North Bay Perspective

Share |
E-Mail ArticleE-Mail Article Printer-FriendlyPrinter-Friendly

Perspective 2015: Sonoma County

Author: Karen Hart
December, 2014 Issue

NorthBay biz shines a spotlight on the economy and culture of Sonoma County.

Do you speak Sonoma? That’s the slogan for Sonoma County Tourism, founded in 2005 with the goal of increasing the number of overnight stays as well as the average daily rate for lodging. The point is that this part of the country is so unique that it has its own language. Whether you live here or visit often, chances are you’re a “Sonomad” (someone who embraces the wanderlust of the area’s Wine Country charm). Sonomads go “coasting,” carry “forkscrews” and have a tendency to be “epicurious” when it comes to trying new restaurants. Fortunately, you don’t need a translation guide to “speak Sonoma,” and the county’s relaxed, all-inclusive ambiance makes it the kind of place we all want to call home—and that brings visitors back again and again.

Located 45 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma County offers three distinct regions: rivers and redwoods; valleys and vineyards; and miles of Pacific coastline and sea villages. The county is known for its mild Mediterranean climate, where the air is blue, fresh and fragrant with scents of lavender and eucalyptus. On any given day, you can drive to the coast for sun and sand, pick up fresh local foods at a farmers market, tour art galleries or meander through its vineyards. That’s the magic of Sonoma County, which is home to more than 495,000 people (based on a 2013 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau) and draws millions of visitors from all over the world.

Sonoma County was originally home to several Native American tribes. The Pomo, Coast Miwok and Wappo tribes were the earliest human settlers, between 8000 and 5000 BC. Sonoma translates to “valley of the moon” or “many moons,” according to the Coast Miwok and the Pomo tribes that lived in the region. Their legends detail this as a land where the moon nestled, hence the names “Sonoma Valley” and “Valley of the Moon.”

Mariana Vallejo, a 19th century politician, first recorded this translation in a report to the California Legislature. Jack London popularized it in his 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon.

Sonoma County is the largest and northernmost of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. It has a total land area of 1,500 miles and 55 miles of stunning Pacific coastline. There are three rivers winding through the county, including the Petaluma River, Gualala River and Russian River, which bring a great natural resource. The mountain ranges include the Sonoma Mountains and Mayacamas. Sonoma County is bordered by Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties and the Pacific Ocean. Santa Rosa is the largest city and county seat.

Aside from its natural beauty and moderate climate, Sonoma County is a thriving business hub with a small-town feel. Businesses come for the innovation and stay for the quality of life. The North Bay Innovation Hub, headquartered at Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, is dedicated to building a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“It’s a great place to live, but it’s also a great place to grow your business,” says Carolyn Stark, executive director of Sonoma County BEST (Building Economic Success Together), a public-private partnership devoted to inspiring business and job growth in Sonoma County.

“Sonoma County is the future,” agrees Bill Silver, Ph.D., dean of the school of business and professor of business administration at Sonoma State University (SSU). “We’re set up for an exciting, healthy, vibrant future because of what we’re investing in now.”

Agriculture and wine

Sonoma County is an agricultural nirvana and world-renowned for its wine. Winegrowers farm 6 percent of the county’s landmass (or about 60,000 acres of vineyards), which generates nearly $14 billion annually. In fact, Sonoma County is the largest wine-producing region in California, surpassing Napa County in both tonnage and acres (see “Sonoma Viticulture 101”).

What’s more, the county is generally ranked 17th in the state for gross value of agricultural products, according to the county’s Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. “We’re closing in on $1 billion. Last year, we had $848 million in total gross value,” he says.

What makes Sonoma County an ideal place for farmers? “We have a wide diversity of microclimates and soils. You can grow virtually anything in Sonoma County, from salad greens to citrus. That’s a broad spectrum of crops,” says Linegar. “The microclimates vary, based on the amount of marine influence they receive.”

The largest winegrape crops ever produced in the history of Sonoma County were harvested in the last two years. In 2012, 267,000 tons were harvested for a value of more than $582 million; and, in 2013, 270,000 tons were harvested for a value of $605 million. It’s unusual to see the vines produce enormous crops two years in a row, says Linegar. “This year’s crop is significantly smaller than the previous two years. Early indications point to a crop that’s average or slightly below average. But the fruit looks clean, and no one is complaining. The industry knows this is good to keep the prices of grapes stable and profitable for growers,” he continues. “And it’s probably good for the vines to have a rest.”

The county’s wine crop was halfway picked by mid-September, and completed before the end of October. “It’s one of the earliest harvests on record,” says Honore Comfort, current executive director of Sonoma County Vintners (she will step down in January).

