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Two Women on Wine: Explore Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino

But be sure to plan ahead

Posted: August 6, 2010 6:00 a.m.
Updated: August 6, 2010 6:00 a.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier

One of our favorite summertime activities is driving up the coast taking in the lush countryside of central and northern California with its plethora of wineries and tasting rooms. We love to visit old favorites and venture out to discover new finds that we can introduce into our store. As wine store owners, we do plenty of research along the way, as well as have a wonderful time enjoying all that a wine country trip has to offer.

We just returned from a glorious trip to the northern and central coast wine countries. If you have a trip planned or are even thinking about it sometime down the road, we'd like to offer a few suggestions to enhance your experience.

One of the most important things you'll want to do is plan your destination. Sure, you could simply pack up the car and start driving north, but navigating the scenic lanes and back roads of California's wine country could prove to be challenging. Plus, you'd miss the experience that advance planning brings.

If you don't happen to have a knowledgeable guide as your travel companion, then we recommend a good book to accompany you on your trip. We have found "The California Directory of Fine Wineries: Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino," now in its fourth edition, to be an excellent resource. There's also a directory for the central coast, which we will cover in our next column (

The books are written by Marty Olmstead, an award-winning author who has covered the California wine country for numerous national and regional publications, and photographed by Robert Holmes, who is regarded as one of the world's finest travel photographers.

The Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino edition is an easy-to-follow, comprehensive visitor's guide to Northern California's wine country, complete with maps, exquisite photographs and must-know details profiling 69 unforgettable destination wineries.

Most of the wineries profiled offer amenities ranging from lush gardens to art exhibitions, but their main attraction is the tasting room. The ritual of tasting fine wines can often be intimidating to a novice, but with a few tips even a first-timer can enjoy the experience. After all, the point of tasting is to enhance your knowledge by learning the differences among varieties of wines, styles of winemaking, and appellations, according to the author.

Many wineries and tasting rooms do not require reservations, but keep in mind that some do. Most wineries charge between $10 and $50 per person for tastings. Advance planning guarantees you get the times, tours and special wineries you want to visit. Mix it up to enjoy cave and cellar tours, library wine tastings, barrel tastings and food pairing demonstrations.

Sonoma boasts the greatest geographical diversity in California wine country from the Pacific Coast to the inland valleys, the countryside is a web of rural roads, making it an ideal destination for casual exploration. Thirty-two Sonoma destinations are featured in the directory, including Arrowood Vineyards & Winery, Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Lancaster Estate and Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery.

Napa Valley is arguably the most famous winemaking region in the United States and is separated from the Sonoma Valley by the rugged Mayacamas Range. Hundreds of premium wineries amidst thousands of acres of vineyards claim home to this narrow valley less than 30 miles long. Thirty-one Napa Valley wineries including Silver Oak Cellars, ZD Wines, the Frank Family Vineyards and Heitz Wine Cellars are just some of the wineries profiled in the book.

Silver Oak Cellars (Napa Valley) is famous for its elegant Cabernet Sauvignon. With its fully developed flavors and seamless textures, Silver Oaks Cellars has almost a cult-like following. Fans line up hours in advance - sometimes even camping overnight - for the newest release of each Silver Oak wine. What started as just a handful of people waiting for the winery doors to open quickly grew into large crowds as word spread. A fun fact is that the winery started serving espresso drinks and doughnuts in the early morning and passing hot hors d'oeuvres throughout the afternoon to the anxious crowd.

Arrowood Vineyards & Winery (Sonoma Valley) is about three miles north of the town of Sonoma along Highway 12. There stands a pair of gray, New England farmhouse-style buildings with wide inviting porches. What was intended to become a bed-and-breakfast country inn, instead became home to the Arrowood Vineyards & Winery when Richard Arrowood, a longtime winemaker at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, married Alis Demers and the couple began to establish the Arrowood brand. They set about to design the winery to blend harmoniously with the rural landscape surrounding their 15-acre property.

Arrowood's specialty is that all wines are made from Sonoma County grapes. Their wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, a late harvest Riesling, Syrah, Viognier, and both red and white Rhone blends. A spacious Hospitality House with breathtaking views opened next door to the winery. Visitors are welcome to walk out and relax on the wraparound veranda, wineglasses in hand.

We've only skimmed the surface with two wineries we're somewhat partial to enjoying. There's 67 more in the Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino edition alone. We are pleased to announce that Tom Silberkleit, award-winning editor and publisher for Wine House Press in Sonoma, California, will travel to Vino 100 on Friday, Aug. 27 as part of a national book signing tour and wine tasting event.

Acclaimed as the essential winery guide for tourists, "The California Directory of Fine Wineries" has been featured in USA Today, People, and on "Good Morning America." We know you'll enjoy listening to Tom's behind-the-scenes stories and learning about the hidden secrets of California wine country over a glass of wine.


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