It's not every day that a former world leader shows up in downtown Graton.
But there was ex-British prime minister Tony Blair, helping dedicate a first-of-its-kind solar energy project Thursday at Graton's largest employer, Sonoma Wine Company.
"This is a technology with a real chance to succeed," said Blair, who was hired last May as senior adviser to Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture fund that bankrolls green energy startups.
Blair joined Khosla Ventures' Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and backer of Cogenra Solar, the startup that built the solar project in Graton.
"I hope this is the first of many such things," said Blair, the United Kingdom's political leader from 1997 to 2007.
He arrived at the winery Thursday in a caravan of black SUVs, surrounded by security from Scotland Yard and the U.S. Secret Service.
He apparently was struck by the West County's rolling hills and gold-colored vineyards. "It's a nice place to be if you're from the other side of the water," he said. "It kind of reminds me of Europe."
He ducked a question about Tuesday's U.S. elections, which gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
"The elections are for you, not for me," Blair said.
Blair's strong support of the Bush administration and U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan led to criticism from his own Labour Party and eventually forced him to step down.
But he was warmly received at Thursday's private event, posing for photographs and touring Sonoma Wine Company's sprawling facility with company founder Derek Benham.
Blair said governments should pursue "a low-carbon path" and can't lose focus because of world economic troubles. "The environment may have other ideas," he said.
Sonoma Wine Company is a custom crush facility that produces nearly 3 million cases a year for wine company customers. It also produces its own brands, including Mark West, Rock Rabbit and Avalon.
Benham also founded Blackstone Winery, which was sold to Constellation Brands for $140 million in 2001.
The solar co-generation project will produce energy for the 250,000-square-foot winemaking facility, providing 30 percent of its electricity and more than 40 percent of its hot water.
Sonoma Wine Company uses lots of hot water to wash tanks, barrels, pipes and hoses, Benham said.
Five giant curved arrays use mirrors to focus sunlight on solar panels that heat water to 180 degrees.
The system harvests up to 70 percent of the sun's energy and produces five times more power than conventional solar technology, according to Cogenra.
"These types of solutions are crucial to our economy and to the health of our planet," Benham said.
Cogenra received a $1.5 million California solar research grant to develop the technology, which is getting its first commercial application at the Graton winery.
Cogenra paid for the system and the wine company is buying the energy from the solar startup at rates lower than PG&E's, Benham said. Cogenra didn't disclose the system's cost.
Renewable energy needs to pay for itself without government subsidies, Khosla said. "This is one of the first companies that's going to approach that model," he said.