Artisan Sonoma: Wine Country Locals Reveal Their Off-Season Discoveries

By Wolf, Amy | Sunset, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Artisan Sonoma: Wine Country Locals Reveal Their Off-Season Discoveries


Wolf, Amy, Sunset


On a clear, sunny January afternoon, when the oak-covered Mayacamas Mountains are so brilliantly green that you have to squint, State 12 is one of the prettiest roads around. Rick Kasmier still remembers how that road struck him and his wife, Sandi, when they first came to the Sonoma Valley 19 years ago. "It was just the most beautiful place--the view, the sunset ... Then and there we both decided, 'This works,'" he says.

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So the couple bought 2 acres of land just off State 12 and began making wine out of their basement. In June 2003, they opened Kaz Vineyards & Winery tasting room. Kaz was, and still is, the smallest Sonoma Valley winery with a public tasting room; it produces about 1,000 cases a year. "I'm the only full-time employee of me," Kasmier jokes.

There are plenty of "onlys" about Kasmier. He may be the only commercial winemaker to make his own labels out of vintage, hand-colored family photos, and the only one to welcome kids with toys and juice in the tasting room. And, he says, he's one of only two California growers of Lenoir, an obscure French-American hybrid grape that produces some of the darkest juice of any grape. Kasmier likes to work with what he calls the "third- and fourth-tier" varietals: Lenoir, Malbec, Barbera, DeChaunac. "I wouldn't enjoy just doing the Cab-Merlot-Chardonnay thing. I dislike commercialism. It's just not fun."

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Kasmier is in good company in the Sonoma Valley, where creative types find their muse and residents work hard to maintain the valley's quirky, small-town character. Go this month, when tourism is at its slowest and local winemakers, shopkeepers, and artists have more time to visit.

Providing for locals and guests

Visiting with customers is one of the reasons Ditty Vella loves running her tiny cheese boutique, the Cheese-maker's Daughter. Ditty is the daughter of Ig Vella, whose hand-made dry Monterey Jack cheese was California's first artisan cheese before the term "artisan" was even being used in the context of food. Ditty grew up selling her father's cheese, but instead of taking over the family business, she chose to open her own cheese store, selling up to 80 unusual imported and domestic cheeses.

"I feel like cheese is at the white Zinfandel stage," Ditty says. "People still don't know that much about it. A lot of my customers go straight for the brie. I like to lead them, gently, in other directions." Educating people about cheese is one of Ditty's passions; the other is providing a place for locals to gather close to the historic Sonoma Plaza, which, these days, is dominated largely by big, commercial enterprises. "We need to work hard to maintain a sense of community," she says.

That's exactly what Ditty did when she helped to protect the 55-acre wooded hillside north of the plaza, now known as the Sonoma Overlook Trail. Five and a half years ago, the city almost leased this land to a resort, but Ditty and other Sonoma Valley citizens worked with the Sonoma Overlook Trail Task Force to save the land. Now a gorgeous 3-mile trail runs up and over the hills, past soap-root, buckeyes, and manzanitas and across a babbling brook.

"The Sonoma Overlook Trail was, to me, the epitome of a grassroots effort," Ditty says. Still, winning the initiative wasn't easy. "Sonoma somehow fosters individuality. That can make it hard to find a common ground. But once you find an issue that unites all those dynamic individuals, it can be a very powerful thing."

Art and eats on the plaza

That common ground is much in evidence at the reopened Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The museum, located just off the plaza, is "the best thing that has happened to Sonoma in decades because it provides what the town has been lacking: a cultural meeting place," says metal sculptor Jim Callahan. "It places the arts in the center of town, where they should be. …

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