The county also continues to maintain a diverse agricultural system. Dairy is still the second largest agricultural industry. Last year, the value of milk in Sonoma County was nearly $89 million. Currently, there are 70 licensed dairies. Sonoma County ranchers also are currently raising 25,000 head of sheep and growing 2,155 acres of apples. In addition, the county also has a successful nursery industry, growing grapevines, ornamental plants, bedding plants and cutting flowers. In 2013, the value of nursery products was about $30 million.

In 2008, the county’s board of supervisors adopted General Plan 2020 (GP2020), which increased protection for riparian corridors. “We’re in the process of codifying general plan provisions that the board of supervisors committed to in 2008. There will be an ordinance designed to protect these corridors along blueline streams throughout the county,” says Linegar. (A riparian corridor is the area that encompasses a river or stream and the land adjacent to it. These corridors provide numerous benefits to the community, such as improving water quality and enhancing wildlife and aquatic habitats.)

In January 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) partnered with Sonoma County Vintners (SCV) and announced the goal to make Sonoma County the first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region in the United States by 2019. Farming sustainably means growers consider the impact of their agricultural practices on the environment, people and the economic viability of their business. “This movement communicates to wine consumers our commitment to high quality wine and to our community,” says Comfort. “When they buy wine from Sonoma County, they’re supporting sustainable agriculture, and that provides an additional value to wine drinkers.”

The ongoing drought made headlines and challenged both farmers and ranchers. According to Linegar, 2014 rainfall totals were the lowest recorded in more than 120 years in Sonoma County. “The drought is having an effect on groundwater resources as well as surface waters. Many of our growers rely on groundwater for frost protection,” he says.

According to Linegar, many winegrowers, given the drought situation, managed their vines in a way that produced a smaller crop. “By using different pruning techniques, they can control the size of the crop,” he says. A smaller crop also seems to impact the concentration of flavor in winegrapes.

The lack of rainfall has mostly impacted livestock producers. “In addition to a lack of water, the cost of hay and feed is extremely high right now,” says Linegar. “The way ranchers respond is to reduce the size of their herds to what they can afford to feed. That results in a higher cost for beef and other meat products as well as fruits and vegetables statewide.”

Despite the inevitable challenges of farming, the future of agriculture in the county continues to be promising.

“Even in the face of winegrapes having increased the cost of agricultural land, we’ve been able to maintain diversity in our agricultural system,” says Linegar. “We have a significant local food and dairy industry. Dairy evolves with the times and has largely converted to organic production. We can produce organic milk, butter and cheese. That’s where Sonoma County’s nitch is going to be.”

As for this year’s winter rain season, it’s no secret farmers and ranchers (as well as the entire community) hope it pours this year. “I don’t want to hear the word ‘drought’ for a while,” says Linegar. “We have our fingers crossed for significant rainfall that will replenish our aquifiers [groundwater] and provide moisture throughout our soil.”

Hospitality and tourism

A diverse ecosystem and abundant natural beauty remains the top reason people travel to Sonoma County, says Ken Fischang, president/CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. More than 8 million tourists visit each year and, as a result, tourism and hospitality is a $1.55 billion-plus industry (see “Tourism by the Numbers”)

Sonoma County calls to those seeking outdoor adventures and vino lovers of all sorts. Last year, Sonoma County was named the number one Wine Destination in the United States and the number two Wine Destination in the World (second to Tuscany, Italy) by TripAdvisor Travelers Choice. And, in case you haven’t heard, Harper’s Bazaar magazine ranked Petaluma as the number one fall travel destination in September (Paris was number 10).

Holy cow! Is this possible? (Or vache sacree!, if you’re Parisian. Est-ce que c'est possible?)

Yes, indeed.

“It’s always gratifying when Sonoma County is honored as a top travel destination, and it’s amazing considering the other destinations on the list,” says Fischang. “Petaluma is a great town and more people will be aware of it because of this honor.”

Cultural arts are emerging as a reason for visitors to extend their stay. “The performing arts in Sonoma County have become a real draw for visitors with three spectacular large venues,” he says, referencing the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, and Glen Ellen’s Transcendence Theatre Company. Art galleries are also a draw for visitors. There are 24 galleries in Healdsburg, and the SOFA (South A Street Arts) district in Santa Rosa features 38 artist studios, the highest concentration of artists in Sonoma County.

As for activities, the options are endless. You can tour Wine Country off scenic Highway 12, visiting such places as Ledson Winery and Vineyards, Kunde Family Estate or Imagery Winery. Or, check out Marimar Estate in Sebastopol or the new White Doe Winery in Geyserville. Spas are a big draw, too, and Sonoma County has more than 40 to choose from, ranging from the famed Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa to more off-the-beaten-path places such as Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone.

