A model showcasing San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.

It’s tough not to fall in love with the southern stretches of Sonoma County, Calif.

Neighboring Napa County gets the brunt of attention, but its sister to the west is a haven for smaller, family-owned wineries and maintains a rustic appeal. Less than an hour from the northern spire of the Golden Gate Bridge, the dramatic scenery packs a punch as spicy as its Zinfandels.

On an average summer day, the fog that envelops the shores of San Francisco Bay feels impossibly far away as the golden hills of Sonoma are drenched in sunlight and warm temperatures. During the winter, rain keeps the hills coated in a lush patchwork of green. Sonoma’s coastline offers dramatic views of the Pacific and its rugged beaches are often lonely. Giant rock formations and sea stacks that rise from the rough surf hold vigilant watch over stretches of sand, a reminder to the area’s geologic upheaval and tectonic activity 200 million years ago.

In comparison to the county’s geologic history, the story of California of the late 17th Century — known then as Alta California, are but an Instagram snapshot in the historical record.

Many of the travelers funneling into Southern Sonoma on California State Route 121, winding through the Los Carneros Appellation, are entering one of the most famous winemaking regions in the country. Due to its close proximity to San Francisco, bands of fog still manage to tickle the mountaintops and rolling hills here, blanketing the vines overnight. This particular appellation, which boasts 22 wineries spread across 8,000 acres, is known for its cool-climate varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot, and sparkling wine.

The Spanish influences here are indelible. Los Carneros means “ram” and the first winery that greets travelers after passing by the Sonoma Raceway is Ram’s Gate. During the summer months, nearly 3,000 sheep can be seen grazing on the grass fields of the raceway and surrounding fields that help cut expenses in maintenance and maintain fire lanes.

Distracted by such astounding beauty, visitors can’t be faulted for not having a clue that one Carneros winery staged an improbable rescue effort that tells the complicated story of California’s missions through a series of intricately designed, historic scale models.

As Highway 121 straightens out, you come to Cline Family Winery. It’s been around these parts since 1982 when Fred and Nancy Cline put their stake in the winemaking business, founding a winery in Oakley, California, using centuries-old vines. In 1991, they relocated to the 1800s farmhouse visitors see today while sipping on many of their well known Rhône varietals.

The museum itself is truly, off-the-beaten path. While hordes of thirsty oenophiles sip wine and picnic on the expansive grounds, just beyond the cacophony of clinking glasses and merriment, you’ll discover a modest two-story structure that houses the California Mission Museum.

For better or worse, the missions represent an important time in the state’s history, a project of northward exploration funded by the Spanish in tandem with the Franciscan Order. The path of the missions became a highly-trafficked route linking a steady string of colonists, soldiers and missionaries spreading the seeds of agriculture and Christianity as the region transitioned from rugged frontier to burgeoning statehood and agricultural dominance.

The 21 missions that comprised the protective and religious backbone of early California were strategically stationed outposts. Each was separated by no more than about 30 miles. While weary commuters traveling between San Francisco and Silicon Valley complain about today’s traffic slog, a journey between each mission then, took a day or longer, winding through rugged countryside and Indian territory.

Today, in the Cline’s museum, you can wander the entire path of mission history in an afternoon.

If it weren’t for a chance phone call to Nancy Cline, the museum may never exist today. Set for auction, the block of 21 models were put up for auction in 1998. A $20,000 bid ensured Nancy ownership of the entire collection, which was set to be auctioned off piece by piece.

Initially, the Cline’s set up the models in the tasting facility and began to realize the importance of these pieces when wine club members excitingly told stories to staff about seeing the models on display when they were younger. Only then did the Cline’s realize the cultural and historical significance of this collection, and devoted effort to constructing a special building to house the models.

Interestingly, the site of the Cline winery is historically significant in the history of the missions. It was the first location of the final mission of El Camino Real, established to temper southern advances of Russian exploration from their outpost at Fort Ross. Mission San Francisco Solano was eventually re-located to present-day, downtown Sonoma where the last standing quadrangle of the complex is located on the northeastern corner of the town square.

The mission model collection was painstakingly assembled by German craftsmen, under the watchful eye of Italian artist, Leon Bayard de Volo. Each model was designed to scale and includes incredible detail like trees, plants and other vegetation. Architectural components are also accurately portrayed in building materials used, including wood, clay and glass.

Together, this is one of the most unique collections depicting a period of California history. Initially, they made their debut public appearance at the 1939 World’s Fair held on San Francisco’s Treasure Island at the California Pavilion. Following the exhibition, they were periodically displayed at the Cliff House, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Today, nearly every fourth grader in California learns about the missions, famously tasked with re-creating their own models. This particular chapter of their education simultaneously teaches them the importance of this historical period in state history, while allowing students to work with source material for a model of their creation. As a culmination of each child’s project is a visit to a nearby mission. Last year alone, nearly 4,000 Northern California students visited Cline’s property to take in the museum.

For those with a desire to dig up more off-the-beaten path history, the Cline’s have recently purchased a historic casino hotel in Tonopah, Nev., a rural, high-desert mining town outside Las Vegas. Today, visitors to the Mitzpah Hotel can stay in restored guest rooms while savoring cocktails and dinner in the restaurant and relish the return of gaming in its casino. Stay tuned, as Places Less Travelled features this location in the future.

Photo Tour of the California Mission Musuem

The model depicting the first California mission — San Diego de Alcala.

The view when you enter the the California Mission Museum. The tour works geographically — start on your left and you’ll work from the southernmost mission outpost to the north.
The model depicting San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.
Since the museum’s inception, numerous paintings and other historical artifacts have been donated to the California Mission Museum.
Stand and admire the nearly two-story stained glass panels from San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. Originally created in Spain, they were installed in Mission Dolores in 1776 and shattered during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
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