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Sonoma Celebration

Author: Karen Hart
November, 2016 Issue

 Twelve years ago, along a rural section of Arnold Drive surrounded by Carneros appellation vineyards, there was a sign that read: “Soon you will not just drive by.” The owners, Chris Hougie and Teresa Raffo, shared a vision to create a marketplace and gardens to reflect the natural beauty of Sonoma County, and were slowly transforming the property. Eventually, the sign was replaced with a new one that read: “Cornerstone Sonoma.” Two colossal Adirondack chairs marked the entrance, and they were painted bright blue to match thousands of blue balls adorning an equally monumental and oddly-shaped pine tree. In July 2004, Cornerstone officially opened to the public.

“The tree looked like a caricature in a Dr. Seuss book,” recalls General Manager Dawn Smith, pausing to smile. In the early days, Cornerstone began with an empty building in need of proprietors, a coffee cart and a freshly planted garden that was unimpressively tiny. The sole business on premise was Artefact Design & Salvage, which offers high-end architectural salvage and design elements for the home. Says Smith, “Artefact was with us since the beginning; they believed in us.” The shop’s proprietor, Dave Allen, originally had a showroom in San Jose, but he was reeling from the dot-com bust when Hougie, came to his store and invited him to open a shop at Cornerstone. Says Allen, “I thought the concept was interesting, and I love Wine Country and wanted to live in the area.”

The early days were challenging. Allen’s new shop opened before the parking lot was poured and people were still mostly driving by. Tour buses would slow down and stop, the driver and passengers wondering, no doubt, what was up with the blue tree and chairs. “The blue tree was iconic,” recalls Allen. 

Despite its humble beginning, word spread and one month after Cornerstone opened, staff from The New York Times showed up because they had heard about the “Blue Tree” by Claude Cormier and the gardens. An article appeared soon after, along with photos of the Blue Tree and gardens. “That got us off the ground,” recalls Smith, who began working there when it officially opened in 2004. Word continued to spread and Cornerstone was featured on View on the Bay, CBS San Francisco, The Victory Garden, PBS and Eye on the Bay. 

Festival des jardins

The property was originally home to World of Birds before Hougie and Raffo purchased it. In the ’90s, while honeymooning in France, the couple visited the gardens of Domaine de Chaumant-sur-Loire, which hosts the annual “Festival des Jardins,” a garden festival with up to 30 themed gardens, which gained international acclaim. “They reveled in the tulip-shaped gardens and avant-garde displays,” says Smith. With that whisper of inspiration, they purchased the property along Arnold Drive in 2002, hoping to transform the property into a festival des jardins, Sonoma-style.

The couple kept the property going for more than a decade. In 2014, Kenwood Investments purchased the property, and the new owners remain committed to maintaining the heart and soul of Cornerstone. Says Smith, “They’ve re-embraced Cornerstone and want to take it to the next level.”

A hidden gem

Though Cornerstone Sonoma has been a fixture on Arnold Drive for more than a decade, it’s still somewhat of a hidden gem in Sonoma County. Those who visit either hear about the place through word-of-mouth or happen by while touring through Wine Country. Located 35 minutes north of San Francisco, Cornerstone offers an outdoor marketplace with 20 lush Mediterranean gardens, art sculptures, boutique shops, wineries and a spirits tasting room, a restaurant with an ever-evolving seasonal menu, a lily pond and two barns.

“Cornerstone Sonoma is a Wine Country marketplace like no other,” says Darius Anderson, managing member of Kenwood Cornerstone. “You can spend an entire day on the property—enjoying a meal, shopping, wine tasting, touring the gardens and now visiting Sunset magazine’s test gardens and kitchen. Additionally, Cornerstone provides an amazing event venue that’s completely customizable to fit most any vision and celebration. We love that Cornerstone not only appeals to visiting guests, but that it also serves our community and provides a great space for locals to spend their time.” 

Cornerstone draws up to 1,000 people per day, depending on the season, drawing visitors from the North Bay and as far away as places like New Orleans, Montreal, Israel and South Africa. Since Sunset magazine arrived earlier this year, its outdoor test kitchen, events and gardens have been a huge draw. 

At Cornerstone, you can relax and revel in the experience as you walk the pathways, enjoy the flowers and trees, the views and the fresh, sun-kissed Sonoma County air. Expect the unexpected, because you may cross paths with a bride about to walk down the aisle near the lily pond or a groom riding across the lawn atop a horse (or even an elephant). 