If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, tourists can visit Safari West, a 400-acre private wildlife preserve, zip line among the redwoods with Sonoma Canopy Tours or go paragliding at Goat Rock beach.

Peanuts gang fans can visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Snoopy’s Home Ice, which continue to be major attractions, especially for international visitors. There are also more than 20 challenging golf courses to choose from and more than 700 restaurants and bistros, many featuring authentic Wine Country cuisine. There’s Wishbone in Petaluma, which offers a farmer’s supper. Or, Glen Ellen Star, a cozy bistro in Glen Ellen. Looking for something different? Try Yeti in Jack London Village (also in Glen Ellen and soon to open a second location in Santa Rosa), which features Napalese-Indian food, or brunch at Zazu Kitchen & Farm in Sebastopol. If you’d like to try comfort food California style, check out Backyard in Forestville for chicken potpie.

For the adventurous at heart, there’s the Vineman Triathalon, which offers participants a tour of Sonoma County vineyards and wineries. And Sonoma County is becoming one of the top cycling destinations in the world, thanks to the Amgen Tour of California and Levi Leipheimer’s annual GranFondo, a 103-mile cycling event, which brought 7,000 cyclists this year to the county in to raise money for local nonprofits.

Looking forward, tourism will get a boost, since the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport runway safety enhancement project was recently completed. The project resulted in a longer runway, meaning regional jet aircraft can now land here. Sonoma County Tourism is on the airport’s airline attraction committee, which is looking to add service to and from Denver, Colo.; Guadalajara, Mexico; Las Vegas, Nev.; Maui, Hawaii; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lodging will also be expanded. Construction is underway on a new, five-story, 163-room Oxford Suites hotel in Rohnert Park; Farmhouse Inn in Forestville is adding eight new luxury rooms; Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa is adding 40 new rooms; and there’s a proposal in place for a new Holiday Inn, featuring 100 rooms, in Windsor.

And finally, Sonoma County will be a “host community” (and an exclusive wine sponsor) of Super Bowl 50 in 2016 for events that takes place before, during and after the game. Super Bowl 50 will be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. This is a huge opportunity for Sonoma County, says Fischang. Sonoma County Tourism will partner with Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers to promote Wine Country and the entire region.

The food industry

The food industry, including specialty food and food manufacturing, is growing at a healthy rate and another real strength in the county. “The food industry is growing at a good pace. It’s an industry that truly leverages the natural bounty of our region,” says Stark.

In 2010, the total economic impact of North Bay food producers (not including wine, beer or restaurants) was $4.07 billion, according to a report by Robert Eyler, Ph.D., professor of economics and director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University. More than 350 food manufacturers reside within the North Bay, and more than half call Sonoma County home, including Clover Stornetta, Amy’s Kitchen, La Tortilla Factory and Traditional Medicinals, to name a few.

Two newer companies to food manufacturing include Three Twins Ice Cream and Alexander Valley Gourmet, LLC. Three Twins, founded by Neal Gottlieb in 2005, began with the goal of making organic ice cream accessible and affordable to everyone. Since the first scoop shop opened in 2005, 1,000 grocers and restaurants in 35 states have picked up the brand.

Alexander Valley Gourmet, LLC, founded in 2004, produces all-natural pickles and sauerkraut under the brand name Sonoma Brinery. The company is dedicated to using natural ingredients (preferably organic) and encouraging sustainable agricultural products. It’s the largest fermented vegetable food manufacturer in Northern California, producing more than 1 million pounds of fermented foods annually.


One little-known fact about Sonoma County is that it’s a hub for those with technological savvy and home to two world-renowned companies¾Keysight Technologies and Medtronic, which are both among the county’s top employers (see “Top 10 Employers”).

Keysight Technologies, formerly Agilent Technologies, is the world leader in electronic measurement. While Agilent is still headquartered in Santa Clara, it split into two companies in November last year (see “KEYS to the Future,” Nov. 2014). Today, Santa Rosa is world headquarters to Keysight Technologies, which has 9,500 employees worldwide and customers in more than 100 countries. The new name “Keysight” is derived from two English words: “key,” meaning indispensable or essential and a means of access; and “insight,” meaning the power of seeing, having vision and perception. The company’s new logo shows a stylized waveform¾the shape and form of a common electrical symbol.

