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The Girl & The Fig

Sondra Bernstein (the ‘girl’ of the Girl & the Fig) talks about her Sonoma, California restaurants as a “mixed media collage incorporating and engaging all five senses at once.” We have to know, where does such a wonderful world view come from? “I was lucky in that my family traveled a lot, so I grew up very curious and open. I was always on a journey of discovery, and my business reflects that.”  

As a kid, Bernstein’s family rituals were centered around food. Sunday kicked off with bagels and ended with Chinese. She inherited her family’s travel bug, which led her to gastronomic greatness in Europe, where even the most rustic meals were a revelation. “I’ve just never lost that bug. I love tasting new foods, visiting the open air markets and just people watching. I could spend all day in the Boqueria in Barcelona, smelling, tasting, watching.”

Sonoma was a later discovery. Sondra had been living in LA and on a whim decided to drive up to wine country with her boyfriend. While he explored the local Irish pubs, she soaked up the wineries and markets. “I was just like “how can I not be living here”? Food, wine, nature, beauty!” Three months later, she packed up and quickly landed a job at Viansa, a winery and marketplace with a heavy Italian influence. There, she absorbed everything she could about marketing, branding, food and wine, about gourmet food products and catering. After four years, she was ready to strike out on her own. “I thought, if I am going to work this hard, I want to work for myself.”

She took her limited funds, poured them into a small space in Glen Ellen, and the Girl and the Fig – named simply for her complete adoration of figs – was born. It was 1997, when the food and wine culture of Sonoma was dominated by a heavy Italian influence. Knowing  that the climate of the Rhone region of France was somewhat similar to Sonoma, and knowing that a few local wineries had begun to branch out into Rhone varietals, she embraced a concept that married the two. “Eighty percent of our customers were tourists, here for the wine. We felt like were were adding this element of discovery. Chardonnay was king, and we were opening it up a little bit. We knew could always add more familiar wines if we needed to. We never did.”

Fig vinegar came around a little later, along with a host of other “fig foods,” as Sondra calls them, inspired by her deep love of the uniquely sweet, plump and delicate little fruit. Soon she opened a little shop called “Figaments” devoted 100% to all things figgy. Vinegar production began, it was  popular from day one"Our whole idea was just that people if they loved their meal they could take home a piece of it, a piece of this place. Making money obviously wasn’t our primary goal.”

Now she is proud to be both wholesaler and retailer of the fig vinegar and many other products. When not tasting wines, meeting with local winemakers, building a menu, or catering an event, Sondra’s probably busy self-publishing her latest cookbook, Plats du Jour. “I don’t sleep a whole lot. If you dream big and you really mean it, well, be careful what you wish for. This is a much bigger business than I ever thought I would own. But, I happen to love what I’m doing. I like making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s for 2 hours, or for 10 years.”

Bernstein isn’t sure what's in her future, though she knows she’d like to slow down a bit. “I’m kind of living in the moment. There’s part of me that wants to travel more, but I love my home. It’s been so much fun. Our roots here are good, we’re just really lucky.”

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