There are whimsical sculptures, such as the creation named “White Cloud,” created from aviary wire by Andy Cao, who’s known for his other-worldly creations; a Daisy Border by the renowned Ken Smith from New York, who created the rooftop garden at the Museum of Modern Art; and a bright red structure, that serves as a tribute to immigrant workers who “cross the border” by Mario Schjetnan, a premiere architect and the leading landscape architect in Mexico. The structure leads to another small garden, which serves as a nod to California agriculture.

Sunset test kitchen and gardens

When Sunset magazine arrived in May of this year, its influence on the gardens as well as their outdoor test kitchen and events have only added to the magic of Cornerstone. “Sunset’s Western Garden book is a horticulturist’s bible. To have them here is a dream come true,” says Smith, who also serves as the on-site horticulturist alongside Assistant Manager Joe La Rosa. As a nod to the magazine’s presence, the Adirondack chairs were painted “Sunset orange,” to match a new entrance sign in the same signature color. 

Kenwood Investments approached Sunset after learning the magazine would be losing its Menlo Park campus. “They thought we were a match made in heaven for their Cornerstone property, and we couldn’t agree more,” says Johanna Silver, Sunset’s garden editor. “It’s fun to inhabit a different part of California¾get to know new neighbors, a new climate (wind, more heat and more cold!) and rub shoulders with a whole different subset of California culture. We’re in Wine Country now, and that’s terribly exciting.”

According to Silver, part of the new location’s draw is that Cornerstone lets Sunset have more interaction with the public. “The gardens are open every day, and we’re planning a lot of exciting programming,” she says.

A succulent-filled Sunset sign now marks the entrance to more than 20 explorable gardens, designed by renowned landscape architects and designers from around the world. Visitors will hear the crunch of granite as they walk the pathways, exploring gardens that are composed mostly of drought-tolerant plants. There’s echinacea, a purple coneflower known for it’s medicinal properties; stick verbena, with its purple blooms; stone fruit trees such as apricot and plum; and Agastache, an aromatic perennial. A Pipevine Swallowtail may flutter by, since the garden is planted with dutchman’s pipevine for butterflies to feed on.

A “cocktail garden,” planted with citrus, basil, hops, pomegranate and pineapple guava offers a sitting area and a venue for a cocktail bar. There’s a custom-built greenhouse by Jeff Sagner from Washington; three garden boxes, that change seasonally and include one vegetable and herb box and two edible flower boxes; and a “gathering space” for farm-to-table dinners. Says Smith, “The gardens are always evolving. We want to show people how to garden, as well as how to think sustainably and out-of-the box.”

Weddings and celebrations

Cornerstone Sonoma offers natural beauty and a variety of unique spaces to customize weddings, anniversary celebrations, birthdays, corporate events and more. “We host up to 80 weddings and different types of events every year,” says Michele Gardner-Kelley, director of sales. 

Cornerstone weddings range from 50 to 350 guests and can be customized to suit the couple’s tastes. Celebrations can be elegant with white linens, china, flowers and candles, Sonoma County casual, with hay bales and farm tables for guests as well as a cigar bar and moonshine bar. While it’s a popular venue for North Bay brides and grooms, they also come from afar—one couple traveled from Hong Kong last spring for a small, intimate wedding celebration at Cornerstone’s newest event venue, The Barn at Tyge William Cellars.

There’s a grand lawn near a lily pond with vineyard and mountain views that’s another popular site for wedding ceremonies; a rustic barn nestled among the gardens; and a grand, white circular Sperry Tent, perfect for entertaining guests at a reception, which is surrounded by a garden of olive trees, roses, lavender and more. The Barn at Tyge William Cellars is a chic whitewashed barn that offers an indoor-outdoor experience, where guests can dine among the vines. A lush green lawn surrounds the barn, and olive-tree-lined pathways lead to Willow Pond. Guests can enjoy vineyard vistas as well as stunning views of Carneros’ rolling hills.

The Marketplace

Cornerstone’s marketplace features Park 121 Café & Grill, a variety of boutique shops for a relaxed shopping experience, three wine tasting rooms and a spirit tasting venue. 

For the last four years, Park 121 has offered visitors a bounty of fresh, local foods. Some popular menu items include Liberty duck confit and asparagus salad, Asian chicken salad; and a signature bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with local homegrown tomatoes. It also offers local cheeses and salumi (specialty cured meats). “During the week, guests are mostly local, but on the weekends we have more out-of-state and international tourists,” says Executive Chef Bruce Riezenman, proprietor and also the owner of Park Avenue Catering. “Our specials are constantly evolving based on the season and what’s locally available.”