Keysight Technologies will continue to introduce new, innovative products that Agilent has been known for, says Jeff Weber, Sonoma County public affairs and communications manager at Keysight. “We’re still in the same markets and have the same customers. Now we’re focused 100 percent on the electronic measurement business,” he explains. Revenues totaled $2.9 billion for its 2013 fiscal year. Currently, there are approximately 1,200 employees working at the facility in Santa Rosa, and it’s in the process of adding 70 new positions here as part of the transition to becoming the company’s global headquarters.

“It’s been a major project to separate a company as large as Agilent into two nearly equal parts, but our teams did a terrific job putting plans in place and executing them, enabling us to hit the ground running as an independent company,” says Weber.

The company continues to be community minded. Employees are encouraged to take one hour of paid time off each week to volunteer at nonprofit organizations or for company-sponsored community projects in Sonoma County, such as the United Way of the Wine Country’s annual Day of Caring program benefiting local charities.

Keysight is also committed to supporting local education, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. The company is a sponsor of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Mike Hauser Algebra Academy, hosting 60 students over two weeks every year at its Santa Rosa facility. The company also offers high school and college students opportunities to meet with engineers and learn about their careers and educational experience on tours of Keysight, and provides scholarships to Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College engineering students along with Keysight mentors for scholarship recipients.

Medtronic’s world headquarters is in Minneapolis, Minn., but it’s had an established presence in Santa Rosa since 1999, when it acquired Arterial Vascular Engineering. In June, Medtronic announced plans to acquire Covidien, which will give the company a Dublin, Ireland address.

Medtronic is the fourth-largest employer in Sonoma County, with about 1,000 employees. Worldwide, Medtronic’s revenues totaled $17 billion last year; $2.6 billion came from products developed in Santa Rosa. Every three seconds, a Medtronic device is used to improve or save a life, according to Joe McGrath, director of public relations and corporate communications for the cardiac and vascular group in Santa Rosa. Some of the medical devices developed at the Santa Rosa location include stents and angioplasty balloons that are used to open blocked or narrowed arteries. The company also produces stent grafts for the treatment of aortic aneurysms, a ballooning of the body’s main artery.

Medtronic’s Santa Rosa businesses are planning to launch several new products in 2015, including the Resolute Onyx drug-eluting stent, used to treat coronary artery disease, in Europe; and the IN.PACT Admiral drug-coated balloon, used to treat peripheral artery disease, in the United States.

Medtronic also supports its community. During 2013, employees in Santa Rosa logged nearly 2,000 hours of volunteer time on the company’s Mission in Motion website, according to McGrath. Activities included participation in Schools of Hope, AmeriCore student mentoring, Boy and Girl Scouts and more. In addition, in 2013, Medtronic and its Santa Rosa employees contributed more than $420,000 to more than 100 charities.

Medtronic continues to support education and help students explore careers in the biomedical field. The company is a sponsor of the Mike Hauser Algebra Academy and offers a summer internship program to college students.

Another technical employer in the area is JDS Uniphase (JDSU) Corporation, a leading provider of optical products and test and measurement solutions in the communications industry. Other innovative companies include Trivascular (biomedical devices), Labcon (medical devices), Calix (communications equipment) and Cyan (networking software).

Health care

Health care continues to be an industry in transformation, and the focus these days is helping people stay healthy. Sonoma County hospitals are doing their part to help people take a proactive approach to health care while also providing acute care when needed.

For the past 10 years, Kaiser Permanente has been helping its members improve total health (body, mind and spirit) through its “Thrive” campaign, which focuses on building physician-patient relationships that enhance prevention and wellness. “We want our patients and members to enjoy life to the fullest, and being healthy is key to quality of life,” says Judy Coffey, RN, senior vice president and area manager, Kaiser Permanente Marin-Sonoma.

During office visits, after treating current medical concerns, physicians regularly initiate discussions regarding lifestyle choices and help support changes that can improve overall health. Members also receive regular preventive screening reminders for mammograms, colon cancer screening, flu shots and more. As a result, Kaiser Permanente’s mammography screening rate is third in the nation.

In addition, more than 65 health education classes are offered on a full range of topics, including women’s health and a popular Women’s Night Out series, stress reduction classes and a Food as Medicine nutrition class. Most classes are free and many are open to the community.

Last spring, Kaiser Permanente in the Northern California Region launched a two-year wellness/prevention program called 50,000 Quitters campaign. “This campaign to help our members quit smoking demonstrates how Kaiser Permanente can leverage electronic medical records to prompt screening and treatment and ensure patients are connected with evidence-based counseling and medications to help them quit,” says Coffey.

“Without a doubt, focusing on prevention is saving and improving lives,” she continues. “Compared with only 50 percent nationally, 87 percent of Kaiser Permanente members with hypertension have the disease under control. Plus, our members have a 30 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 10 percent lower chance of experiencing stroke compared to the population at large.”

