California always seemed more an idea to me than a place. Born in southern Illinois, I’ve lived most of my life in the particular rhythms of the Midwest. Baking heat and cicadas buzzing in summer, deep chills and an eerie stillness in winter. I moved to Chicago, the Second City, for a job at the city’s number two newspaper. That’s where I met Molly, an irresistible being from a place called Sebastopol. Wait, is that Russian?

At the time, I knew Sonoma County mostly as a brand of cheap leather dress shoes. But hearing a west county native talk about the beauty and culture of her home was intriguing. I visited briefly in fall of 2016, then again last summer. I was blown away. A few weeks after the October wildfires, we drove across the country from Maine to start making a life on the other coast.

Click through the gallery above to read what's most surprised me about life in west Sonoma County.


Cabernet Sauvignon, the venerable statesman


Rodney Strong

Rodney Strong, 2015 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5% alcohol, $20. ★★★★

This is a cab that clearly overdelivers. It has generous fruit — black cherry and black raspberry — with herbs and spicy oak. It has good structure with firm tannins and a nice length.


J. Lohr, 2015 Hilltop, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9%, $35. ★★★★: This is a pretty cab with black raspberry fruit, herbs and spice, and the flavors meld together seamlessly. The cab has good balance, ripe tannins and a lingering finish. It’s well-crafted.

Duckhorn, 2014 Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9%, $98. ★★★★: This is a gorgeous cab with notes of black raspberry fruit, and notes of cinnamon and clove in the mix. It has a soft and supple texture, with ripe tannins. Nice length. Striking.

Cliff Lede, 2015 Stag’s Leap District, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 15%, $78. ★★★★: This is a striking cab with complex aromas and flavors. It has notes of jasmine, black currant, blackberry, cinnamon and black pepper. The Cliff Lede has bright acidity and great balance. Top rate.

Justin, 2015 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5%, $25. ★★★1/2: This is a savory cab with dried herbs at the forefront, while cherry and black currant fruit play backup. What melds it together is a hint of caramel. Smart.