year they’ll do the Moodonna and Baby Cheeses. 425 Seventh Street, Santa Rosa. 707/579-1500. –P. H.

From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.