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Sonoma International Film Festival, April 11-15

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SIFF_2012_logo.jpgby Courtney Cochran

In its impressive 15th iteration, the Sonoma International Film Festival (né Sonoma Valley Film Festival) brings some 120 independent films to wine country, plus a diverting mix of pre- and après-film activities.  Here's the scoop:

Film Highlights

This year, a diverse lineup of films allows for exploration of topics as varied as romance, politics, pop culture, the environment and sci-fi.  Some of this festival's anticipated films:

In the romance category and featuring actor Jackson Rathbone of Twilight fame, feature-length Girlfriend explores a romance between a boy with Down's Syndrome and a small-town single mom (Shannon Woodward). 

SIFF_2012_hamburger.jpgTeenagers push the envelope of blind tasting by attacking the topic of burgers -- and teenage obsessions like video games, natch - in the short film The Great Hamburg Challenge (just 12 minutes). 

On the more serious side of things, director Luc Besson tells the story of celebrated leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she becomes the core of Burma's democracy movement in the feature film The Lady, while the documentary Nothing Like Chocolate explores an American entrepreneur's efforts to build a sustainable chocolate operation in Grenada. 

Save the Date! - Passport to Dry Creek Valley

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Tickets on Sale Starting February 1st!
Wine lovers encourage to act fast to nab tickets to Sonoma County's premier passport event.

  • 23rd Annual Passport to Dry Creek Valley - A Modern Tradition with Century-Old Roots
  •  Saturday & Sunday, April 28-29 from 11am - 4:30pm
  • Friday evening Healdsburg Gallery ArtWalk & Wine Tasting, April 27
  • 50 participating wineries throughout Dry Creek Valley
  • Festivities include: exquisite wine tasting, gourmet food, fun motifs, and live music
  • Fly Alaska Airlines into Sonoma County Airport & fly a case of wine home for free

HEALDSBURG, Calif. -- One of California's first and longest-running regional wine events, Passport to Dry Creek Valley is an exceptional wine-tasting experience, blending epicurean thrills with fun, festive décor, and live entertainment. The fun starts the Friday night of Passport Weekend with a Healdsburg Gallery ArtWalk & Wine Tasting, co-sponsored by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley® and Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau.

With more galleries than any one city north of the Golden Gate Bridge - and just minutes from Dry Creek Valley - the charming town of Healdsburg offers sophisticated lodging, restaurants, and 22 art galleries all within walking distance. On April 27, the galleries extend their hours to welcome Passport guests to explore and meet local artists, while sipping Dry Creek Valley wines.

"Green" High Fashion Hits the Mark

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Ethical apparel abounds at Arboretum

by Courtney Cochran

It's a dilemma perfectly fit for the new millennium: Two adventurous young ladies find themselves living in wine country with a hankering for high-end duds made in an environmentally responsible fashion. Problem is, finding so-called "green" high fashion in rural Northern California is like trying to track down a Michelin three-star in Bakersfield.

So, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Business partners and responsible fashionistas Kate Morison and Andrea Barrett launched Arboretum Apparel in April, 2007 just north of the plaza in downtown Healdsburg. To head through the door of the smartly renovated space is enter a place where, according to Morison and Barrett, "fashion meets compassion and ethical apparel abounds."

Cinematic Highs In Sonoma

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filmfest.jpgThe eleventh annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival ( kicks off April 9th on the plaza in downtown award - and thousands of festival attendees will gather to eat, drink and take in a full roster of independent and mainstream films against the backdrop of wine country.

Hopmonk On the Way to Sebastopol

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By Robert Farmerdeanbiersch.jpg

Fans like me of Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant will be in a good mood upon hearing the news that Dean Biersch is nearing completion on his next beer-related venture in at the intersection of Highways 116 and 12 in Sebastopol. His anticipated Hopmonk Tavern ( is scheduled to open in spring of this year, and usher in a new-era watering hole for Sonoma County beer aficionados. Biersch is the co-founder of the aforementioned brewery and restaurant, a concept that spread like wildfire via incarnations in various cities around the nation and which also helped bring the microbrew-pub trend in the United States to a froth.

For his new endeavor, Biersch plans to serve up an English-style tavern, complete with neighborly atmosphere and live regular live music. But the focus will be on beer and good food that goes well with beer. The plan is for Hopmonk to offer a regularly changing menu of small-batch beers from across the U.S. and Europe. The beers, personally selected by Biersch, will be offered alongside a simple menu of suds-friendly, locally sourced fare. Further completing the scene is Hopmonk's setting; built into a century-old structure with stone walls and a Douglas fir plank floor Designed by Shawn Hall, the 105-seat restaurant will feature restored Douglas fir floors. The restaurant is complemented by a 1,400-square-foot music venue that is sure to be a weekend hotspot. The outdoor beer garden will surely be popular no matter what day of the week. I, for one, am looking forward to hopping on over.

