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Many people, even some San Franciscans, don't realize how close the wine country is to the City by the Bay. The town of Sonoma, where California's wine-making history began in the mid-19th century, is only about an hour's drive away, and the entire county is close enough for an easy day trip. St. Helena and the heart of Napa Valley are less than 1.5 hours from San Francisco by car, and if the traffic gods smile upon you, you may make it from one end of the valley to the other in about a half hour. Not that you should -- there's so much to see and do along the way. The wine country of Mendocino and Lake Counties lies farther to the north -- about a 2.5- to 3-hour drive from San Francisco. While you're visiting wineries in Sonoma and Mendocino, plan on taking time to explore the nearby coast, which is rugged, sparsely populated, and extraordinarily beautiful.
You'll need a car to visit to the wineries; another option is to look into an organized guided bus tour to squire you around (see "Tours" on page 7). Once you're in the wine country, it's easy to get around and almost impossible to get lost, except when searching for small wineries off the beaten track or for those that require an appointment and don't have a sign out front.
When planning a trip, remember that this region, especially Napa Valley, is one of the most popular destinations in California. The best time to visit is during the less crowded off-season (November through May), although it's exciting to see the grape crush (generally in August through October), when the normally serene landscape is animated with grapepickers moving along the vineyard rows, the streets are lined with trucks loaded with grapes, and the air is perfumed with the scent of fermenting juice. It almost worth enduring the throngs to feel a part of the wine-making experience.
During the peak season and on weekends, most hotels and bed-and-breakfasts require a minimum 2-night stay. Be sure to reserve as early as possible; lodging is limited and can be extremely hard to find on holidays and summer weekends. For help finding vacancies, try calling a referral service (for a list of agencies, see "Accommodations" on page 7).
Much of the pleasure of this type of trip lies in the planning. Start tasting wines at home and read up on those you particularly like. Taste and compare one type of wine from different producers within a region and from different countries -- Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake -- to appreciate the differences in style. Don't worry if your wine vocabulary is lacking -- people who work with wine every day can be just as perplexed when trying to describe it. After all, it is a purely sensory experience and should be approached with a spirit of curiosity and pleasure. So just sit back, sip, and enjoy.Access California Wine Country, Fifth Edition. Copyright � by Richard Saul Wurman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.