Through The Grapevines

The "other" California wines—it's not all Napa and Sonoma

Napa and Sonoma counties may have gotten out in front on the publicity wave generated by California's wine revolution, but the rest of the state actually produces 90 percent of the wine—and generates a huge percentage of the fresh excitement. From Mendocino to Santa Barbara, the "other" California wine countries are hotbeds of inspiration and discovery. In some places you can feel the confidence swelling in the area's unique attributes. In others you simply have your eyes opened to what's been remarkable all along, and is now undeniable.

Mendocino Area

Get Fizzy With It
Who makes the world's best sparkling wine, dollar for dollar? No contest: it's Champagne Louis Roederer's California cousin, Roederer Estate, whose classically styled, dry, flavor-packed wines regularly upset French Champagnes (including Roederer's own) in blind tastings.

"We didn't invent anything," are the words of winemaker Michel Salgues, who was formerly a professor at the University of Montpelier, the most prestigious winemaking institution in all of France. "We just took Champagne making to its logical extreme." That means biding their time for no less than nine years between planting the vines and releasing the first wine (the family-owned company projected a 17-year wait for a return on their investment). It also means making a strict selection from 100 percent estate-grown grapes, and using only the free-run (non-press) juice in the wine. Above all else, it means being located in cool, remote Anderson Valley, which produces the ideal grapes but attracts a relative paucity of visitors.

Roederer Estate's sun-filled tasting room, in a prairie-schoolish wooden building perched on a hillside, is the place to sample the result of Salgues' fixations. You might taste the "regular" multivintage Brut, a fresh, rich, firm-bodied sparkler, and L'Ermitage, the winery's complex and elegant prestige cuvée, but don't miss those wines that are available only at the tasting room, such as the cask-aged Extra Dry, and a remarkable Late Harvest Chardonnay still wine. Tours are given by appointment. 4501 Highway 128, Philo; 707-895-2288.

The Lost Wine Highway
Only a fraction of wine tourists ever wend their way along poky, scenic Highway 128 in the Anderson Valley. But that just makes it nicer for the rest of us. It is gorgeous among the rolling, heavily forested hills, and a lazy drive brings you to a string of fine, mostly limited-production wineries where the tasting-room people (and sometimes the owners) actually have time to talk. Suggested stops on Highway 128:

A small redwood-sided winery with llamas grazing by the parking lot, Navarro is the rare California winery (maybe the only one) known for Gewürztraminer, which shows up here as a vividly flavorful, crisp wine with exotic floral scents. Some 90 percent of Navarro's wines are sold here over the counter or through their mailing list. Philo; 707-895-3686.

Greenwood Ridge
It's just next door to Navarro, in what looks like a conical redwood Tatar's helmet. The structure was designed by owner Allen Green's father, who was an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright's. Highlights of the winery's small production are the melony Sauvignon Blanc, a spicy, off-dry White Riesling, and a bright, delicate Pinot Noir. Philo; 707-895-2002.

Pacific Echo
This L.V.M.H.-owned sparkling-wine producer was known for its all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs winery when it went by the name of its original owner, John Scharffenberger, and that is still the most stylish wine in the place. The tasting room is found in a bright-white Craftsman-style house, decorated during a recent visit with an exhibition of pastel nudes. Philo; 800-824-7754.

Milla Handley makes some very tasty Chardonnay (check out the firm-textured, lively Anderson Valley bottling), but I couldn't take my eyes off the tasting room's small but dazzling offerings of folk art, textiles, and furnishings from Handley's father's San Francisco galleries, Folk Art International. Amid the $18,000 Indian goddess statues, I got off relatively lightly with a $140 piece of carved East African ironwood. Philo; 800-733-3151.