Sonoma Gets Red Carpet Ready

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By Courtney Cochran


Who needs Hollywood?

Come Sunday, there'll be plenty of glamour right here in the heart of wine country when the Sonoma Valley Film Society ( presents "Night at the Oscars," a black tie-optional gala and live broadcast of the 80th Annual Academy Awards in downtown Sonoma.  Guests are invited to walk the red carpet beginning at 3:30pm, after which they'll be treated to a "multicourse epicurean feast" and "megascreen live broadcast" of the awards, according to the society's web site.

Tickets don't come cheap - they're going for $250 a head - but the Oscars don't come around often, either (nor does the chance to walk a red carpet, for that matter).  After the telecast guests can expect dessert and dancing followed by an after-party, proving that, against all odds, wine country is poised to burn the midnight oil.  It doesn't get much more Hollywood than that, folks.

Romantic MacArthur Place

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By Robert Farmer

I must admit that I have long resisted the concept of Valentine's Day, firmly rooted in the belief that it's a marketing hoax perpetrated on countless hapless romantics. But it can still be fun to indulge it. So whether you are romantic once a year, or year round, at least the special February day gives pause to consider your romantic feelings for another. So I'll throw some ideas here and in entries to follow that you can use however you see fit. Dare I say, they've worked for me. Of course Wine Country drips with romance all the time. But for Valentine's Day, many already-romantic places turn up the heat with special themes. One that caught my eye is at MacArthur Place (, near the Plaza in quixotic Sonoma. Already one of my fave locales for a secluded getaway for two, the elegant and tucked-away inn is serving up an red-themed "ultimate" Valentine's Day package, which includes a stay in a garden spa suite - one of the best room-types in the county - with a private outdoor patio and shower, and a huge outdoor tub made from teak and meant for two. On Valentine's Day, the room comes with a bottle of rare estate red wine from Benziger, as well as four-course dinner at Saddle's, the property's excellent steak house. The dinner is paired with red wines, of course, and is followed by red grape seed bath and scrub in the tub. Sounds juicy, right?  I have to admit even my marketing misgivings about the Special Day would soak away with such a weekend. MacArthur Place is obviously not the only inn catering to Love for the weekend. But it's definitely one of the most indulgent I've heard about. Let me know what you think when you get back and get the grape seeds washed off...

Wine: No Longer a Stowaway at the Movies

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by Courtney Cochran

If you're like me, you may have stashed a bottle of vino in your purse or overcoat on occasion before heading into the movies.  Sure, you felt a bit sheepish about your contraband, but when the opening credits rolled to the tune of a lush Santa Rita Hills Pinot, you knew you'd taken the risk for good reason.  Still, sipping from the Styrofoam cup you snagged at the concession made your reward seem less sweet.

With the opening of Sundance Cinemas San Francisco at the old AMC Kabuki Theater in Japantown ( ), you can purchase wine by the half glass or glass and take it right into the theater with you, no smuggling required.  The first theater in the city to snag a liquor license, Sundance offers moviegoers an eclectic lineup of 25 wines sourced from both local and global producers, many of them made from organic or sustainably farmed grapes.  

Even better, they'll give you a real glass, too.  

Full disclosure: I am the sommelier who selected the wines for Sundance Cinemas. 

NYE in Wine Country – A Festive Affair

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by Courtney Cochran

Most of the time, wine country is where you go to relax, take a breather from the bustle of the real world and – if you're lucky – perhaps even catch up on some sleep.  But come New Year's Eve, even wine country kicks things up a notch.  Read on for what are sure to be some of this year's most festive affairs in wine country. 

You can sleep later - after all, you'll have all year to catch up.

Mask Optional

Dubbed "Midwinter's Night", the 2nd annual New Year's Eve benefit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is a masquerade ball boasting a vodka and caviar bar, seated dinner catered by The Girl and the Fig, midnight Champagne & chocolate bar and dancing.  Tickets don't come cheap ($500/head), but with all these goodies plus a portion of proceeds going to charity, it's tough to resist this festive fête. 

(707) 939-7862

A Beastly Affair

Not to be outdone, Santa Rosa's Safari West delivers the ultimate in adventure with its annual dinner dance held in the company of exotic animals.  Overnight guests enjoy a safari on the 31st plus continental breakfast and mimosas the next day, and all guests get to groove alongside the likes of giraffes, gazelles, oryxes and ostriches – to name just a few of the fellow revelers expected at the affair. 