St. Joseph Health operates two hospitals in Sonoma County: Petaluma Valley Hospital and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Additionally, the organization’s care extends beyond those walls to 62 other facilities that help more than 300,000 people in the county every year.

Memorial, originally named in honor of local fallen soldiers of World War II, is celebrating 65 years of service since opening its doors on New Year’s Day in 1950. “We have deep roots in the community. It’s our mission to be of great service and to honor those people who served in the war,” says Todd Salnas, Sonoma County president of St. Joseph Health. “There’s pride in the organization and that long heritage.”

Petaluma Valley Hospital is an 80-bed facility and serves as a safety net for south Sonoma County, housing the area’s only emergency department and intensive care unit. Petaluma Valley Hospital has 62,070 patient visits per year.

Memorial is the county’s largest hospital, with 278 beds, and is also the region’s designated Level II Trauma Center, equipped to care for the most critically injured and ill patients. In August, patient care was expanded in the emergency department to a 26-bed facility with private rooms. “Memorial’s ER is the gateway to life-saving services for the most critically ill and injured patients on California’s North Coast,” says Salnas. As the regional Level II trauma center for a five-county area, Memorial provided care to 1,865 trauma patients during the fiscal year that ended June 30 (out of a total of 37,838 ER visits).

In addition, Memorial’s Heart and Vascular Institute is among the region’s leading providers of care to patients suffering from the most deadly form of heart attack known as STEMI (an acronym meaning ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction). What’s more, the goal is to keep former cardiac patients healthy and out of the hospital to avoid readmissions. Recognized by Becker’s Hospital Review, Memorial is among the top three hospitals in the United States for minimizing readmissions of heart attack patients

Memorial is also committed to obesity prevention through its Healthy for Life program and is currently working with 772 elementary students at schools across the county.The program is designed to instill healthier habits in students by teaching them about nutrition and physical activity and how it relates to good health.

What’s ahead for St. Joseph Health? “Our future is to continue to recruit the best of the best local clinical talent to provide complex care here locally,” says Salnas. “Our differentiator is that complex care.”

The new Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital on Mark West Springs Road, designed to promote healing and well being, opened its doors in October. The hospital construction project began as a result of California’s hospital seismic safety law (SB 1953), which requires hospitals to meet new earthquake standards. And to support the environment and human health, the hospital was designed using green building practices.

As for patient care, Sutter Health continues to place a strong emphasis on prevention, according to Lisa Amador, strategy and business development executive. The goal is to keep people healthy and prevent disease before it happens.

The hospital offers a special women’s health series, a fun, educational program for the community, with healthy snacks and wine, led by a panel of physicians offering their expertise on health issues such as breast health, pre- and postnatal care, menopause, bone health and more. In addition, the hospital is piloting integrative medical services, such as therapeutic massage, expressive arts, healing harp and guided imagery in patients’ care plans. These services are widely acclaimed by health care providers as a way to achieve overall well-being and potentially lower health care costs.

If acute care is needed, however, the new hospital was specifically designed to enhance patient and family centered care. The facility features 100 percent fresh outside air (proven to reduce infections in patients) and 116 private patient spaces, some with mountain or vineyard views, and each with a sofa bed for family members who may want to spend the night. Patients also enjoy room service dining, and fresh, local foods.

In addition, the hospital includes a hybrid operating room (OR), which cost $5 million and is the first one built in the area. This hybrid OR features a sophisticated imaging system for catheter-based procedures but also meets sterility standards and will have the equipment of a traditional OR. A hybrid OR allows for minimally invasive surgery and lets patients undergo both surgical and interventional procedures at the same time. Hybrid ORs are typically used for cardiovascular procedures such as grafting of the aorta and nonsurgical replacement of valves.

As for the future, the health care team at the new hospital continues to provide care Sutter-style. “We’ve built a state-of-the-art hospital and now the Sutter Santa Rosa Regional team will breathe life into the building with the continuation of the highest level of compassionate care in our community,” says Amador.

Higher education

There are several colleges and universities in Sonoma County: Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and Empire College, as well as the University of San Francisco’s Santa Rosa Branch Campus.

Sonoma State University (SSU) has the largest student body ever this year, with 9,300 students. Located in Rohnert Park, SSU offers 46 bachelors degree programs and 16 masters degree programs. Some of its top majors include business, biology, pre-nursing, psychology, kinesiology, criminal justice, communications, English and computer science. SSU is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

SSU’s Wine Business Institute (WBI), founded in 1996, is the first academic program in the nation to offer degrees focused exclusively on the business aspects of the wine industry. Earlier this year, Wine Spectator magazine donated $3 million to SSU through the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. The gift will support construction of WBI’s new home, which will be named the Wine Spectator Learning Center. Programs such as the executive MBA in wine business and online certificate in wine business management engage students and industry professionals on topics such as accounting and finance, wine sales and marketing. Last year, more than 600 people from around the country studied at WBI, and professionals from a dozen countries have participated in its online program.