High Spirits
Treat yourself to one of the most riveting unknown scenic drives in California—Orr Springs Road between Comptche and Ukiah (think Heidi meets Yeti)—and stay steady long enough to finish the journey to Germain-Robin, up a one-lane mountain track. Here in the high meadows with the bears and cougars, Ansley Coale Jr. and Hubert Germain-Robin are producing what some connoisseurs believe are the greatest brandies in the world, Cognac most definitely notwithstanding, as numerous blind tastings attest.

These brandies, from the $100 Select Barrel XO to the $350 Anno Domini, are astonishing, packed with intense, complex flavors and huge but subtle aromas—they're as character-filled as great Armagnac, and as silky as great Cognac. Behind the success: superb and very ripe base wines, including most notably Pinot Noir, a renegade choice in the brandy world. These base wines are put through one of two small antique Cognac stills that "are useless for modern production," according to Coale. But that's not what they're after, given that it takes 48 hours to distill a single barrel through one of the tiny stills.

If you're dead keen, you can come and taste through their blending stocks and assemble your own brandy blend ($6,000 a barrel, meaning $100 a bottle for five cases), or take home a nine-liter barrel of your own with a tap ($1,000-$1,500). Visits by appointment only. Ukiah; 707-462-3221.

Cliff-Top Drinking
The dining room of the Albion River Inn is perched high above a rocky cove on the Mendocino coast, though when the view goes pitch black at night you may prefer to stare at sommelier Mark Bowery's wine and spirits list. Sheathed in a big loose-leaf binder, it is the kind of list that a wine lover instantly recognizes as having been chosen by another wine lover—and it extends 28 pages, as compared to the one page devoted to the menu.

Among the temptations here that may force you to designate someone else as driver are flights of Scotch, including one of the lesser-known greats from Campbeltown, and five Germain-Robin bottlings, including their excellent, hard-to-find apple brandy. There's a well-chosen selection from the local wineries, including the Handley Pinot Meunier, Gabrielli Zinfandel, and two wonderful Navarro dessert wines. Feel like a splurge? Try the super-spiced Sean Thackrey Orion ($100) from down in Marin, or Henschke's majestic Hill of Grace ($225), from Australia. Albion; 800-479-7944.

Santa Cruz Mountains

The Long And Winding Road
The original 19th-century owner of what is now Ridge Vineyards came a cropper when his carriage plunged off a cliff on the way down from this mountaintop winery, and you can feel the vertigo today as you ascend the switchbacks of Monte Bello Road. The reward is one of California's most worthwhile tasting rooms—at one of America's greatest wineries.

Founded by a group of scientists from the Stanford Research Institute in the late '50s, Ridge got a head start on most everybody else. Under longtime winemaker Paul Draper, Ridge scouted out special grape sources and old-vine vineyards around the state, which helped them to develop sensationally concentrated, unduplicatable Petite Sirahs, Zinfandels, and Mataros (Mourvèdres). Add to that Ridge's famous home vineyard, producer of the prized Monte Bello Cabernet blend, and you have a potent combination. What's most remarkable about the tasting room isn't just its orbital height above the Silicon Valley but its offering of older library wines, like the 1987 Lytton Springs Zinfandel ($36) and 1992 Monte Bello ($160), at prices you'd never see in an auction house. There are also intriguing bottles of other wines made in small lots—Syrahs, Grenaches, Alicantes—and sold only at the winery. Cupertino; 408-867-3233.

Taking The Long View

Mount Eden Vineyards Wine pioneer Paul Masson advised the legendary curmudgeon Martin Ray to buy this remote place back in 1942. Soon its rocky, stubborn mountaintop vineyard, with panoramic views to San Jose and the San Francisco Bay, was turning out what such experts as Alexis Lichine considered "the great wines of California." Now, under the proprietorship of personable Jeffrey Patterson, Mount Eden Vineyards is still vinifying some of the state's greatest wines. And it's still remote, on the next mountaintop over from Ridge, some two and a half miles up a serpentine dirt track that is itself at the end of a twisty road.

