When a Pet Project Bites the Hand that Feeds it.

Table for 9,000.
Table for 9,000.

Like most creative types, I’ve got a veritable zoo of pet projects cross-breeding in the recesses of my mind. Some are born in captivity, successfully raised and released to the wild.

Others I’ve had to “put down,” for fear of infecting the remaining ones with their inanity. Consider my “Sonoma Terroir in a Baggie” notion, which went feral in my imagination sometime back, and starved the other pet projects of my attention for a few misguided weeks. Essentially a bag of dirt, the novelty item was to be marketed as a means of owning a little bit o’ Wine Country on the cheap.

For $5 you could have a Sonoma Valley appellation starter-kit for your very own micro-vineyard. Of course, I didn’t own any Sonoma terroir to bag, and realized I’d have a helluva time explaining myself to the business end of a vineyard manager’s shotgun should I be caught, shovel-in-hand, in the dead of night borrowing a little real estate. To wit, I let “Sonoma Terroir in a Baggie,” die on the vine.

As Sonoma’s self-appointed brand equity manager, for the past couple years I’ve made a pet project out of cataloging how the term “Sonoma” is used by marketers outside our city and county limits. I was curious to see what would result when I googled “Sonoma restaurant.”

This is what happened: Cresting the search result page was “Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar.” (Pause for effect.)
In Washington, D.C. How could this be? What order of search engine optimization wizardry had occurred? How could a restaurant in our nation’s capital have anything remotely to do with our town?

I decided to call Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and demand answers. What I got, however, was an earful of on-hold music that must have been laden with mellowing subliminal messages. By the time I was properly redirected and finally connected to co-proprietor Jared Rager, my bluster had transformed into an airy bliss.

Instead of haranguing Rager about using our town’s name for his restaurant, I found myself asking for a universal discount for all Sonomans.

“I’ve never thought of that,” the affable Rager replied. “We get a lot of traffic from all over California – congressmen, senators, staffers. We get a lot of the constituents from all over California.”

Rager’s tone was disarming in the way that hostage negotiators in the movies sooth the hotheads on the other side of the line long enough to trace the call. I was sure Rager was jotting down the caller ID so that he could report me to the four top federal agents I was convinced were enjoying one of Rager’s charcuterie plates in the “Sonoma Room” (yeah, I think they’ve got one).

After a moment, Rager added warily, “It could be a big crowd.”

Apparently, too big. In fact, by the sound of it, it seemed that Northern Californians represent a fair amount of Rager’s business. Since Sonoma defines the NorCal zeitgeist, it’s no wonder Rager named his joint after us.

I succumbed to a sense of bon homme and suddenly heard myself suggesting that we, meaning Sonoma, should treat Rager to a night on the town when he next visits. This is why my accountant annually chides me for my “entertainment expenses,” which he says could “Fund a small rebellion in a banana republic” (one my accountant’s pet projects, I presume). But if one is going to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, where better than Sonoma?

“My partner and I spent a lot of time visiting the area. We travel out there a lot. It’s beautiful and it’s our business to know what’s happening in the Wine Country,” Rager continued. “You guys have it right out there.”

I couldn’t help but agree. It was only after I hung up that I realized how expertly I had been served by the restaurateur. If pet projects were on the menu, this one was “crow.”

And I devoured it.