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I recently returned from a trip to wine country in northern California. No, I had not conscripted myself into a seniors' group bus tour. My daughter, her partner and my grandson live in Windsor -- a bedroom community in Sonoma County near Santa Rosa. I had been before, flying into Oakland or San Francisco, renting a car and then driving northward across the bay.

For this trip, however, I flew into Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, the small field serving the region. The airport is named for the long time Santa Rosa resident who drew his "Peanuts" cartoons there. If you are planning a trip to California wine country, I recommend this airport. I got there via a regional jet connection in Phoenix.

Approaching Santa Rosa, the aircraft flew over San Francisco, offering a beautiful view of the city by the bay, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Descending northward, we passed over Petaluma, the northern California dairy center. If driving on famous U.S. 101, the first locals to greet you, once you leave artsy Sausalito, are dairy cows. The Holsteins grazing on a hillside do indeed appear as West Coast "Carnation contented cows" from mid-century advertising.

Beyond the dairies and approaching Santa Rosa, the plane crossed mile after mile of vineyards. Arriving was somewhat like that in Northwest Arkansas, but instead of hay pastureland, we were surrounded by grape-land.

And the terminal experience was reminiscent of Drake Field in Fayetteville decades before our newer airport near Bentonville. Sonoma passengers alight directly from plane to tarmac and distant mountain vistas. Back in the day, Drake Field passengers were greeted by a Razorback statue and red hog emblems everywhere. Similarly, at Sonoma County's Schulz field, a local icon greets you: a Snoopy statue. He again welcomes you inside, but in classic aviator Red Baron-pursuit uniform. The tourist information booth by the rental car station is styled exactly as Lucy's psychiatrist five-cent help booth. It's all clever and amusing. Understated sophistication, as in a certain Benton County town I know.

In another visit here it was Windsor Day, celebrating the town's founding. Two prominent floats in the parade represented the 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs from Windsor High School. Clearly, agribusiness, especially viticulture, is key in this land as much as in any random county in the Ozarks known for cattle or chickens. My mind drifted back to nights when snooty restaurant sommeliers schooled clients and me while dining on the corporate tab: lofty tableside odes to oaky tones and hints of raspberry or peach. Oh now, really. Yes, winemaking is consumable art. But in the end, it's still farming with men and women getting dirt on their boots.

The comparisons and contrasts between Northern California and the Ozarks continued running through my head. The kids took Grandpa for a drive to the ocean along the Russian River, a locale seen often on wine bottle labels. The rustic weekend homes dotting the high riverbanks are similar to old getaways in 1920s Bella Vista and the communities strung along the channel to the Pacific are enclaves of espresso cafes, antique stores and art galleries. Like Eureka Springs, they seem comfort zones for aging hippies---places where boxy, old Volvos go to die.

The river expels its energy, spreading languidly into the Pacific. One is struck with the reality. California beaches have real rivers flowing into real bays, muddy and imperfect as any of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. Surrounded by crags, the nearby beach is swimmable but not Beach Blanket Bingo-perfect Malibu.

Back in Windsor, free-range hens cluck at Wise Acre Farm across the road from $800,000 homes. Goats graze behind the Holiday Inn Express. I recalled similar juxtapositions back home. In Santa Rosa, we passed stark swaths of rubble: neighborhoods destroyed by last year's raging fires. My daughter's home was spared but thousands were not. Except for charred tree stumps, this could have been the tornado-torn swath across midtown Joplin. All Americans have specific demons of nature to suffer. My visit ended wonderfully with my grandson's rollicking fifth birthday party.

Flying home, I wondered why thoughts of regional differences (or not) affected me on this particular trip. I have a theory: It's cable news' talking heads and politicians. We are incited to be divided factions for their votes and ratings, yet we have so much commonality to unite us. We simply need to turn off the TV and elect statesmen rather than politicians. Indeed. I'll raise a glass of Russian River Pinot to that notion.

Commentary on 03/08/2018

Print Headline: Taste of familiarity lingers during trip

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