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Wine Country, CA

It's All About the WineNapa Valley's main drag, SR 29—as well as its parallel counterpart, the Silverado Trail—is a north-south valley bisector with stunning mountain views to the east and west. The rural route leads from the town of Napa north through St. Helena's picturesque Main Street to the hot springs and mud bath mecca of Calistoga. Farmers in pickup trucks along with locals in Land Rovers pack the lanes, making way for bicyclists. Small wooden signs facing the road denote grapes grown here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or the precious, California-grown Zinfandel.

Large signs proclaim grape owners, names no doubt you've seen adorning labels on wine bottles in your local grocery store—Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home and hundreds of others sharing the soil in this world-famous viticultural region.

Peppering the valley floor are magnificent winery estates: orange-hued, postmodern Clos Pegase; Sterling Vineyards' white, Greek island-style stucco building; Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola's giant, gray stone château; the gabled Victorian Rhine House (complete with Art Nouveau-style stained-glass windows) at Beringer Winery; and the simple, California mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery.

Choose a winery—perhaps St. Supéry, Inglenook or Beaulieu—and follow the driveway to a majestic mansion. You'll pass workers tending expansive rows of vines. Among the fun things to do with friends is to take a tour to learn about the delicate art of winemaking, from the plucking of sweet, plump grapes to the long-awaited popping of the cork.

You may be surprised to find how scientific the process is; long gone are the days when ladies tied up their skirts, removed their shoes and stomped on juicy grapes until their toes turned purple. Winemaking is a complicated, subjective blend of technology, nature and experience. Biologists, chemists and winemakers each have a hand in the steps from grape to glass.

After you've walked through a vineyard, felt the cold steel of a giant, shiny fermentation tank, smelled the scent of grapes fermenting, watched bottles clattering along an assembly line and glimpsed the winery's high-tech presses, filters and computers, you might be convinced that paying $75 for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon is reasonable. But how does it taste?

First-time tasters might be intimidated by the overwhelming and confusing terminology used to evaluate wines. Don't fret! When sampling, just remember four little words: Look. Swirl. Smell. Taste.

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Wine Country, CA

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Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn & Krug Event Center

550 2nd St W. Sonoma, CA 95476

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Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country

170 Railroad St. Santa Rosa, CA 95401

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Embassy Suites by Hilton Napa Valley

1075 California Blvd. Napa, CA 94559

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Sheraton Sonoma County-Petaluma

745 Baywood Dr. Petaluma, CA 94954

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