This year, the vacated student union building was rededicated as International Hall, positioning itself to attract more international students, according to Susan Kashack, chief communications officer at SSU. The International Hall offers support services such as the study abroad program, the SSU American Language Institute and other related international services. Having international students at the university benefits their American students, says Kashack. “Fifty-five percent of our students study abroad,” says Kashack. “That’s the largest percent of students who study abroad within the CSU system.”

In 2013, nearly 45,000 people took classes at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), including credit and noncredit courses. SRJC offers 111 majors and 149 certificate programs. Some of the most popular programs for students earning two-year degrees include social and behavioral sciences, business administration, administration of justice and psychology. Some of the more popular certificate programs include the police academy, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMT) and teacher preparation. Health certificate programs and the automotive and culinary arts are also popular.

“SRJC receives financial support from a variety of sources to meet different goals,” says Ellen Maremont Silver, director of communication and marketing. In 2014, the largest single grant was $2.65 million through the U.S. Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HIS) Program, one of only 24 such awards in the country. Project Meta4 will support increasing access, retention and completion rates for Hispanic, first generation and low-income students. Recent grants for the Career and Technical Education Department totaled $3.4 million, received from state and federal agencies as well as the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Each year, SRJC students receive about $30.5 million in financial aid and scholarships. The SRJC is especially committed to helping students with greater-than-average need. “Some may be homeless, but all students in need can receive scholarships and federal financial aid, as long as other eligibility requirements are met [such as GPA and enrollment status],” says Maremont Silver.

SRJC was honored as one of the Great Colleges to Work for the second year in a row in 2014, based on a recent nationwide survey of college employees by The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was the only California college to earn this distinction, and one of only 12 community colleges nationwide to be named on the Honor Roll. Recently, its student newspaper, The Oak Leaf, won the General Excellence award for the seventh time in the past eight years at the Journalism Association of Community College’s State Convention.

SRJC also provides workforce training for local businesses, which can contract with the school to focus on whatever their needs are, such as business communications, Excel training or supervisory management skills, according to Jerald Miller, dean of career, technical education and workforce training. SRJC has worked with companies such as Medtronic, Keysight Technologies and Sonoma Promotional Solutions.

In 2014, Gateway to College, at SRJC’s Petaluma campus, continued in its second year of helping youth who’ve dropped out of high school or are behind in credits toward high school graduation to get back on track. Currently, about 80 students are participating in the program.

Empire College in Santa Rosa was founded in 1961 by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Trione, and offers career training in business or law. Currently, 450 students are enrolled. The School of Business features a variety of career training programs and prepares graduates for specialized careers in accounting, business, hospitality, medical, paralegal and technology.

The Empire School of Law offers juris doctor programs, which prepare graduates for legal careers. Currently, alumni account for about 25 percent of the Sonoma County Bar and include five members of the judiciary in Sonoma County (four Empire graduates are judiciary members in other counties). The law school faculty members are practicing attorneys or judges, including the Sonoma County district attorney and public defender.

Last year, the law school received accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education approval to offer a masters of legal studies program with the option of dual enrollment for the juris doctor, a first in California. In addition, Empire received national recognition for community service. “Empire’s community service commitment starts with our founder and incorporates all business and law programs,” says Sherie Hurd, executive vice president. “Because of that and the high level of student participation, last year, President Obama recognized Empire College among the top 19 colleges and universities in the nation for community service.”

Lifestyle and real estate

The Wine Country lifestyle continues to draw people to Sonoma County, and the real estate market is shifting. “The story for real estate in Sonoma County continues to be higher prices and decreased number of total sales,” says Karen Moyers, a real estate agent with Bradley Real Estate in Santa Rosa. “Just as we saw dramatic increases in home prices in 2012 and 2013, the same trend continues in 2014 with significant increases in both average and median sales prices in Sonoma County.”

“The 2014 real estate market in Sonoma County has been brisk with sales prices increasing 13 percent over the same period one year ago,” adds Mark Stornetta, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, Sonoma. According to Stornetta, 4,029 units have sold through September 2014 with an average price of $567,570 per unit. This compares to 4,330 units at an average sales price of $507,760 per unit one year ago. “This 7 percent decline in units in one year reflects the low inventory throughout the county with multiple bids in the price segment under $800,000.”

