Story By Tim Tesconi, Photographs by Steven Knudsen
This Christmas avoid stuffy department stores with their monstrous piles of cheaply made goods from overseas and head to the country – Sonoma County Farm Country to do your holiday shopping.
You will be giving the gift of genuine concern not only for those on your Christmas list but local agricultural businesses. It’s a great way to support the farms, ranches, agricultural processors, wineries and restaurants that keep the Sonoma County economy humming 365 days a year while keeping the landscape green with orchards, vineyards and vegetable farms. And the recipients of your gifts will love having something delicious and natural rather than a fondue pot or polyester sweater mass-produced at factories in foreign counties. Keep this Christmas local. And real.
Considering the scope and diversity of Sonoma County agricultural products, there is bound to be something for everyone on your holiday list, from apple butter for Aunt Agatha to Russian River pinot noir for Cousin Fred. There are cheeses, fruit baskets, turkey jerky, honey, jam and jellies just waiting to be adorned with ribbon and bows for Christmas gifting. Also, the majority of the main ingredients for your Christmas dinner are available from the farms and processors in Sonoma County. A ham from Bud’s Meats in Penngrove, potatoes from Foggy Bottom Farm in Healdsburg or persimmons for the Christmas pudding from Gabriel Farms in Sebastopol are among the places to shop for holiday dinner fare.
Think outside the box store this year and head to farm country. Start your seasonal shopping by taking a scenic back road to the village of Occidental in western Sonoma County where you won’t have to worry about parking meters or traffic jams. Occidental, surrounded by redwood and fir forests, is postcard Christmas. The town, known as Calorie Canyon because of its famed Italian Restaurants, is decked for the holidays and brimming with holiday goodies. A visit to Occidental surely will get you in the spirit of the season, particularly after an Irish coffee or hot brandy at one of the town’s bars. Then enjoy ravioli or chicken cacciatore at Negri’s or the Union Hotel before setting out on a journey to cut a Christmas tree or to shop for tasty stocking stuffers at Kozlowski Farms in Forestville or getting a famed pie at Mom’s Apple Pie in Sebastopol.
Barbara Gonnella of the Union Hotel is Sonoma County’s version of Mother Christmas as she spreads cheer and goodwill during the Yuletide season. Each December Barbara and her daughter Gienna Michel Gonnella bake thousands and thousands of gingerbread cookies – stars and gingerbread people of every size – offering them for sale by the cookie or basketful at the Hotel’s bakery café. Barbara and Gienna Michel love the holidays and the spirited camaraderie it spawns in the community. Each year, the Union Hotel holds a community Christmas party with caroling, hot cider and gingerbread cookies – some 3,000 of them –for the guests who assemble in the Hotel’s Bocce Ballroom. This year’s Community Christmas Party at the Union Hotel is the evening of Dec. 19.
“It’s our way of giving back to the community,” said Barbara, known for her uber energy, creativity and old-world hospitality. “I love baking the cookies and decorating the hotel for Christmas. The baking and decorating inspire the magic of the holidays.”
Gienna Michel, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College, is the fourth generation of the Gonnella family to work in the Union Hotel, which is owned by her grandmother Lucille Panizerra Gonnella. Lucille was born into the business founded in 1925 by her parents, the late Carlo and Mary Panizerra.
A basket of gingerbread cookies from the Union Hotel is a great gift for fellow office workers or as a festive treat to bring to a Christmas party or your kid’s teacher. To order cookies call the Union Hotel at 874-3555 or visit the website at www.unionhotel.com for the hours of operation.
There are hundreds of other great gifts available throughout Sonoma County for Christmas giving to family and friends. Instead of wandering aimlessly along rural back roads in search of Christmas gifts, the staff at Sonoma County Farm Bureau has come up with some of our favorite picks to get you started on your country Christmas shopping adventure. But as you travel to Hector’s Honey or Angelo’s Meats don’t be afraid to visit another farm store along the way – it just might yield the perfect gift for that crotchety rich uncle.
Here are a few of our favorite picks for shopping. All are Farm Bureau members who give back to the community in so many ways. Now it’s time to support them and get wonderful gifts at the same time.
5566 Highway 116, Forestville
707-887-1587; website, www.kozlowskifarms.com
Kozlowski Farms offers a taste of country that has been perfected over the last 60 years by family matriarch Carmen Kozlowski who at 85 still puts on her apron to help out in the family business where three generations work side-by-side to produce specialty foods from the Russian River Valley. Kozlowski Farms offers a huge array of gourmet and natural foods including jams, jellies, preserves, mustards, berry vinegars, salad dressings, chipotle grilling sauces, steak and barbecue sauces, fruit butters and spreads. The bakery makes pies, tarts and cookies. This year Kozlowski Farms is offering gift boxes that you can fill with the different products that line the shelves of the retail farm store. Kozlowski Farms has a seasonal store in the Santa Rosa Mall but go the farm in Forestville for the country experience. After all, this is one of Sonoma County’s oldest family-owned and operated farms.
