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A vineyard in Sonoma
A vineyard in Sonoma
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California Wine Country 101

An excercise in gourmet, picture-perfect indulgence

By Laurel Delp

March 31st, 2008

A trip through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties is an American feast for the senses like no other, a journey where savoring the best wines, food, spa experiences, and outdoor adventures (picnic, anyone?) is commonplace. In 1824, Franciscan monks kicked off winemaking in the area by planting the first grapes in Sonoma. Now, founding fathers’ names like Krug, Niebaum, Schram, and Beringer live on in a time when women have become equally influential in the business. After being devastated by Prohibition, the wine industry began rebuilding in the 1960s as a new group of vintners set out to create world-class wines when wine was not regularly consumed in the U.S. That’s changed, of course, and these pioneers were vindicated in a famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976, when two Napa wines—Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon—triumphed over French entries.

Today, the region has also become known for its pinot noirs and zinfandels, along with the environments in which you can experience them: everything from imposing châteaux to daring modern architecture, complete with art collections, in-house restaurants, and striking gardens and grounds. Big-name vintners and small-production cult wineries are thriving; hotels and resorts that are the last word in luxury share space with charming B&Bs; and top-flight restaurants showcase fresh, seasonal ingredients. Organic wines are no longer considered quaint, since enriching the soil naturally can produce grapes that make some monumentally good wines. You can bike, hike, river kayak, even ride in hot air balloons—and detox in spas ranging from cheap and cheerful to super high-end.

Luxury prices tend to be the norm, but our guide will help you plan ahead, live like the locals do, and pick your splurges wisely. Spring is the ideal time to visit, when prices are lower than during the summer high season (and even lower midweek than on weekends), the crowds are manageable, the gardens burst with flowers, and the vineyards are blanketed in green leaves.

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