Wine Country: Vintage Pleasures

By Michael Shapiro

PHOTO: Tom Schaad

It was the shock heard round the world. At the Judgment of Paris in 1976, the judges awarded their top scores to a Chardonnay from Napa Valley winery Chateau Montelena. Until then, almost all connoisseurs believed France made the best wines, but the 1976 tasting put California varietals on the map. The Montelena victory led to a boom in wine tasting and appreciation in the Golden State.

Today, there's nothing quite like sidling up to the tasting bar, inhaling the woody aromas, sampling some whites and reds, and then buying a couple of bottles to take home. When you pop the cork months or years later, you'll be able to savor the flavors of California and relive your visit to its wine country.

The 2008 film Bottle Shock chronicles the stunning victories for California wines at the Paris competition. Other movies, such as the 2004 comedy Sideways, celebrate popular California wines such as Pinot Noir.

Napa Valley

California's most visited wine region is the Napa Valley—neighboring Sonoma County, favored by those who prefer smaller wineries, is a close second.

In the Napa Valley, more than 300 wineries are stacked up one after the other on thoroughfares such as the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, where many of California's most renowned vintages are located. Some Napa wineries have tours during which you can learn how wine is made and get an insider's view of the winery. Some people believe the wineries want visitors to tour so they don't imbibe too much during a day of tasting, but for many winemakers it's a way to explain the intricacies of the product they so lovingly create.

For those who drive, it's best to have a designated driver. Another option is a wine country tour in a bus or limo. See californiawinetours.com or search online for "california wine tours."

Among Napa's most popular wineries for tasting are Robert Mondavi and Beringer, two of the oldest names in California wine. Napa's Sterling is a good winery if you have kids because they'll love the tram ride. Other top picks for tasting room atmosphere and views are Signorello Estate, Domaine Carneros, Kuleto Estate and Swanson Vineyards. Try Schramsberg for sparkling wines that can match any French Champagne. Another excellent choice for sparkling wine is Domaine Chandon. Have lunch at Etoile restaurant here and pair Chandon's delectable sparkling wines with California cuisine.

Sonoma County

In Sonoma County the vibe is more laid-back. The Valley of the Moon is framed by the Pacific coastline to the west and rugged Mayacamas mountains to the east. The climate here is slightly cooler during the summer growing season as it's closer to the coast and ideal for Chardonnays and Pinots.

With regions such as the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, northern Sonoma County offers intimate tasting experiences at small wineries such as Fritz Underground Winery and Seghesio Family Vineyards. Don't miss Healds-burg's historic town square with its wine shops (some offer tasting), cafés, stylish restaurants and delis where you can order sandwiches to go.

Just north of Healdsburg in Geyserville is the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which produces more than three dozen wines at fair prices. Lesser known perhaps but a favorite among locals is the Hop Kiln Winery, where the old kilns are still on site and the Pinots are glorious.

Farther south, Gloria Ferrer, where you can enjoy bubbly on a deck overlooking acres of vineyards, is an ideal lunch stop. Another beguiling winery is sustainably farmed Kunde, where you can explore the caves. The hub of southern Sonoma County is the town of Sonoma, with its pictures-que plaza that dates to the 19th century.

If time allows, drive up to the Anderson Valley. It's just over an hour northwest of Healdsburg but well worth the drive. The wineries here are small and homey—you may find the owner or winemaker at the tasting bar. At family-owned wineries such as Husch and Navarro Vineyards, there are no tours but you can get a wine education at the bar. Tasting is free at many vineyards here, a contrast to the fees charged by some Napa and Sonoma wineries. Tasting isn't free at Roederer ($6, only $3 refunded if you buy a bottle of bubbly), but their Brut NV is a sparkling value at about $20.

Central Coast, Santa Barbara & Beyond

Naturally, California's wine country stretches beyond Northern California. There are wineries in the Sierra foothills, Central Valley, San Luis Obispo area, the Inland Empire, and the Santa Barbara region. For an overview of Santa Barbara wines, try the downtown tasting tour; you can walk from Carr to Jaffrus, from Santa Barbara Winery to the Whitcraft tasting room. To see a Santa Barbara County wine map and for information on the wineries and tasting tour, see sbcountywines.com. And if you're a fan of Sideways and Davy Crockett, don't miss the Fess Parker Winery & Vine-yards, where scenes from the movie were filmed.

California's central coast, with wineries in Paso Robles, Monterey, Santa Maria and beyond, is gaining ground on Northern California as a destination for fine wine. Some of these wineries are seeking to improve their environmental practices. To learn more, take the Paso Robles Sustainability Tour, which visits Halter Ranch and Robert Hall Winery, among others.

Finally, don't overlook the Sierra Foot-hills. If you find yourself en route to Lake Tahoe, stop for a sip in historic Amador County, where the influx of Gold Rush miners led to a demand for drink in the mid-1800s.

As the 1976 tasting proved, you can't judge a wine by its reputation. The best way to understand wine is by direct experience, so there's no substitute for going to the source and tasting for yourself. And perhaps no better way to pass a sunny California afternoon.

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