Western Sonoma County, known locally as “the West County,” is the epicenter of Sonoma’s culinary scene. What makes it even better is that, at least for now, so few people know about it.
Back in 2013, I was working on Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about Americans working to improve the way we eat. My family and I were living in Santa Cruz at the time but packed our lives into a 1965 Airstream prepared to travel across the country to research and promote the show. We visited farms, ranches and dairies up and down California, but in the end never left the state. Turns out that living in an Airstream wasn’t really for me, my family, or for the show’s budget.
We ended up spending the summer along Sonoma’s Russian River in a pretty, rustic-chic campground and then decided to move to Sebastopol, the “capital” of what is locally known as “the West County.” I was disappointed to pull the plug on the road trip, but grateful to land in West County, an area that has long been defined by great food and drink. San Francisco is rightly acclaimed for its world renowned restaurant scene, but I say Sonoma’s bohemian West County does better than the city scene.
Why the West County
Not only are there delicious restaurants, but also cheesemakers, great wineries, Gravenstein apple orchards and homegrown ciders, grass fed cattle ranches and family farms. A lot of these culinary riches travel down Highway 101 to San Francisco, but I like being at the source. Here, we’ve got our own Farm Trails network.
West County is also a great incubator for new food and drink brands. Nationally recognized brands such as Guayaki yerba mate, Strauss Creamery dairies, Bellwether Farms cheese, Revive kombucha, Russian River Brewing Co., Taylor Maid Coffee, Tilted Shed Cider, Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery are just a few of the companies that come from here. And let’s not forget a few of the dozens of premium wineries like Hirsch, Littorai and Radio Coteau.
Sonoma’s Culinary Scene
Some might argue that the West County doesn’t include trendy, flashy Healdsburg but so what? That city is a culinary destination of its own with the superb wines of Dry Creek Valley, the one-of-a-kind restaurant, food shop and gardening emporium of Shed and the Michelin star destined Single Thread restaurant and farm, a newcomer that has already put Sonoma County on the map for luxury dining. We are all Sonoma.
Thank you, Hippies
The fertility of the West County culinary scene is due, in part, to the area’s climate and soil, which created its own cultural phenomena. In the 1970s, the West County attracted San Francisco and Berkeley hippies looking to leave city life behind and live closer to the land. Say what you will about hippies and communes, but they had a profound impact on America’s food scene. Thank a hippie for organic produce, granola, artisanal ice cream, tofu, craft beer, fermented foods, composting, handmade cheese and yes, even cannabis! All that and more can be traced in part to those long-haired weirdos and their effort to eat and drink outside America’s packaged and processed food industry.
That counter-cultural spirit took root in the West County and continues to flourish and inspire the area’s food and culinary scene. It’s a delicious place to live and a world-class culinary destination.