By Serena Makofsky
Miles Raymond, the writer and wine aficionado in the 2004 movie "Sideways," has sage advice for beginning wine enthusiasts:
First thing, hold the glass up and examine the wine against the light. You're looking for color and clarity. Just, get a sense of it. OK? Uhh, thick? Thin? Watery? Syrupy? OK? Alright. Now, tip it. What you're doing here is checking for color density as it thins out towards the rim. Uhh, that's gonna tell you how old it is, among other things. It's usually more important with reds. OK? Now, stick your nose in it. Don't be shy, really get your nose in there.
Are you ready to stick your nose in it? Northern California wine country is waiting, and you won't be alone when you go. Every year, about 4.5 million people visit the Napa wine country alone, while its neighbor, Sonoma County, attracts only slightly less.
People come for a variety of reasons, such as famous gourmet cuisine, mud baths, rolling landscapes, proximity to San Francisco, natural wonders, boutique shopping, and art museums. But its the regions' wineries that inform daily life and culture.
You can do wine country so many ways, and never go wrong. Some people sign up for car or van tours, which means they can sample without worrying about a designated driver.
Others opt for bicycle tours, burning off calories as they consume them. Book a ticket on the Napa Valley Wine Train for a unique experience involving winery tours, tastings, pairings with gourmet cuisine, and the occasional celebrity dinner.
If you plan to stay at one of Sonoma's or Napa's many inns or bed and breakfasts, some of which have terraces overlooking vineyards, you can book tour packages there.
Napa Valley has the edge over Sonoma County in terms of its heritage of producing wine, having been the first of California's designated American Viticultural Areas.
This is the land of the "cab sav," or Cabernet Sauvignon, a full-bodied California red with notes of black currant, made from the Bordeaux grape. Napa's version was launched into the international spotlight in 1976, when the Judgment of Paris had judges do a blind-tasting and determine Napa's Stag's Leap Wine Cellar the winner over many French Bordeaux estates.
Among the other wines produced in the region's 400 wineries are Pinot noir, chardonnay, Riesling, zinfandel, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
A must-see tour of Napa's wineries can begin with any of the historic vineyards, such as Yountville's Domaine Chandon, with its French-style sparkling wines and ornately landscaped gardens, or Oakville's Robert Mondavi Winery which has sparked a local trend to go "green" and provides illuminating tours of its sustainable farming techniques.
The Rubicon Estate has earned notoriety for its Hollywood association--Francis Ford Coppola owned it for a couple decades.
If you want off the beaten path, the Hess Collection, on Mt. Veeder, features a three-story edifice dedicated both to wine and art by African, Asian, European, and American masters. Do not save the Hess Collection for after mealtime, as its winding access road is no fun to navigate on a full stomach.
The cabernets at Castle di Amarosa stand out for their intense flavors, but the main attraction is the architecture. A medieval style castle was built here from antique Austrian stones, and presides over the subterranean caves and cellars.
St. Helena's Beringer Vineyards has another architectural marvel, the Rhine House. The 1884 structure features ornate exterior stonework, gables, turrets, stained glass windows, and a wood-paneled interior recalling a Victorian German home.
Also in Napa, the Silverado Trail spots include the aforementioned Stag's Leap Winery and the rolling landscape of the V. Sattui Winery, where the deli provides the ingredients for a gourmet picnic lunch.
Get up close and personal at Oakville's Far Niente Winery, where small group tours showcase part of 40,000 square feet of caves and caverns.
In Rutherford, Frog's Leap serves up zinfandel, Cab Sav, chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and rosť. Unlike many other Napa wineries that have hefty fees and private clubs, Frog's Leap still offers free tastings to visitors on tour or, for a modest fee, a seated tasting.
If all this isn't giving you enough of a buzz, you have the diverse wineries of Sonoma County to complement your Napa wine country experience.
For gay travelers, prioritize the region around the Russian River Valley, where a festive spirit and a cooler climate, perfect for growing Pinot Noir grapes, prevails. The area hosts special events such as the Russian River Women's Weekend in May, the Sonoma County Gay Pride Festival in June, and LGBT Families on the River in August.
Guerneville, the Russian River's largest resort town, has Applewood Inn, a gay-friendly eco-resort under Redwood trees. Visitors stay a modest guest house or the modern Mediterranean villa, and enjoy gourmet dining and spa services.
Nearby, toward the coast, the Dry Creek Valley Winery is one of over 60 of the region's family-owned wineries. The climate of foggy mornings and cool afternoons produces a crisp, balanced Chardonnay.
For a singular taste, underscored with notes of melon, apricot, honeysuckle, vanilla, pear, and nutmeg, sample the 2008 Foggy Oaks Chardonnay.
The bustling center of Sonoma, with its Spanish Mediterranean architecture, is a hot spot of county wine culture.
At the Nicholson Ranch Winery, a host to some of the local GayDar group events, take in the hillside views, sample Merlot and Syrah, and pick up a bottle of the olive oil.
At Benziger Family Winery, notable for its biodynamic and organic farming practices, local Keri Mondragon swears by the 2009 Paradiso de Maria Sauvignon Blanc, with its hints of fig, citrus, and jasmine. Mondragon highlights her reason for visiting wineries. "You'll see names on bottles that don't conform to the standard varietals. This is because vintners create their own signature blends from their own vineyards and each sell unique offerings to their patrons."
In Sonoma and Napa wine countries, you gain access to elite elixirs not available to people touring the aisles of Trader Joe's or sitting at a stool at the wine bar.
As our celluloid oenophile Miles would say, "Cheers!"
© Copy Right Protected. All Rights Reserved. 12-26-2010. -Travel Writing.
Visit Hawai'i ...in our Hawai'i section. Aloha!, or...
Your dream vacation is only a few plans away! And so much like the Coconut, the ocean will take you from one dreamy spot to another. And you will find yourself in the sand.
...Cut in two
...and there you have it! The flavor bursts forth! For you to enjoy. Enjoy your travels.