$80/head or $486.50/couple overnight  (707) 579-2551

Vintage Flair On the Square

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Travelers looking to add a touch of Euro charm to their wine country stay need look no further than the Ledson Hotel's Harmony Lounge on the square in Sonoma. With its marble-topped tables, dramatic iron and glass doors and abundance of outdoor seating, the spot recalls the charming sidewalk cafes of Florence and Paris. Inside, the Lounge is stylishly outfitted with a blend of beautifully crafted antique and reproduction furnishings, moldings, wood paneling and light fixtures. Grab one of the coveted seats by the towering fireplace to take it all in, or score a stool at the custom-made walnut and granite bar.

Affable bartenders keep guests entertained while they imbibe, and although libations are long on Ledson wines (the Lounge is owned by the same family behind nearby Ledson Winery & Vineyards), a handful of other options such as a delightful sparkler from Charles Heidsieck lend variety.

That's a little Brasserie Lipp thanks to Ledson, without the trans-Atlantic flight.

Open daily 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. - 480 First Street East, Sonoma CA 95476 - (707) 996-9779

Contributed by: Courtney Cochran

Dry Creek Valley - Where the Zinfandels Roam

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by Robert P. Farmer

This week, in honor of the annual Dry Creek Valley Passport Weekend, I thought a few words in praise of the venerable DCV were in order. Mind you, unless you’ve already got your Passport, you cannot attend (there is a “short list” upon which a lucky few reside, awaiting cancellations, but nobody in their right mind cancels their Passport Weekend plans). No, the event sold out, as it does every year, long ago and at a rapid clip. The weekend event is one of the most anticipated events of the year in valley.

In spite of the seeming rarity of a passport pass (just 4,200 tickets are issued), hundreds of people make this weekend their unofficial kick off to the summer months in Wine Country. It’s fitting that Dry Creek Valley, one of the unsung heroes of California appellations, makes the first splash. Wine produced in the region enjoy a cult-like fanbase, who love to sit about sipping and debating the finer points of why their favorite bottle best typifies the winemaking climate and the very valley itself—indeed California winemaking.

With nearly 60 wineries and 150 growers in the valley, the debate can stretch long into the evening. Though I count myself among those with a horse in this race, I pale in comparison to some I know, who jealously defend their favorite Dry Creek varietal when anyone makes a challenge for another appellation’s supremacy.

The happy reality is, there is plenty to love about Dry Creek Valley. Positioned in northern Sonoma County, where the mornings enjoy cool ocean air and misty fog, and summer days are long and full of intense sunshine, Dry Creek is a naturally excellent agricultural opportunity. While locally produced fruit also has a rabid following — if you’ve been to the Healdsburg Farmer’s Market, at North and Vine streets, you understand what I’m talking about – the fruit that grabs the headlines around here is grapes. Especially zinfandel. Mention Dry Creek in most wine circles and the next word uttered is usually zinfandel. The terrior is ideally suited for producing zin, a grape that needs concentration to accurately express itself. Dry Creek Valley soil, shallow with lots of stone beneath, is perfect for producing concentrated fruit. The zins tend to be highly concentrated, beautifully structured and zippy, with plenty of spice and a lengthy finish. Wonderful examples of this — which also happen to be a few of my personal favorites — can be found at Pezzi King (241 Center St., Healdsburg; 707-473-4310;, Seghesio (14730 Grove St., Healdsburg; 707-433-3579;, and Quivira (4900West Dry Creek Rd.; 800-292-8339;, where the zins are large and in charge.

Though the zinfandels are the topic of discussion during passport weekend, the cabernet and sauvignon blanc are also on the docket. These varietals, too, take on Dry Creek characteristics—fruit-forward, full-bodied, and versatile. The wines are easy drinking and refined, much like the valley itself and those who love it.

While Passport isn’t the only time to take advantage of the Valley and all it has to offer, it is one of the best times. The wineries of Dry Creek celebrate their special place, many welcoming guests with special themes (past events have featured a “Disco” winery and “Summer of Love” tasting room). In addition to tastings and interaction with winemakers, guests are treated to live music, food, and other special surprises. It’s an excellent opportunity to get to know Dry Creek Valley up close and personal.

So, assuming you’ve got your passport, you’re in for a treat. But you don’t have your ticket, my advice is get your now for 2008 and start checking of the days on your calendar until next April.

By M.L. Hilton

(BODEGA BAY, CA) -- Just yesterday I found myself sitting on the warm deck of Gourmet Au Bay with three tastes of wine waiting to be explored beside me and the edge of the Pacific Ocean in front of me. I zoned off (for like three hours) looking into the horizon. The bay was glassy and grey blending almost seamlessly into the light layer of clouds that colored the sky.

It was a monochrome world, interspersed with black birds and dark grey-green trees that display the nature of this sometimes harsh environment in their gnarled branches and tight small leaves. The trees have learned a balance, a symbiosis that we as humans mimic on our best days and flout on our worst.

Briefly the clouds attempted to burn off, giving glimpses of a warm blue sky that made the already calm ocean seem even more benevolent.

