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Wine Country, CA

Wine Tasting 101First, take a good look at the wine. Hold the glass (by the stem, please) up to the light, or place a white napkin behind it. Note the color of the wine, a clue to its age. White wines, ranging from pale yellow (straw) to amber, darken with age. Red wines, which appear light purple to deep ruby, lighten with age. Also notice the clarity of the wine. Is it clear or cloudy? Next look at the brightness—brilliant or opaque?

Second, swirl the wine. Not only is this quite fun, but it oxygenates the wine, releasing its aromas. Observe its legs, little drops running down inside the glass after it's swirled.

Now hold the glass under your nose and sniff sharply. (Don't worry, everyone's doing it.) Remark about its nose—the scent determined by smelling alone. A good nose reveals a strong bouquet—the fragrance acquired as a result of the wine's aging process. Usually, the more prominent the bouquet, the older the wine. But here's the best part: determining the wine's aroma. Scents recall the grape used to make the wine, and there are numerous aromas associated with each varietal. They range from grapefruit to cream to butterscotch for a Chardonnay, mint to grass to apricot for a Sauvignon Blanc, and blackberry to cloves to olives for a Zinfandel.

Take a big drink of the wine. Let it flow over your tongue and chew it like pasta, allowing it to reach all the taste buds. Identify its taste—a Chenin Blanc may suggest red apple, while a Cabernet Sauvignon might hint of cedar. Determine the balance (how the flavors combine): A good wine evenly blends its sugar, tannins (astringents found in red wines) and fruit. Observe the body, the way the liquid feels on your tongue. This may range from thin and light to full and heavy. Finally, swallow and note the length or finish, the aftertaste: How long does it last, and how does the taste differ from the initial flavor?

Sound confusing? It just takes time, as it took time for this region to become famous for its wine. Missionary Padre José Altimira brought vine cuttings to the Sonoma Valley in 1823 to make wine for Catholic mass, but it was Hungarian nobleman “Count” Agoston Haraszthy who created the California wine industry as we know it. In 1857 he planted European varieties and established Buena Vista, the state's oldest winery. You'll find the original, ivy-clad stone buildings tucked away near the town of Sonoma, where this winery shares a quiet, rustic road alongside homes, farms and vineyards.

Take a relaxed bike ride along Sonoma's streets and you may catch a glimpse of one of the resident peacocks, often seen parading along Lovall Valley Road. Pedal to Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery for a sample. Then tour Sonoma State Historic Park, a group of historic sites near Sonoma Plaza. Together they tell the story of early “Alta” California and the establishment of a brief, 26-day California Republic.

Drive along SR 12, Sonoma Valley's main drag, for more tastings at Benziger Family Winery or Kunde Family Winery. The vintners at these two establishments are especially friendly and easygoing. West of SR 12, the Russian River Wine Road traverses the Russian River Valley, where vineyards and Gravenstein apple orchards cover hillsides, redwoods form magnificent groves and a lazy river flows.

Take a break from wine and head to Petaluma, where there are enough brightly colored Victorians to make your jaw drop; to Santa Rosa for gorgeous gardens; or to Healdsburg for scads of antique shops and art galleries. Or pack your fishing pole and stake out a spot at giant Clear Lake.

And by all means do not pass up the chance to explore the spectacular Pacific coast, which offers so many wonderful things to see. Mendocino, an artsy, laid-back hamlet with adorable New England-style architecture, rests on bluffs overlooking the steel blue ocean. Rainbow-colored wildflowers dot the grassy headlands in spring, and eruptive white water crashes against jagged ocean rocks. Day-trippers have the option of hiking, kayaking or horseback riding, and a coastal drive along winding SR 1 is sure to elicit gasps and awestruck grins on the faces of photographers, artists and nature buffs.

To end the day, stop by a deli, bakery or roadside produce stand and fill a picnic basket with home-grown and homemade delicacies. Find a quiet spot to relax on the coast and watch the sunset. Pull the cork on a bottle of the area's claim to fame, make a toast and drink it all up.

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Wine Country, CA

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