Way up top, Patterson battles thin soils, eccentric, nonuniformly setting old clones, winds that can ruin pollination, and the cool of a 2,000-foot elevation to wring from the vineyard a miserly two tons to the acre of intense, estate-grown Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. He is also battling vine senescence: The blossomy, concentrated 1997 Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines) was the last harvest from Ray's 1942 plantings, the oldest Pinot vineyard in all of California. Like the other, often slow-evolving estate wines, the Mount Eden '97 Pinot has long, intriguing years ahead of it—even if its patch of vineyard is starting over. Call the vineyard well ahead for an appointment, and leave time to find it. Saratoga; 408-867-5832.

Hobby Out Of Control

Cronin Vineyards "Unlike Napa Valley, where the tour guide has memorized information off a sheet, here you get a tour of whatever's on my mind," says jovial, silver-haired raconteur Duane Cronin. What is on his mind might be Ohlone Indian cooking stones found in the vineyard, or his hat collection, or customers like rocker Neil Young, and you will hear it all in the living room of Cronin's modest shingled house located in the Silicon Valley community of Woodside. His production facility is directly underfoot—Cronin, along with the Golitzen family at Washington's Quilceda Creek, is probably America's greatest home winemaker.

Down the basement stairs, past a jumble of hoses, Styrofoam box liners, and bags of corks, are the pricey François Frères barrels with his aging wines: the whites situated under the cool floor of the kitchen, the young reds beneath the toastier living room. A retired I.B.M. engineer whose hobby got away from him, Cronin makes wines the way he likes them: typically tight when young, and slow to show their full complexity. This may be a problem for retailers, but not for patient drinkers with a European-leaning palate. Cronin's best efforts, like his Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and Peter Martin Ray Vineyard Pinot Noir, are elegant, inward wines packed with flavor and nuance. Kids, don't try this at home. Phone for an appointment. Woodside; 650-851-1452.

Now Appearing At The Tasting Bar . . .

Vin, Vino, Wine. It may be a mouthful to say, but mouthfuls are what this passionately run little wine shop is all about. Formal it's not: young, scholarly-looking Victor Pugliese's spartan store is stacked with cases and it looks almost graffiti-covered, with signs handwritten in Magic Marker taped up on the walls. The personal—not to say idiosyncratic—choices of fine domestic wines are interspersed with an unusual proportion of foreign bottles for a California shop, and from top connoisseur importers: Kermit Lynch, Marc de Grazia, Jorge Ordoñez, The Grateful Palate.

Along one wall runs a handsome, marble-topped bar with a brass foot rail. It's here that Pugliese's regulars congregate on weekends (and some weekdays) for his remarkable ongoing series of tastings. On a visit last spring, the theme was 1996 Chassagne- Montrachets, and $60 bought you tastes of eight wines from such fine houses as Colin-Deléger, Bernard Morey, and Verget—a rare opportunity to cross-sample a strong group of white Burgundies. Subsequent tastings would be titled "High End American Chardonnays," "Zinfandel Review," and "Nuits- Saint-Georges Rarities"—and would give Palo Alto some of the nation's best-informed wine consumers. Palo Alto; 650-324-4903.

A Friend In The Business
"I just kept nagging my friends at Edmunds St. John until they went back and found another case of the 1996 Durell Vineyard Syrah to keep me quiet," remarks charming Aimee Hebert, who works the front of the house at Saratoga's sleek Sent Sovi, while partner-chef David Kinch holds down the back. Hebert seems to have a friend at every prestigious winery on the restaurant's California-oriented wine list, or at least some scoop. And quite a few of those wineries feel friendly toward Sent Sovi. It was an enthusiastic first recommendation from both Mount Eden's Jeffrey Patterson (there is a special bottling Mount Eden "Cuvée Sent Sovi" Merlot on the list) and Ridge's Paul Draper—both for Kinch's eclectic, Catalan-influenced food and Hebert's wine list.