Why is this happening? “Home buyers are starting to trade up, and the [North] Bay area and Marin County buyers are migrating to Sonoma County, since housing costs are 52 percent less than the Marin County average of $1.19 million, as of September 30, 2014. This differential is even greater when comparing to San Francisco.”

Prices for lots and land are also increasing. Over the past year, land sales have grown with increased interest from developers, winegrowers and “lifestyle buyers,” according to Stornetta.

“Year-to-date, land sales of $108 million are 15 percent ahead of last year’s total of $94 million. Developers are beginning to show greater interest in undeveloped parcels and making plans for new construction,” he says. “Land with producing vineyards is selling rapidly with sales being the most brisk in the Russian River AVA where a sale of $130,000 per acre was recorded in June 2014. Undeveloped parcels are more slow to move unless they offer something very special, like phenomenal views or an already-installed infrastructure.”

Looking ahead, says Moyers, “Given the dramatic increase in real estate prices over the past two years, I’d expect the overall number of transactions to increase in 2015. At the same time, I’d expect real estate prices to flatten out, so that the average and median sales prices will remain about the same in 2015 as in 2014.”

Real estate activity will also be a function of interest rates, according to Stornetta. “Current market activity continues to be strong and is typically the lowest between December and February. Overall, a slowing market would be considered healthy and bring balance to supply, demand and inventories.”

As for rental properties, prices are rapidly increasing. “The prices of investment properties are soaring as rents are rising quickly,” says Moyers. “With the prices that investors are paying, they’re betting that rents are going to continue to increase steadily over the next several years.”

“With rental rates increasing 10 to 15 percent annually single rooms are often being rented to lessen the financial burden for the renter,” adds Stornetta.

What’s happening

Sonoma County offers plenty of things to do with friends and family. There are numerous shopping venues, such as downtown areas in any city or malls, such as Montgomery Village, Coddingtown Mall, Santa Rosa Plaza and Petaluma Premium Village Outlets. And residents can spend time outdoors hiking and biking at places like Armstrong Redwoods, Spring Lake Regional Park, Annadel State Park and the Bodega seashore.

Sonoma County also offers a wide range of festivals, events and farmers markets year-round to celebrate the county’s rich agricultural heritage (see “Fabulous Festivals”).

Performing arts venues include the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, the Green Music Center at SSU, Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa and Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. For gamblers, there’s Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park and River Rock Casino, located in Alexander Valley in Geyserville.

The artistically minded also have plenty of options. The Sonoma International Film Festival takes place each spring in Sonoma Valley. In October each year, Art Trails gives you the opportunity to visit the professional studios of Sonoma County artists, including painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers and more. Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club, offers a meeting place for local writers to convene each month at the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa.

The future of Sonoma County

Though Sonoma County is known worldwide for its vineyards and wine, it still has that country charm and small-town feel that appeals to newcomers and businesses looking to grow.

Stark’s advice to locals: spread the word. “We may be one of the last great places where you can work, have a good life and raise a family. When you leave work, you can be on your bike in Annadel [State Park] in 20 minutes; and if you have a business meeting or conference in San Francisco, it’s an easy day trip.

“We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state of California. That tells you something about Sonoma County,” Stark continues. “But we need to work toward a diverse regional economy that creates opportunities to elevate the standards of living of every citizen and build a healthy community as a result.”

As for the beauty and unique terrain of Sonoma County, it continues to be an appealing factor for companies looking to attract talent from outside the area. “The quality of life is a factor,” agrees Weber. “This area has some advantages from a lifestyle standpoint¾proximity to the coast, mountains and Wine Country. There are many amenities that set it apart, and these are tangible advantages for the North Bay when people make career decisions.”

“We are the place of the future,” says Dr. Silver. “We’re up and coming, and that’s tremendously exciting.”

 Tourism By the Numbers

Hospitality and tourism is a leading industry in Sonoma County, and the peak tourist season runs from May to November. According to Ken Fischang, president/CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the goal was to increase revenues 6 percent this year, but currently revenues for 2013 have increased 14 percent.

Sonoma County offers 11,000 rooms in five different types of lodging (limited- and full-service hotels, inns, bed and breakfasts and vacation home rentals). Typically, visitors spend $389 per day, less than half of which is spent on lodging. This year, total room revenue is up 13.9 percent. Here’s how the numbers stacked up from 2012:

• Visitor spending was $1.55 billion;

• Total taxes collected added up to $97 million; and

• Tourism employment generated 19,000 jobs.

Sonoma County Ambassadors

Sonoma County Tourism now offers a Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) program to educate locals about all that’s great and good in the county, so they can spread the word. Recently appointed ambassadors range from frontline employees and volunteers at local attractions, tasting rooms, hotels restaurants as well as law enforcement officials, government officials and real estate agents.

