Wine fans, this should be on your bucket list.
A California wine tour. Start with the state’s top-notch Napa and Sonoma counties. They’re wonderlands of wine, with more than 600 wineries between them.
Stroll through vineyards. Watch grapes being picked (in season) and wine being made (when it’s time). Sample a few, sometimes free, although often for a fee for top reserve wines.
Taste wines you can’t buy back home because they’re experimental or made in quantities too small for commercial distribution. It’ll get you bragging rights among your tasting friends back home.
Dine at top-rated wine country restaurants, some in the region’s cities, some at its wineries. Hold your annual business meeting in wine country hotel conference centers (although I can’t promise it will make the wine tax-deductible).
Get married in an outdoor bower surrounded by vines, or indoors beside barrels of aging wines, choosing among many package deals.
Ride a hot-air balloon on your honeymoon.
There’s no end to the tours:
— Beringer Vineyards in Napa offers several, including a one-hour, $45 “Taste of Beringer” tour with a walk through a demonstration vineyard and a seated wine-and-food pairing with culinary treats prepared by Beringer executive chef Daryl Muromoto.
— Cline Cellars in Sonoma offers a free tasting of five Rhone-style wines, or a flight of five reserve wines for $15.
— If you’re an art fan, check out the serious exhibits right in the wineries at Hess Collection and Clos Pegase.
Here are some tips to make it more fun:
— Do your homework. At some wineries you can just show up. But you should check websites or email ahead to see if they welcome guests, what tours they have and what they charge.
— If you want to dine at a really top wine country restaurant, check its website literally months in advance. Some have intricate rules for taking reservations. Also check their prices. Prepare to wince.
— Appoint a designated driver. No kidding. If you taste five wines each at five different wineries in a day, you’ll be in no condition to drive back to your hotel.
— Even better, rent a limo. Gather some friends and be chauffeured to wineries. Six to eight wine fans can book a six-hour chauffeured limo tour of Napa or Sonoma wineries for $300 and up.
— Spit, don’t swallow when you’re tasting. People hate this, I know. But if you don’t, you’ll dull your palate in the first hour and be asleep in your car by lunchtime. If you’re shy about spitting into the buckets provided at the tastings, bring a little plastic cup, spit into it, then discretely dump it into the bucket. Make a lame joke about it being on your bucket list.
— Have a picnic lunch. Napa and Sonoma have lots of little gourmet shops where you can buy take-out dishes or sandwich makings. And many wineries have picnic tables for your use. Point of etiquette: If you use a winery’s table, buy a bottle of wine from that winery. It’s uncool to sit at Winery A sipping a bottle from Winery B.
— Finally, know your limits. Enough said.
Here are some wines you might come across in Napa and Sonoma.
— 2013 Franciscan Estate Chardonnay, “Cuvée Sauvage,” Napa Valley (100 percent chardonnay): pale yellow hue, aromas of toasted nuts and vanilla, flavors of ripe yellow apples and spice, long, smooth finish; $40.
— 2013 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, by Kendall-Jackson (94 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent malbec, 2 percent petit verdot, 1.7 percent cabernet franc, 0.3 percent merlot): deep, dark hue, aromas and flavors of black raspberries and licorice, big, ripe tannins; $38.
— 2013 Quivira Vineyards Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County (94 percent zinfandel, 5 percent petite sirah, 1 percent carignan): intensely fruity, with aromas and flavors of black plums, black raspberries and cloves, full body, long finish; $24.
— 2015 Aleatico Rosé, by Imagery Estate Winery, Sonoma Valley (100 percent aleatico): light, lively and dry, with aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries and licorice; $27.
— 2015 Rombauer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley (100 percent sauvignon blanc): light green hue, aromas and flavors of white grapefruit and green apples, crisp and lively, medium body; $24.
— 2013 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Bottled, Napa Valley (84 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 6 percent petit verdot, 2 percent cabernet franc): dark purple hue, aromas and flavors of black plums and bittersweet chocolate, firm tannins, long finish; $30.
— 2013 Benziger Family Winery Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast: crisp, light and lively, with flavors of red raspberries and spice; $29.
— 2013 Franciscan Estate Merlot, Napa Valley (97 percent merlot, 3 percent malbec): brilliant dark hue, aromas and flavors of black plums and mocha, hearty and lush, long finish; $22.
— 2014 Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley (94 percent sauvignon blanc, 6 percent semillon): aromas and flavors of citrus, apricots and minerals, full-bodied and rich, long, fruity finish; $20.