Sitting Thursday afternoon (sans hordes of tourists) and rolling my wine slowly around my tongue, the day was definitely a guilty pleasure . . . just hanging out on the deck, listening to the snippets of conversations between the locals coming in for a moment of gossip and a glass of wine, or dipping deeply into my own thoughts.

That was the afternoon; the morning hadn’t started out too badly either.

I rolled out of bed (Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa) spent a few minutes with the newspaper, grabbed a bottle of water and did the sweat lodge thing in the sauna for 20 minutes before ordering breakfast to be brought up to the room, after a shower, and a salt scrub (the Bodega Bay Salt Glow), I bit the bullet, pulled on the blue jeans over my freshly oiled skin, and headed for an afternoon watching sea birds and trying local wines.

It was a recipe for relief. Bodega Bay and its surrounds are a respite from urban sprawl and time pressures. If you are going to be pampered, you may want to pick a resort to visit. Here the locals are happy to share, and give you the tools to help you make yourself content.

Gourmet Au Bay, 913 Highway One, Bodega Bay, CA 94923. 707.875.9875

By M.L. Hilton

(SONOMA VALLEY, CA) -- Do you hear the word “indie” when it comes to filmmaking and shudder, afraid that you will be forced to sit through some plodding documentary or worse, something created strictly in the effort to educate you about something you have no interest in?

If you answered yes to the above, it may be time you re-evaluated your regular cinema experience, put aside your preconceived ideas, and explore the fascinating and entertaining world of film festivals.

I mean let’s face it. When was the last time you were able to consistently attend your multiplex’s regular fare and leave satisfied both by the entertainment experience and the money you spent?

Even the stars are starting to feel that way.

New independent films featuring Danny Glover, Nick Nolte, Marisa Tomei, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Danny DeVito, William Hurt (and I can go on) are being shown as part of Cinema Epicura – the 9th annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival. A number of the stars themselves are attending the screenings, galas, awards ceremonies and gourmet food and wine tastings.

The festival starts next week – April 5 through 9, and online sales end on Wednesday, April 5. Do you have your tickets? I do.

Seventy-five films in five days. It is better than On Demand. Get off your couch and enter a world of fantasies, emotions, clashes, and cultures you will never get at home.

Festival At a Glance

Buy your festival passes, and exclusive experiences online (hey, rubbing elbows with the glitterati and bone fide stars doesn’t come at the price of a chili cookoff). Prices go up April 1, so you really should make up your mind today.

If you are limited on time and funds, day passes are $50 and individual filmings $10 each. Remember, each screening has food and wine tastings.

Otherworldly, Les Mars

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By M. L. Hilton

(HEALDSBURG, CA) -- An evening stroll in a beautiful little Northern California town found me looking upward into the darkening sky. I could count no less than four contrails streaking southward and I wondered if Healdsburg is on the interstellar highway to destinations more metropolitan.

You wouldn’t lack for urban comforts, however, in this wine country hamlet. Besides world-class restaurants, right off the main street is Les Mars Hotel, a new boutique hotel developed in the tradition of old world finery. It is sumptuously appointed and has many features for the sophisticated traveler. Beautiful beds, the softest linens, a well-balanced and tasteful décor, the rooms breathe ease, quiet, and culture.

The bath alone was lavish. Roomy without being too big, it had a clear glass enclosed shower with high overhead faucet that let the water rain down upon you. The tub itself was a work of wonder. Laminated instructions were tucked tastefully in to a drawer of the beautifully sculptured vanity. You needed them to operate the bath. It could wave, it could pulse, it could heat, it could even dry itself when you were finished. I briefly considered attempting to have it blow dry me after the bath – but the thick towels were too tempting to pass up.

Can I admit this? Beside the bath, there was a pictorial guide to the three remotes that controlled the tv, stereo, and other electronic accoutrement. But, there was no operating instruction for the bidet. Somehow, I don’t think that is a question for the concierge. I suppose it is somewhat self explanatory but until I have that one-on-one with a European woman, I am always going to wonder what the exact steps actually are.

Besides creating a fabulous environment for sleeping (and bathing), Les Mars offers a delicious three course breakfast that is not to be missed and for the fall, an evening fromage tasting in the library.

The cheeses that were served the night I attended were beyond delicious. But almost more fun was Les Mars “Maitre Fromager” Joseph Bain. Bain’s international and courtly manner charms the patron as much as the cheese does. Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable about fromage, but his poetic manner of speaking brings to light the nuances of the flavors, textures, and artisan cheese-makers.

While he was speaking about the cheese and wine selection, Monsieur Bain could have been describing the entire evening when he said that the commonality of the experience is the finesse.

Les Mars Hotel, 27 North Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448. 707.433.4211. (

Restaurant on site: Cyrus. Read about it in this winecountry article.