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Wine and Picnics in Northern California

Continuing north, look into Davis Bynum Winery for its family-winery setting--and a neighborly fourteen wines on pour the day I arrived. Many fans zero in on winemaker Gary Farrell's Pinot Noirs, and they are good (especially the 1995 Limited Edition Pinot Noir). Recommended: 1995 Old Vine Zinfandel--concentrated, bright, absolutely inviting.

Healdsburg

Of Sonoma's towns, this is definitely the charmer if you're looking for an afternoon of antique stores and shops, coffee breaks and bakery breaks.

Provisions: The Oakville Grocery is quintessential California: tiny, perfect vegetables; a wine and coffee bar; racks of salsas and mustards; a soup/pizza/sandwich station featuring the likes of grilled flank steak with blue-cheese spread, arugula and tomatoes on fresh olive bread. This is the sort of place where you can buy whole roasted heads of garlic for takeout and a bottle of Stewart's Classic Oranges & Cream soda (a personal favorite, tastes like a Creamsicle fizz).

Wine Store: Tip Top Liquor Warehouse is an unlikely heaven for grape nuts, a happy jumble of Sonoma and Napa wines that also has an awesome wall of distillates: brandies, local and imported (if you haven't seen it at home, buy the Clear Creek Apple Brandy from Oregon, which tastes like super-high-octane apple pie), a gang of hundred percent blue agave tequilas, rhum agricole from Martinique and the like. Recommended: Segeshio's 1993 Alexander Valley Old-Vine Sangiovese, which, unlike other local experiments with Italian grapes, has the high fruit-acid notes of a real Chianti.

North of Healdsburg

The Dry Creek area has a great concentration of wineries and some of the prettiest driving.

J. Fritz Winery is the northernmost of three characterful wineries here. You rise up a narrow private drive expecting alpine motifs; what you get is a queer, white gothic-arched tasting room and winery cut into the mountainside, somewhere between a monastery and a bomb shelter. The people are friendly, the wine is good, and the spot is unforgettable. Recommended: 1995 Old Vine North Coast Carignane, well balanced and drinkable now, and, an oddity, the 1996 Dry Creek Valley Late-Harvest Zinfandel, which is like a zingy, featherweight port.

The Meeker Vineyard, to the south, cultivates a backwoods wine-shack attitude. Tastings are held in a teepee or, if it's too rainy, in a barrel room. I was wowed by the Zinfandel. One vintage proved the favorite of fourteen wines I hauled back home from Sonoma for a tasting: the 1995 Gold Leaf Cuvée Zinfandel--from vines twenty to eighty years old--with a glorious bouquet and a powerful core of fruity conviction: blackberry, strawberry, cherry.

The road into Preston Vineyards and Winery, not far away, winds through wide valley-floor vineyards to a farmhouse in which winemaker Lou Preston, famous first for his grapes, later for his wines, now is gaining a reputation for his woodfire-oven breads. He bakes bread two or three days of the week on no particular schedule: prune and rosemary, walnut-raisin and other mighty loaves. Meanwhile, the wine: A wide range of Rhônes and some Italians make this a great stop. Recommended: the 1996 Preston Vineyards Marsanne, a full-flavored white; the 1996 Preston Vineyards Faux, a multigrape Rhône blend that is slurpy good; and the 1996 Preston Vineyards Barbera, another Italian-style wine that stays true to the grape.

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