2700 Adobe Road, Petaluma
707-763-9586; website, www.angelossmokehouse.com
Proprietor Angelo Ibleto, known as Sonoma County’s Sausage King, is famous for his smoked sausages and line of other smoked goodies including bacon, poultry and salmon. His beef and turkey jerky have become international favorites because he sends the jerky to troops serving overseas. The walls of his shop are filled with photographs and letters from service men and women throughout the world who have enjoyed Angelo’s jerky and generosity. A trip to Angelo’s Meats is like stopping at a family-run smokehouse in Europe. Angelo, a bigger-than-life character with a heart to match, is always there stuffing sausages or smoking strips of meat. A package of jerky makes a great stocking stuffer for the hunter on your list. It packs up easily and makes a quick and nutritious snack in the duck blind or perched on a rock.
Hector’s Honey Farm
2794 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa
707-579-9416; email, email@example.com
Hector Alvarez rides herd on hives of busy, hardworking bees that produce prize-winning honeys – blackberry, wildflower, star thistle and lavender. His star thistle honey, a delight to the senses, won best of show in the honey competition at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Hector also offers honeycombs, bee pollen and hand-dipped beeswax candles. Hector spends a lot of time peddling his honey and beeswax candles at farmers markets. You can find him at the Original Santa Rosa Certified Farmers Market held on Saturday and Wednesday mornings in the parking lot at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. If you are going to visit Hector’s farm on Fulton Road call ahead and make an appointment. Like his bees, Hector is very busy and often buzzing along the freeway to markets.
Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery
3244 Highway 116 North, Sebastopol
707-823-9125; website, www.harmonyfarm.com
As patrons have been known to say, “Everything is harmonious at Harmony Farm Supply.” And indeed it is from the earth friendly pest control to the friendly and knowledgeable employees. This is the place to shop for holiday greens, like holly wreaths, or gifts for the gardener like garden carts, gloves, wind chimes and potting benches. The holy comes from a local farm and is fresh and prickly. Additionally, there are a variety of ornamental shrubs, fruit trees and organic vegetable starts, plus live Christmas trees balled in burlap. If you are stumped about what to get, buy a gift certificate so the gardener on your list can get a jumpstart next spring. Founded in 1980 by Kate Burroughs and David Henry, Harmony Farm Supply was a pioneer in the Organics Movement as a supplier of organic fertilizers, ecological pest controls, and integrated Pest Management monitoring tools. A nursery was added in 1990 when it moved to its present location. In 2007 Harmony Farm Supply was purchased by Rick Williams and his wife Leah who have made the business a destination for those who love to dabble in the dirt.
Full House Farm and Katherine’s Kitchen
999 West Sexton Road, Sebastopol
707-829-1561; website, www.fullhousefarm.com
Full House Farm is one of the original agri-tourism spots in Sonoma County, offering farm stays tied to educational programs that focus on “sustainable living from the inside out.” One of the attractions for Christmas shoppers is a line of wine and fruit jellies from Katherine’s Kitchen. The jams and jellies, along with goat milk goodies from the farm’s resident dairy goat, are available at the Honor System Kiosk in the farm yard. The kiosk, a converted chicken coop, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the week. Select your jelly and jam – strawberry merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, lemon curd and more – and then leave the money in the kiosk. Deal done. “I trust people,” said Christine Cole, the energetic proprietor of Full House Farm. Christine said the jams and jellies are the farm’s best-selling items. “The color, the taste, the unique representation of Sonoma County’s best, all add up to a perfect gift idea,” said Christine.
Petaluma Creamery & Spring Hill Jersey Cheese
711 Western Ave., Petaluma
707-762-3446; website, www.springhillcheese.com
An array of fantastic cheeses can be collected and put in gift boxes at the Petaluma Creamery’s Retail Store, which is open year round from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Larry Peter is the proud proprietor of Petaluma Creamery, which makes a killer pepper jack cheese as well as other creamy delights from local cows’ milk. You can sample the cheeses at the store and buy the ones you like. While shopping at the retail store, enjoy some of Larry’s homemade ice cream, a coffee drink or a deli-sandwich. Everything is fresh, homemade and reasonably priced. Larry Peter will give a 10 percent discount on any purchase to anyone who mentions they saw this article in the Sonoma-Marin Farm News. So bring your copy of the Farm News and head to Petaluma for old-fashioned treats at 10 percent off.