Artefact continues as the mainstay at Cornerstone, offering architectural salvage and locally produced furnishings for the home and garden as well as lighting, sculptures, books and other ornamental pieces. Allen says his experience at Cornerstone since the beginning keeps him in a state of constant evolution: “It’s completely changed how I do business and serves as my lab to experiment with new ideas.”

Chateau Sonoma, which operated in downtown Sonoma for years, moved to Cornerstone in November 2015 and offers unique, high-end French antique furnishings as well as linens, candles, jewelry, scarves and other unexpected treasures, such an oversized Italian lantern, perfect for a large entry space or room.

Nomad Chic offers an evolving collection of apparel, jewelry, furniture and home accessories from around the globe. Proprietor Linda Hamilton opened shop at Cornerstone a year ago. There’s a sign near one entrance that reads, “Hippies Use Sidedoor.” And while it was meant to be taken lightly, visitors always ask about it. “Every day at least three people want to buy it, so I ordered some for the store to sell,” Hamilton admits, pausing to laugh. She offers furniture and accessories that designers often come searching for because they’re one-of-a-kind items. But there’s also clothing and accessories, suitable for mild climates, and her clients are mostly designers, women and travelers who are looking for something different. Says Hamilton, “I offer one-of-a-kind accessories and mostly warm season items, because I don’t believe in winter clothes. But I always have kaftans and cover ups.”

Potter Green & Co. offers an eclectic mix of fountains, pottery, wind chimes and garden sculptures, firepits, outdoor furniture and more. Proprietor Nina Gerety, who opened shop at Cornerstone more than seven years ago says, “I had a store in Tiburon and just thought [this] was the place to be.”

Tesoro Flowers, a premier Sonoma Valley florist, is filled with blooms of all kinds, including orchids, topiary, containers, candles and antiques. Tesoro means “treasure” in Italian, and the store offers artful arrangements for hotels, wineries and retail stores as well as unique items for the home and garden. “Our look is opulent Wine Country—eclectic—and we love working with textures,” says proprietor Paul Stokey. The store provides floral arrangements for weddings and events onsite at Cornerstone as well as throughout Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties.

The Loop, which has had main store on the Sonoma Plaza for 15 years, opened a store at Cornerstone in December 2015. The shop offers clothing and accessories for men and women as well as local products such as facial oil, lip butter, hats and more. Its clothing is relaxed, sophisticated and made mostly with natural fibers.

Eurasian Interiors offers unique finds from Europe and Asia, mostly imported from Austria, France and China. Owners Leon Monderer and Eric Wang, who’ve operated a fine antique store in San Francisco since 1999, opened the Cornerstone store five years ago.

Poseidon Vineyard & Obsidian Ridge feature single-vineyard wines from Napa Carneros and the high Mayacamas Mountains. Poseidon Vineyard is noted for its Chardonnay, and Obsidian Ridge for its Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting room arrived at Cornerstone three years ago. Says Proprietor Arpad Molnar, “I drove by thousands of times and never pulled in. The first time I stopped, I realized it was well located, but also an inviting, casual and authentic place. Wine is an agricultural product that comes from the Earth. It should be enjoyed in a relaxing place, and Cornerstone provides that environment. We take our wines seriously, but not ourselves.”

Keating Wines is a small production winery that features exceptional varietal wines from premium vineyards in both Sonoma and Napa counties. Keating specializes in high-end wines including Cabernet Sauvignon from the 55-year-old Montecillo Vineyard in the Mayacamas mountain range and Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley. Proprietor Eric Keating opened shop in 2010. ”I loved the location and the setting, and it has improved ever since the arrival of Sunset,” says Keating. “The space is comfortable and welcoming, and the location is accessible to visitors from all over the North Bay.”

Meadowcroft Wines specializes in handcrafted, European-style wines produced from small, family-owned vineyards within Napa and Sonoma. Tom Meadowcroft, founder and winegrower describes himself as, “ever in the pursuit of creating wines infused with explosive strength of diverse character that strike a synergistic and soulful chord.” Meadowcroft Wines hosts several celebrations at Cornerstone, such as an annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch with traditional Irish food; and a Father’s Day pig roast. Also we are very actively involved with the Sunset Celebration weekend in the spring at Cornerstone,and the Wine & Wags fundraiser for local animal shelters. “Tom opened a tasting room at Cornerstone because the community of artisanal stores and offerings of food, wine and art celebrate Sonoma and wine country,” says Darby Tarantino, director of tasting room operations. “Our events have developed quite a following over the years and typically sell very quickly.”