To earn a CTA designation, participants attend a four-hour class, followed by a one-hour exam and can retain the designation year-to-year by accumulating points when they visit local attractions and volunteer at events. Since the class began in late 2012, nearly 1,300 individuals have earned a CTA designation. For more information, contact Sandra Shuster at

Sonoma Viticulture 101

Sonoma County got a major boost from branding this year with “conjunctive labeling,” which means every bottle of wine that uses at least 75 percent Sonoma County grapes must read “Sonoma County” on the label and include the name of the wine region from where the grapes came. “Wine drinkers want to know where the wine comes from, and Sonoma County is the sum of all its parts,” says Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners.

There are 16 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs or wine regions) in Sonoma County, with Moon Mountain approved last year. AVAs are wine regions with unique soils and climates that allow certain grape varieties to grow particularly well. Sonoma County AVAs include: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Carneros-Sonoma, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Fort Ross-Seaview, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Knights Valley, Moon Mountain, Northern Sonoma, Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, Rockpile, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and Sonoma Valley.

Chardonnay remains the most abundant varietal in Sonoma County with more than 16,000 vineyard acres planted. Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley is regarded as world-class, prized for its lush flavors. The Russian River Valley, Carneros and Sonoma Coast wine regions are known for having some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world. Sonoma County’s warmer regions (Alexander Valley and Knights Valley) are known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chalk Hill wine region, named for its volcanic soils of chalky white ash, is considered exceptional for producing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And finally, the Carneros region, defined by its climate is known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wines.


Fund the Future Lot

Leaders in the wine industry are committed to the community. This year, more than $4 million was raised for local charities at the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction held at Chateau St. Jean. That’s more than double than what was raised in 2013, says Comfort. Sharing their passion for the area, some of the top bidders came from Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and Oklahoma. The Fund the Future Lot, which supports child literacy, raised more than $1.7 million. “We want to make sure every student in Sonoma County learns to read,” says Comfort. “We are tied to our community and the most important thing we can do is invest and support it from the ground up.”

Famous ‘Sonomads’

Over the years, a number of famous locals have helped put Sonoma County on the map, drawing attention to the area, its agricultural bounty and natural beauty.

In 1875, Luther Burbank, who became a world-renowned horticulturalist, wrote this sentiment about the area in a letter to his mother and sister in Lunenburg, Mass: “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.”

“The air is wine,” Jack London once wrote, inspired by the colors and natural beauty of the county in autumn. He bought property in Glen Ellen in 1905 where he eventually lived and was inspired to write a book titled, The Valley of the Moon.

The late cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, was originally from Minnesota, but he eventually moved west to Sonoma County. He lived in Sebastopol for a while and later moved to Santa Rosa where he lived and worked until his death. Today, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Snoopy’s Home Ice are major tourist attractions.

Top 10 Employers

• Kaiser Permanente

• St. Joseph Health System

• Keysight Technologies

• Medtronic CardioVascular

• Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa

• Safeway, Inc.

• Amy’s Kitchen

• River Rock Casino

• Walmart Stores, Inc.

• Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates

Source: County of Sonoma, 2010

Fabulous Festivals

Sonoma County offers numerous festivals year-round. There’s Petaluma’s Butter & Egg Days, Sebastopol’s Gravenstein Apple Blossom Parade and Festival (followed by the Gravenstein Apple Fair later in the year), the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival and its Seafood, Art & Wine Festival, and the Sonoma County Fair and Harvest Fair.

For music lovers, there’s Healdsburg’s Tuesday Nights in the Plaza, Windsor’s Summer Concerts on the Green, Sonoma’s Tuesday Night Farmer’s Market. There’s also Petaluma’s Rivertown Revival (a steampunk-themed festival) and the Lagunitas Beer Circus (a fund-raiser for the Petaluma Music Festival, supporting local schools). B.R. Cohn Winery hosts a Fall Music Festival each year to raise money for charity.

For a more complete list, visit



In this Issue

Moving Home

It has been almost two years since the devastating firestorms hit the North Bay in 2017, burning down 5,143 homes and leaving nothing but ash and debris in its wake. While to many the incident leave...

Moving Home

It has been almost two years since the devastating firestorms hit the North Bay in 2017, burning down 5,143 homes and leaving nothing but ash and debris in its wake. While to many the incident leave...

The Barlow After the Flood

When an atmospheric river began dumping rain on Sonoma County in late February, no one at The Barlow was too concerned. The City of Sebastopol received frequent updates on potential flooding from So...

See all...