A recent KZST radio commercial proclaimed Sonoma County as "the best place on planet Earth."
Very true, especially if you're a hiker, a wine enthusiast or a farmer.
But if you're a single hiker, winemaker or farmer looking for love? Different story.
Dating—and finding a life partner—is a tricky and highly popular subject. The amount of ink and virtual space dedicated to the nuances and pitfalls of 21st-century romance is overwhelming. The options are seemingly endless.
And yet here we are, watching films like Begin Again and TV shows like Girls or Togetherness, which focus on love-seeking adventures in the Big City—or, rather, one of two major ones. Heartbroken musings in New York City and frantic flirtations in Los Angeles always prove to be photogenic, but for some reason nobody portrays the love chase in a semi-rural area where almost half the population is married.
A quick look at Sonoma County 2013 statistics, courtesy of Locallabs.com and the U.S. Census Bureau, paints an unremarkable picture. The percentage of married family-type households is 47.29 percent, 1 percent under the national average. The percent of never-married individuals, 25.25 percent, is almost identical to the nation at large.
It gets interesting when you compare counties: Sonoma to San Francisco. Sonoma's single, never-married men make up 36 percent of the dude population; in San Francisco's, it's 51 percent. Twenty-eight percent of Sonoma women have never been married; in San Francisco's, the number's 42 percent.
Craig Tallman, 29, an air-quality specialist from Cloverdale, doesn't need stats to know things are tough up here. Tallman grew up in the area, moved to the East Coast and came back in 2009, to an unsettling reality. "I tried to date traditionally—be more sociable, volunteer, go out, but that kind of fell through," he says. "I think country life has fantastic virtues to it, but living in rural towns and areas, you become isolated—there are not enough cultural and social networks to rely on. I've lived here most of my life, but none of my friends ever set me up on a date."
When he signed up to OkCupid and started dating locals, Tallman found "artists, students, wine-industry people and young professionals." Some are career driven, he says, but "not everyone necessarily has their shit together. Some didn't spend too much time thinking what they want, in life, in a relationship or both. Perhaps people in Sonoma are looking for a certain pace of life."
Other factors working against Tallman and his fellow singles is the high median age of men in the county—40 in years 2009–12, 36 last year, with a large retirement community—and Santa Rosa being the sole "big city."
Things aren't too peachy, either, for older guys. Fred Terrell, a 61-year-old veterinarian from Santa Rosa, recently got divorced and found "almost absolutely nothing" in terms of singles activity in the county.
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LOOKING FOR LOVE Craig Tallman, top, and Courtney Ratto both praise Sonoma County living, but say dating can be tough.
"The opportunities one assumes are present are absent," Terrell says. "I tried to go to dances, I went to singles groups. I don't think anybody said a word to me. People weren't very welcoming."
Terrell turned to Meetup.com and started Santa Rosa Fifty Plus Singles Meetup, aimed at his age group.
Despite the impressive membership—990 have signed on, according to Terrell—"only eight to 10 can be trusted to show up. It's really hard to start things," he says. "But there is no question in my mind this group answers a huge need—it's harder to meet people in this age group, and in Sonoma, people are even farther apart. If you're willing to drive to San Francisco, there are plenty of opportunities, but I wouldn't expect anyone to drive up here to meet me, and I won't do it either."
Courtney Ratto, 38, an associate sales coordinator for Sonic, lives in Sebastopol and is willing to go to the big city for a date, "but I wouldn't move there. My support network here is too broad."
Ratto poses another issue: What happens if you've lived in Sonoma County most of your life, like she has? Eventually, she says, "it becomes too small. You end up seeing the same people you know, or someone turns out to be a friend's cousin, that sort of thing. It's not an easy market, especially since it's such a family-oriented and close-knit community."
On the other hand, she says, "in the city, since there are so many options and everyone's so busy, it's less genuine. It brings out the 'player' in people."
Ratto utilizes her network of friends and prefers to meet singles at "winetastings, farmers markets, charity events and bars." A typical date will find some interaction with nature. "There are so many free things to do," she says. "Beaches and hikes, everything from Sugarloaf to the Russian River."
So hey, there's hope. If you find a date, Sonoma County outshines San Francisco with vast spaces and opportunities to connect outside the awkward constraints of dinner-and-a-movie.
According to Tallman, Sonoma County's "dating affordability" can't be beat. "It's a great place to do a date. Sonoma County has some of the best dates [that] are low-budget and fun. There are tons of hiking options, beaches, natural beauty and eye candy."
Fred Terrell's Meetup group lists numerous hikes—and lots of happy hours too. Given the right turn of events, those can lead to moonlit strolls and picnics. The "best place on planet Earth" can be sweet indeed, if you have someone to share it with.