A pioneer in Sonoma County's emergence as a mecca for fine dining, former restaurateur Jean-Pierre Saulnier brought Mediterranean-style French cuisine to Sebastopol in the early 1970s.

Saulnier, who died of cancer Wednesday, March 5 at his home in Eureka at age 72, ran Le Pommier on Highway 116 for about 10 years in an era before wine country cuisine helped define the county and draw discriminating diners here to eat.

"I remember we had a hard time finding a baguette," said his sister, Anne Saulnier of San Francisco, referring to the narrow loaf of French bread that is now omnipresent in Sonoma County stores and bakeries.

Saulnier, who ran Le Pommier until the early 1980s, was a professional contemporary of Alice Waters, who started her legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley in 1971.

It wasn't until chef John Ash opened his namesake Santa Rosa restaurant in 1980 that Sonoma County food and wine began to gain national prominence.

At its prime in the 1970s, Le Pommier was widely regarded as one of the county's better restaurants, when the population was about half what it is today and, as Anne Saulnier recalled, most West County vineyards were still apple orchards.

Jean-Pierre Saulnier grew herbs and greens in his own garden and made his own sausage, practices that are "now like the norm" for local chefs, his sister said.

Saulnier's culinary style came from his homeland of Algeria, then a French colony on the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa, where he was born in 1941.

As a French citizen, he served in the French military and was, following Algeria's independence in 1962, part of a mass exodus of European Algerians to France.

Saulnier settled near Paris, but was never comfortable in France and migrated to America, settling in Sebastopol in about 1970. "He loved it up here," his sister said.

Divorced, Saulnier relished his "quiet time," she said, working in his garden and preparing and eating his favorite foods, such as head cheese and boudin noir, a dark-hued sausage containing pork and pig blood. He also rode his bike to Bodega Bay to go fishing.

Saulnier, who was often grumpy, spoke "Franglish," a mix of French and English that made him hard to understand and compounded his off-putting demeanor, Anne Saulnier said.

But underneath that gruff exterior, he was "a sweetheart" who loved animals and "really had a heart of gold," she said.

After leaving Le Pommier, Saulnier cooked at other local restaurants, including Quincy's Pub in Rohnert Park, before moving to Eureka in the late 1990s.

Two of his sons — Christopher Saulnier of Oakland and Anthony Saulnier of San Francisco — are partners in 900 Grayson, a Berkeley restaurant.

He is also survived by a third son, Laurent Saulnier of Phoenix; sister, Denise Saulnier of France; five grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

At his request, no services will be held.