As you drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge you might see a flag bearing a single red star and a grizzly bear. This was the flag of the Bear Flag Revolt, an independence movement that lasted for 26 days in 1846 as Californians seceded from Mexico before realising that they had been annexed by the United States.
Three years later saw the greatest migration in history when more than 200,000 souls came to north California in search of their fortune in the great gold rush.
What they didn't realise was that the real gold was to be found above ground in the produce that can be grown in California's Mediterranean climate and fertile soils. Today, agriculture is by far the biggest dollar earner in America's most populous state.
Just 65km further north is Sonoma County, home to the state capital, Sacramento, and, more importantly, to more than 350 wineries and vineyards. In an area one-tenth the size of New Zealand are four distinct appellations that vary in soil type and microclimate. They all benefit from the wet winters from November to April, followed by the hot, dry summers - ideal growing conditions for all manner of fruit and vegetables.
Life is a little slower here and Sonomans are proud of the old-time Americana heritage and laid-back lifestyle.
They even claim to have their own language - "Do you speak Sonoman?" is used in tourism marketing - but most conversations are about good food, the weather and wine, and all Sonomans have a favourite. They are also passionate about food, the environment and sustainability. Rooftop solar panels are common, organic homegrown produce stalls line the roadsides. The area has made many claims to being the healing centre of the West Coast. San Franciscans used to bathe in the thermal spas and watch the geysers here until the great earthquake of 1906 changed the course of history.
The geysers may not spout these days but Geyserville is as good as any place from which to launch your discovery of Sonoma. Rest in a bed-and-breakfast or cottage, drink a coffee at Mud Espresso and go in search of El Dorado.
San Francisco Checklist
Getting there" Air New Zealand flies non-stop to San Francisco six times a week from Auckland with connections available from all of Air New Zealand's domestic ports.
Visit airnewzealand.co.nz, call 0800 737 000 or visit your nearest Air New Zealand Holidays Store.
For more information visit california.co.nz or call 0800 403 849.