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A New Destination for Food and Art in Sonoma

Close to midnight one Saturday in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, California, fog rolled in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, encompassing the town in thick, cool mist. Inside an old apple cannery, though, revelers were in a different sort of haze — one produced by the cacophonous sounds of a funk band.


Under a disco ball that dangled from barnlike rafters, Spencer Burrows, the energetic lead singer of the band Frobeck, bounced up and down behind his keyboards. Colored lights flashed across his seven band mates, on drums, saxophone and tambourine. As the guitarist broke into a solo, the packed crowd, which included both the silver-haired ponytail types and those still using their college IDs, bobbed and swayed.


It was another typical night at Aubergine, a giant vintage clothing store, cafe and concert space, and part of the cultural scene that has taken over this modest-size town, about an hour north of San Francisco.


Sonoma County may be best known for its wineries and the tony towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma, but West County, as locals call the area around Sebastopol, is where the vineyards begin to give way to rolling hills, bohemian enclaves and the wild Pacific Coast beyond. Sure, there’s wine produced here — excellent pinots in particular — but there’s plenty to explore beyond it, especially around Sebastopol, where in recent years new restaurants, shops and live music venues have opened, securing the town’s position as West County’s arts and culture hub.


“We’re not like a little Podunk town,” said Leslie Hanson, the manager of Aubergine, as she stood behind the store counter, surrounded by a dizzying 8,000 square feet of vintage clothing that included rows of traditional Austrian dirndl dresses, faux fur coats, ’50s-era slips imported from Western Europe and motorcycle boots and Western shirts from Texas.


Randy Graves, the owner of Aubergine, moved his business to Sebastopol from nearby Occidental three years ago after falling in love with the historic old cannery. He hoped the town would support his vision of a combination vintage wonderland and event space. It has. “It’s a very artistic and holistic culture,” Mr. Graves said of the town’s appeal.


It wasn’t always this way. Sebastopol is a town that apples built, specifically the sweet and tart Gravenstein. But the apple business began to decline in the 1970s, and though the town still hosts the annual Apple Blossom Festival and Gravenstein Apple Fair, most orchards have been replaced with vineyards.


Change also came with an influx of counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s, which carried with it political and cultural values still evident in businesses on small, pedestrian-friendly Main Street, like Rosemary’s Garden, an herb shop that has been around for decades, and a spirituality-themed bookstore, Many Rivers Books and Tea. In 2000, Sebastopol made news for having a city council with a Green Party majority.


Not surprisingly, this progressive attitude has attracted a certain demographic. Patrick Amiot, an artist from Montreal, stumbled across Sebastopol 14 years ago while on a road trip with his wife and two daughters. They pulled into town in a motor home to cool off in the community pool — and ended up staying for good.


“Sebastopol is not your typical small town,” Mr. Amiot said. “For me, it’s like an extension of Berkeley.”


A decade ago, Mr. Amiot placed his first sculpture, a 14-foot-tall fisherman made of recycled metal and painted vivid colors by his wife, Brigitte Laurent, in front of his house on Florence Avenue. He awaited an outraged response from his neighbors. It never came; instead, he got compliments. Today, around 200 of Mr. Amiot and Ms. Laurent’s whimsical, cartoonish collaborations are scattered around town; Florence Avenue has become a virtual outdoor gallery of their work — some 20 sculptures that incorporate repurposed commercial material are on view in neighboring yards, including a Batman figure whose torso is made out of an old oil drum, and a mermaid with scales that were once applesauce can lids.


“I didn’t expect to make a living in such a small town,” Mr. Amiot said. “I feel it’s not so much about me and my work, it’s more about this town that has been able to embrace me.” He sat in paint-splattered jeans in his living room, itself a makeshift gallery, with furniture fashioned out of an old bathtub and refrigerator and a giant metal cowboy looming in one corner.


A block away, on Healdsburg Avenue, Lowell Sheldon, a Sebastopol native, runs an organic, Italian-influenced restaurant called Peter Lowell’s. In the summer, most of the produce used in the small, airy restaurant comes from local farms. Even here, art is an essential element. Mr. Sheldon regularly commissions photographers to document those farms, along with local wineries and breweries, and the photos are exhibited in the dining room. A recent show featured black and white images of nearby Radio-Coteau vineyards. “It became an interesting way to communicate with our customers about the producers we work with,” said Mr. Sheldon, as he sat on his restaurant’s back patio, wearing a beet-colored T-shirt that read “Local Food Matters.”


When he opened the restaurant in 2007, Mr. Sheldon said his goal was to operate it with the ideals of a nonprofit. One night this summer, some of the proceeds from a special menu were donated to a local organization that teaches teenagers how to cook healthy food for people with life-threatening illnesses. The meal featured local pasture-raised pork with apple and fennel slaw and polenta, and Bodega Bay salmon, braised beet greens and quinoa. There were thick slices of Gravenstein apple pie for dessert.


In May, a few doors down from Peter Lowell’s, Charlie Pendergast opened RiskPress Gallery in a former vacuum cleaner shop. Mr. Pendergast doesn’t take commissions or charge rent. Instead, he donates the space and allows artists to use it as they see fit. The 750-square-foot gallery is intended to be a place for emerging artists, as well as for more established ones, like the landscape painter Hanya Popova Parker, to experiment.


Close to the center of town, in a 100-year-old stone building, the Hopmonk Tavern is now a popular restaurant and concert spot. Opened three years ago, the Hopmonk offers live music most nights. On a recent summer evening, against a red velvet backdrop, the New York-based singer Christina Courtin clutched the microphone and sang a version of an old Pete Townshend song that was so mesmerizing even the pixie-faced bartender stopped squeezing limes for a moment to listen.


Nearby, more change is coming. Barney Aldridge, a local developer, is working to transform a 12.5-acre former apple-processing plant and farmers’ cooperative called the Barlow. Some of the site’s converted warehouses are already home to an eclectic array of businesses including the headquarters of the yerba mate company Guayaki; a glass blowing studio; a bronze foundry; and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, which hosts art exhibitions, classes, concerts and an annual documentary film festival.


In the coming year, Mr. Aldridge plans to bring 30 additional businesses to the Barlow, including two wineries, a brewery, two bakeries, a coffee roaster and a pizzeria. “Basically, this will be a fully sustainable village of people making things,” he said. “People were always making and producing food and art here.”


Published in NY Times.

Posted in: News