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The Best of California Wine Country

sonoma valley

How does a green and gold valley roughly 17 miles long and eight miles wide absorb 21/2 million visitors a year?By luring them to the main route, Highway 12, then leading them off it. Set atop ridges and buried in leafy canyons are wineries turning out great Zinfandels (Ravenswood and Kunde) and Cabernets (Arrowood Vineyards). Narrow roads lead to outstanding olive oil and lamb, apples and cheese (goat and dry jack), all notable products of a county still defined by a relaxed rural air. Gather local bounty as you cruise, and choose a place to plant your picnic blanket: a tranquil hillside with a view of Jack London's Beauty Ranch; a fragrant spot amid the lavender gardens of Matanzas Creek Winery. Even the most winning small towns-- Sonoma in the south, Healdsburg in the north-- have perfect green plazas. Sonoma County inns tend to be as peaceful as parks; the locals, sophisticated yet practical. The only slick polish you'll find here is on the pickup trucks. This valley is happy to leave the fancy jeeps to that other valley, its friendly rival due east.

where to stay in the sonoma valley

At the El Dorado Hotel (405 First St. W., Sonoma; 707/996-3030, fax 707/996-3148; doubles from $90, including breakfast), the five rooms-- including two with enormous terraces-- that overlook Sonoma's plaza book first since they offer front-row seats for events like the Fourth of July parade and the Vintage Festival at harvest time. All 26 rooms, however, have French doors leading to balconies and, considering the modest rates, are tastefully if simply outfitted with surprising comforts like down duvets.

Beltane Ranch (11775 Sonoma Hwy., Glen Ellen; 707/996-6501; doubles from $110, including breakfast) has the best porch in Sonoma Valley, a wraparound double-decker outfitted with a swing and hammocks for catching the sunset. There are only five rooms and 1,600 acres, so guests have plenty of privacy and space to roam-- but so do the cougars in the hills. Take a pal with you on the eight-mile trail that winds through the property.

Even guests who aren't drinkers (in wine country?) should plan their day around cocktail time at Above the Clouds Bed & Breakfast (3250 Trinity Rd., Glen Ellen; 800/600-7371 or 707/996-7371; doubles $155, including breakfast). From its perch up in the Mayacamas Mountains, the circa 1850 house overlooks a vast sweep of Sonoma's Valley of the Moon, all ablaze at sunset. Dinner options are wine-country-wide: a left turn out of the driveway takes you three miles down to the floor of Sonoma Valley; eight miles in the other direction and you're in Napa. Come back to rooms (there are only three) as neat and sweet as the proprietors.

It took no time at all for leafy vines to enshroud the newer stuccoed structures at Kenwood Inn & Spa (10400 Sonoma Hwy., Glen Ellen; 707/833-1293, fax 707/833-1247; doubles from $225). Guests mosey in from 12 rooms to the Tuscan-style main house for luscious breakfasts hot from the open kitchen. Brilliant blue (the pool) and lush green (persimmon trees, rosemary, and ivy) furnish the courtyard of this compound, which resembles an Italian hamlet. Unfortunately, no amount of skillful landscaping can mask the rumble of the Sonoma Highway, just steps away: piped-in music simply piles on more noise. (For information on the spa, see .)

Streets packed with shops and restaurants circle the redwood- and palm-shaded central plaza in Healdsburg, such an appealing town that you might as well stay in the heart of it. Two blocks from the plaza, the Camellia Inn (211 North St., Healdsburg; 707/433-8182, fax 707/433-8130; doubles from $75), an Italianate Victorian, has nine comfortable rooms, big buffet breakfasts, and a pool out back. Oh, and 50 varieties of dreamy camellias.

where to shop in sonoma valley

Tom Swain's business card for his shop, Acanthus (22 Boyes Blvd., Boyes Hot Springs; 707/935-7950), defines the inventory as "nothing ordinary." If the mix of minerals, decorative objects, and eclectic furniture is a bit odd, his collection of vintage costume jewelry is nothing short of extraordinary. Slip on a dazzling choker and let your Oscar acceptance speech roll.

Home furnishings emporium Sloan & Jones (100 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707/935-8503) has been attracting more attention than ever since its recent move, a block and a half west, to Sonoma's plaza. Thanks to Sheelagh Sloan and Ann Jones's sophisticated vision, giant French stone urns, lacquered apothecary chests from Korea, Mexican cathedral candles, and English Bakelite flatware all make simpatico housemates.

