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Wine and Picnics in Northern California

Inside: Journey to the Garden of Youth

Each time I take a turn round the Sonoma Valley, I find the food better, the wine more interesting and the place unchanged in its essential cottage-wonderfulness. No better example exists in America of the salubrious effect of winemaking on man and nature: how it coaxes man into becoming a dutiful husband of the earth and turns the ground into a coddled garden producing splendid fruit and fermentations. Below are a few favorite spots on the food and wine trail, some revisited, some new to me. (A word of caution: Wines are invariably more expensive at a winery than at your local store, so focus on the small-batch wines that are sold only at source, or wines that simply don't get distributed back home.)

Around the Town of Sonoma

On a hill virtually at the southern gate to the Sonoma Valley is Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace, and if you're driving north from San Francisco this is a pleasant lunch stop. No space to detail the grand ambitions of Sam Sebastiani here, but imagine a winery aspiring to the stature of Italian hill town--on ninety acres of ducky California wetlands. Viansa bottles Pinot Grigio, Muscat Canelli, Freisa (a red), Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Barbera and more, sold only at the winery. Winery and wine are works in progress, but already the setting is a pleasure of olive trees, cypress, vine arbors and a grand, cool Tuscan food hall. Vicki Sebastiani's kitchen turns out focaccia, luscious torta rustica and the like to eat on the spot. Recommended: The 1996 Athena Dolcetto, a light, fresh, amazingly strawberryish red.

If you haven't tried California wine in the Rhône style, Cline Cellars, a few yards north of Viansa, offers an easy introduction to the rewards of Marsanne, Carignane, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and other Rhône grapes. Recommended: 1996 Côtes D' Oakley Vin Gris, sweet-natured but not sweet, with an edge of bitterness for backbone: This one lays flat any prejudice against rosés.

Provisions: On the historic main square, there are delis for meats and other hamper supplies. Look for aged jack cheese from Vella Cheese Company. The best bread is to be found at the spare, devotional Artisan Bakers, a half mile or so to the west. You'll find knobby, hard-crusted loaves here, and for dessert, if they have it, the sweet-tart meyer lemon cake, which begs for a late-harvest Gewürztraminer.

One picnic choice: In the Gundlach Bundschu Winery, which is cradled by the base of the east hills, the sixth-generation owners have thoughtfully provided paths and picnic knolls: It feels like a mini-state park with winery attached. This is an old winery, reeking of must and barrel. Recommended: 1995 Cabernet Franc--a lean but well-made wine showcasing one of the grapes that often plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux-style blends.

North to Healdsburg

Route 12 out of Sonoma offers B. R. Cohn, Arrowood, Kunde, Kenwood and St. Francis Wineries, all worthy (St. Francis's 1995 Sonoma County Merlot reaffirms that winery's post position as producer of lip-smacking, drink-now Merlots of wide appeal); but true wine pilgrims will take the route heading west to Matanzas Creek Winery. The road thins and turns all cozy-curlicue through oak-crowded hills and then, when you think you're about lost, drops into a broad valley where Matanzas sits, solo, a modern Pacific Coast-style temple to good taste amid tumbledown rocks and precision lavender plantings. Everything here is very, very fine, most of all the wine. Recommended: 1995 Matanzas Creek Sonoma Valley Chardonnay and 1994 Matanzas Creek Sonoma Valley Merlot: class in a glass, exquisite exemplars of concentration, elegance and complexity.

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