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Just as pastoral is West Dry Creek Road, which has no shoulders and wends its way through weathered vineyards planted with some of the world’s oldest and best zinfandel grapes. Many of the wineries there have prime picnic spaces with stunning vistas.
At the north end of that road, Anoka native Andy Cutter lives and makes his Duxoup (yes, pronounced “duck soup”) wines. Cutter has been there for more than three decades, keeping the operation small enough for most of the work to be done by him and his wife, Deb (there’s no tasting room). They have resisted following some of their neighbors in selling out to gazillionaires, who generally pull out the zin vines and plant cabernet sauvignon.
“There is so much money sloshing around,” said Cutter, a tall, bearded man whose well-worn smile lines and frequent cackles belie his somewhat Bunyan-esque countenance. “For some unexplainable reason, either Bernie Madoff logic or romance of the wine, tons of loot is being poured into wine schemes.”
Still, in the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys, one sees endless signs for multigenerational Italian families (Pedroncelli, Seghesio, Teldeschi, Rafanelli), and a scant few for nouveau vintners. The men and women on the tractors are more likely to have been born on this land than to be working for some latter-day Oliver Wendell Douglas, the city slicker turned farmer in “Green Acres.”
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The changes in northern and western Sonoma, then, have been incremental and subtle.
More wineries charge tasting fees, but they’re still generally nominal and are usually waived if you buy a bottle or three. New multipurpose food and wine buildings — the Shed in Healdsburg, Barlow in Sebastopol — have taken root. But they’re paragons of Wine Country casual chic, more inviting than imposing, with stands of insanely fresh produce and breads next door to superb winery tasting rooms such as Wind Gap, La Follette and MacPhail.
Healdsburg, for decades known as the “buckle of the prune belt,” has gotten ever more gentrified, especially in and around its still-charming town square, but retains its easygoing pace. Smithsonian magazine recently listed it second among America’s top small towns (15,000 and under), and it’s a perennial in Fodor’s “top 10 small towns” listings.
In much of this bailiwick, though, little has changed. Cranky aging hippies look suspiciously at strangers in Cazadero. A bartender at River End was telling us about a place in tiny Valley Ford with a wonderful name: Rocker Oysterfeller’s. “If you go,” he said, “you might not want to talk too much politics, especially if you’re a Republican.”
Along the western leg of the Russian River, gay-friendly Guerneville and Monte Rio could pass for mid-20th-century towns, complete with five-and-dimes. They’re packed with small houses that generally are occupied in the festival-happy summers and available for rent in the winter, a fabulous salve for anyone who gets cabin fever (and for those of us who love the cabin experience without the hassle of owning one).
Several years back, we rented a house with a tree growing up the middle of it and a hot tub in the front yard that once had been part of a Jesuit enclave. I can’t imagine that it gets any more California than that.
Upon departing, sated beyond words, we drove past a block-wide, overhanging sign that appeared to date to WPA days. It reads: “Monte Rio awaits your return.”
Not as much as we do.
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