At Prohibition Spirits Distillery, visitors can enjoy a complimentary sip of the company’s famed limoncello di Sonoma. Prohibition Spirits is the first distiller in Sonoma since Prohibition and the tasting room at Cornerstone opened in July. Other popular choices there are the orangecello di Sonoma as well as figcello di Sonoma, which was made with the help of Sondra Bernstein from Girl & the Fig restaurant, located in Sonoma Plaza. The distillery recently released eight new products and more are on the way. Proprietors Amy and Fred Groth are originally from Colorado. Says Amy, “My husband and I, along with our three kids, have been coming to Cornerstone since we moved to Sonoma eight years ago. It’s a great place to come for a picnic, wine and spirit tastings, your kids can explore the gardens and you can shop.” As for the future, the Groths intend to continue sharing their spirits and passion for distilling.

Authentically Sonoma County

Since its humble beginnings, Cornerstone Sonoma continues to evolve and draw visitors from around the globe. “All that’s beautiful and unique about Sonoma County is at Cornerstone,” says Kenwood Investments’ Allison Grandi.

“We’ll continue to grow and enhance all aspects of the property with a focus on benefiting the community, our customers and our tenants,” adds Anderson.

Sunset is settling in and making plans for the future while tending their gardens. “Having access to soil is really personal to me, not to mention the authenticity it adds to our stories,” says Silver, who started working with the magazine eight years ago as its test garden coordinator. Her role includes designing and building small gardens to publish in the magazine. “I love that we’re able to carry on that tradition of authenticity.” Silver intends to change plants and crops seasonally and in the months ahead the plan is to experiment with different (and stylish) types of bird protection; the results will be shared with its readers. Adds Smith, “We’re thinking about having a gardening school here to add to the whole gardening experience.”

The possibilities are endless these days as Cornerstone continues its metamorphosis— there’s even talk of adding an ice rink someday. As for its newest proprietor, Sunset is glad to have found a new home on Sonoma County soil. Says Silver, “I’m just so relieved we have a garden to keep planting and playing in.”

The Lighting of the Snowmen Holiday Festival

The Lighting of the Snowmen Holiday Festival at Cornerstone Sonoma is a tradition that began 12 years ago, when Artefact Proprietor Dave Allen was inspired to find a way to bring people to Cornerstone during the holidays. “Those early days were pretty grim, and the idea was born out of desperation,” he says. 

Allen approached then Cornerstone owner Chris Hougie with his idea. Hougie agreed, so Allen tracked down the last U.S. factory that made the classic plastic lighted lawn snowmen, ordered a tractor-trailer load and arranged them in tight formation, five abreast, in the field on the corner, facing the road. Says Allen, “I invited everyone on my mailing list, asking them to join us for the unveiling of ‘an important and controversial artistic installation.’” 

On the evening of the first event, several hundred unsuspecting guests arrived, and Allen led them onto the dark field for the official unveiling. “I hit the lights, revealing an army of 300 glowing snowmen, marching into the distance. Simultaneously, we cranked up the Burl Ives [Christmas] music,” recalls Allen. “Everyone was in awe. Their eyes lit up, and they wandered like children among the snowmen.”

Since then, the Lighting of the Snowmen has become an annual Sonoma Valley tradition. About 2,000 guests attend the event each year. This year, the lighting will take place at Cornerstone on December 3 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and the lights will remain on through December. For more information, check events at

Cornerstone Events

There’s always something happening at Cornerstone Sonoma. During autumn, there are a variety of events to choose from designed around the new Sunset outdoor test kitchen, such as “Camp Sunset,” where you can learn about fun recipes to make fireside; and during the holiday season, the Lighting of the Snowmen is a Cornerstone tradition, and the shops offer a relaxed shopping experience.

Sunset also offers events and demonstrations by local chefs and its own editors throughout the year. In May, the annual Sunset Celebration Weekend (a ticketed event) brings the pages of the magazine to life with practical tips for food, wine and gardening. (About 8,000 people attended the event last year.) 

In the summer, enjoy live entertainment on the weekends as well as grilled hot dogs (or sausages), truffle chips, and homemade lemonade. There’s also an ice cream cart by Sweet Scoops, the main store located on Sonoma Plaza, and you can indulge in its best-selling flavors¾salted caramel, butter brickle or cappuccino crunch. Or, you can indulge in a more exotic flavor such as lavender or cupcake. There’s also a vegan option available. Cornerstone Sonoma is open from 10 to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, go to


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