A vintage stove is admittedly a bulky souvenir, but the ones at Johnny's Appliances & Classic Ranges (17549 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707/996-9730) are so chubby, gleaming, and characterful, they're worth a time-travel detour back to an era of aproned pie bakers.

Readers' Books (131 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707/939-1779), just off Sonoma's plaza, makes you wish for rainy days so you can spend them among its meandering shelves. Back at your hotel, curl up with great reads you might never have discovered were it not for owner Andy Weinberger and his literate staff.

Of the 8,000 rare and used volumes at Plaza Bookshop (40 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707/996-8474), roughly a fifth are devoted to the American West, with special attention to local author Jack London-- and to wine, of course. All the books are collectible, from first editions to an 1814 printing of a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

You can be sure all 15,000 of the toys work at Toyworks (103 Plaza St., Healdsburg; 707/433-4743), because they have been tested by experts: the owners' son and daughter and the manager's four children, among others. Toys that are interactive, educational, or just plain fun get the green light.

The selection of decorative objects is tempting at Leftovers (421 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707/433-3652). One month the windows were dressed in Art Deco and "genteel poverty" themes. Venture inside, and you'll find a gilded ballroom pediment, an 1860's student's lamp, and 1960's Italian silver picture frames.

where to eat in sonoma

If you left San Francisco hungry, you'll be especially happy to spy Viansa Winery Italian Marketplace (25200 Arnold Dr., Sonoma; 707/935-4700), just 45 minutes out of the city, anchoring a hill as you enter Sonoma Valley. Take your selection-- a slice of torta rustica, a glass of 1995 Piccolo Toscano, and a fig bar-- out to one of the tables beneath a shady pergola, and try to identify all the waterfowl in the 90-acre wetland preserve below.

Piatti (405 First St. W., Sonoma; 707/996-2351; dinner for two $40) may be part of a chain, but its spit-grilled chicken is moist and flavorful, its patio cool and popular. Best of all, it serves until 10 o'clock, 11 on weekends (late in these parts), so you can have dinner after catching an indie movie or a poetry reading at the Sebastiani Theater across the plaza.

The menu changes weekly at Bistro Ralph (109 Plaza St., Healdsburg; 707/433-1380; dinner for two $50), except for favorites like the Szechwan pepper calamari, whose absence would cause an uproar. Chef-owner Ralph Tingle draws exclusively from the Healdsburg area for his organic produce, lamb, breads, and wines; fish swim in on ice (but never frozen) from San Francisco.

Until the Flying Goat Coffee Roastery Café (324 Center St., Healdsburg; 707/433-9081; coffee and pastries for two $8) arrived, there wasn't any real read-the-paper-all-day hangout in Healdsburg. Now half the local population seems to spend half the day here, nibbling on panini or slices of coffee cake amid the aroma of roasting beans. Tuck a Goat Bar (chocolate, oats, and walnuts) in your pocket for a quick pick-me-up later.

Ravenous (117 North St., Healdsburg; 707/431-1770; dinner for two $45) is what you will no longer be when you've had a meal of mahimahi with black rice and tropical salsa at this eight-table café. The adjoining movie theater, the 600-seat Raven (707/433-5448 for show times), is the largest in Sonoma County. An evening divided between the two spots makes for a perfect low-key, low-cost date; a black T-shirt with a red raven makes a squawkin' souvenir.

Without so much as a table, the Downtown Bakery & Creamery (308A Center St., Healdsburg; 707/431-2719), on the square in Healdsburg, always draws a morning crowd. Almond pecan twists and focaccia pizzas are best eaten on the spot. A jar of fig jam is a packable memento, though it will make you long for this bakery's modern wonder breads. Sourdough baguettes and sticky buns are best-sellers.

The prosaic name suits the Jimtown Store (6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707/433-1212). Neighbors come in to pick up toilet paper and six-packs along with newspapers and gossip, and travelers stop for fresh-squeezed lemonade to go with Brie and olive salad on baguettes. Children or the child-minded flip for baskets brimming with balsa-wood gliders, drawstring bags of gold gum nuggets, and Myrna Loy paper dolls. En route from the store to the picnic tables on the patio, check out the folksy antiques from America's heartland.

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