It was the poet Robert Burns who suggested that it is a great gift to be able to see ourselves as others see us. Sometimes I&’m not so sure.


Always, as we teeter on the brink of a new year, there is that temptation to look ahead and make our best guesses as to what is waiting (lurking?) out there. For many of us the world has turned so much faster in recent years, we can't even hazard guesses.

It is interesting, however, to note that we are still very much in the throes of a millennium change, a period which historians and futurists alike characterize as a time of greater than usual upheaval. In our case, experts tell us, the current millennium period — in which, I presume we are 100 times more vulnerable than at a turn of a mere century — began in 1988 and will not end until 2020.

Since I don't have that kind of vision, I choose not dwell on the issues these experts address. I will say that it is interesting to note that life on other planets is still as big a topic as it was at the turn of the 19th century, making H.G. Wells look more like Nostradamus every day.

As always, I prefer to take every opportunity that arises to look back. So, perhaps we should consider that this is a token mention of the future accompanied by a blast from the past.

I ran into Rhoda Bernie last week at Oliver's. I had not seen her in — well, it hasn't been a millennium, but almost.

Rhoda was something of a force around here in the 1980s. An accomplished ventriloquist since being given a Charlie McCarthy puppet at age 8, she and her own off-beat puppet, Iggy, have entertained for charity and great fun all around the county. It was extra curricular duty beyond her day job selling insurance, a job she selected, she says, because her husband didn't have enough insurance to support her and their four teenage kids when he died of brain cancer in 1983.

That's a nutshell description of a rather remarkable woman. But what I remembered first, when I visited with Rhoda again after 20 years or more, was a magazine description of Santa Rosa, which caused considerable hilarity around town in the mid-1980s. I don't remember why Time magazine sent a reporter, but the result was a piece describing the town as "a quaint Victorian village." As it turned out, it was Rhoda who toured the reporter up and down McDonald Avenue. Rhoda still protests that it wasn't the only neighborhood she showed him. "We went downtown," she insisted again last week. But it was the "Victorian village" that captured his fancy.

It made a neat bookend for David Wallenchinsky's assessment in his book "Whatever Happened to the Class of '65?"

A classmate, he wrote, lived in or near the "dusty farming community" of Santa Rosa. Then there was the Dallas columnist who found Santa Rosa to be "a chic little boutique city — a California souffl?"

The recollection of these diverse representations sent me to my files. Riffling through a crumbling manila folder labeled "Descriptions," I found notes about all the ways that outsiders have looked at Sonoma County, beginning with the Russians in the 1820s and ending with the stack of published paeans to the glory of Sonoma County written a dozen years ago when we were on the cusp of becoming (Capital W, Capital C) Wine Country.

We have always been lower case wine country, of course, since Gen. Vallejo planted his vines in the Sonoma Valley and Count Haraszthy raised him a dollar and pushed his European varietals into the kitty.

It wasn't until we hit that millennial surge in the 1990s that the members of the exalted order of wine, food and travel writers took notice. It took a little while. A mortgage industry magazine described Santa Rosa as a "sleepy coastal town." A Marin food writer labeled the whole county "a culinary Beirut." Compared to Napa, the pleasure-seeking pundits agreed, Sonoma County was "boring."

But when all that changed, right around 2000, when the trend setters, like Women's Wear Daily's now-defunct W magazine and Travel & Leisure and the airlines' on-board mags "discovered" us, the spigot was turned on. And the adjectives flowed like, well ... wine from an oak barrel, I guess.

Gourmet magazine called the county "an agricultural Eden."

W thought we were "California's Provence."

Once begun, the conversion from boring to idyllic came quickly. First it was Sonoma (The town, that is. Many writers had difficulty distinguishing town and county. It should never have stopped being Sonoma City.) It had a head start with its historical sites, although many wine-travel visitors seemed to think they were in Napa.

Next came Healdsburg. A glowing 2002 piece in the LA Times magazine focused on Healdsburg, starting off with sheep rancher Bruce Campbell's now famous assessment of Healdsburg's evolution from "a sleepy farm town" to a tourist city with the "best bread in the world but no place for a man to buy underwear."

That was a dozen years ago. Now there are more hotels, more destination restaurants, more wine tasting. Check the New York Times' Sunday Styles in summer and fall and you're almost sure to find a society wedding or two in and around this former "Buckle of the Prune Belt."

The beat goes on. Some of those old prune packers will get a snicker from the current issue of AAA's Via magazine, which features Healdsburg as one of its "Weekenders."

The article, praising the "upscale eateries" and "small-town mellowness," begins: "Once a plum-farming community ..."

So we end the year on those tired old questions of identity for the county and its towns. When did the prunes we knew so well become plums? Will Sonoma residents ever be able to park around the square on a weekend again? Why don't we feel as special as the writers see us? Is Santa Rosa "Victorian" or "chic" or still "dusty?" And how will the image-makers describe us in 2020, when the millennium rush is officially over?

It was the poet Robert Burns who suggested that it is a great gift to be able to see ourselves as others see us. Sometimes I'm not so sure.