You can have your Chardonnay here, if you choose (perhaps the 1982 Hanzell, described as "Think Audrey Hepburn in her fifties, elegant and well-aged and wearing sensible shoes"). But the list is also loaded with Malvasia Biancas, Roussannes, and Viogniers, from personal-scale producers like Wild Horse, Alban, and Andrew Murray. Put yourself in Hebert's hands—the 1996 Syrah was fantastic, by the way. Saratoga; 408-867-3110.

Central Coast

Weekend Warriors
Do visions of Sélection de Grains Nobles and foie gras dance through your dreams? Like to have some hanging-out time with chef Charlie Trotter or Niebaum-Coppola winemaker Scott McLeod? The place you want to be is the Highlands Inn, spectacularly perched above the Pacific in the Carmel highlands. The time you want to go is the week of The 15th Annual Masters of Food & Wine (February 21-25).

The 2000 edition of this five-day consumer event featured an elite assembly of chefs (Patrick O'Connell, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jacques Pepin) and wineries (Mouton-Rothschild, Ridge, Domaine Weinbach). The tasting seminars were a wine lover's dream, including such opportunities as "10 of the Greatest Vintage Ports of the Century" (back to 1927), led by Taylor Fladgate's Adrian Bridge, and Frédéric Rouzaud of Champagne Louis Roederer hosting an eight-wine vertical tasting of Cristal back to 1982. One of the most pleasing aspects of the week was seeing the professionals' sense of camaraderie, with prominent sommeliers pitching in to open bottles, and chefs such as Union Pacific's Rocco DiSpirito helping a pastry chef fill desserts once his own plates were out the door. (Last February's tastings ranged from $140 to $350.) Carmel highlands; 831-620-1234.

Rancho Deluxe
"I travel all over the world, and I know what I like," states Ben Pon, owner of Bernardus Winery and the new wine-country luxury resort Bernardus Lodge. A restless Dutchman who formerly raced for Porsche at Le Mans and still enjoys unwinding the engine of his Carrera on Carmel Valley's canyon roads, Pon tends to keep things on the move. So the lodge's 1,200-label, 25,000-bottle wine list "is still growing," according to Mark Jensen, the wine director Pon hired away from the Highlands Inn, where he had run The Masters week. Todd Kenyon, the vineyard manager, is constantly upgrading the winery's estate vineyard, boldly planted in a bowl surrounded by hills up in Carmel Valley, which now provides him with computer reports gathered via in-ground sensors when he arrives in the morning. Bernardus' bottlings are already the finest in the Carmel Valley appellation, and winemaker Mark Chesebro is pushing the wines—such as the luxury Bordeaux blend, Marinus, and the wonderful, melony Sauvignon Blanc—even higher.

Among the best memories of a stay at Bernardus Lodge: sipping a glass of Bernardus Reserve Chardonnay in front of the large, crackling fire on the lodge's patio on a cool spring night; a long, lazy afternoon dedicated to wandering around the cluster of winery tasting rooms in Carmel Valley Village—Bernardus' own, Talbott's, Geori's. Let Pon stay on the move; this is a fine place to gear down. Carmel Valley; 888-648-9463.

Tablas Creek Clones The Rhone
As foreign invasions go, this one is both thorough and welcome. The Perrin family of Châteauneuf-du-Pape's eminent Château de Beaucastel collaborated with longtime importer Robert Haas in creating something heretofore untasted in Rhône-style wines in America. First, the partners spent two and a half years seeking out the perfect spot, one with limestone in the soil and a climate that approximated Châteauneuf's. There, they would plant grapevines brought over from the Perrins' own vineyards. American agricultural quarantine regulations, however, delayed the French vines, so the Perrins put in a patch of American clones. The first Tablas Creek wines had little French-vine content and were tasty but not earth-shattering.

The Euro-vines are a growing portion of the vineyard now, and a tasting of 1999 barrel samples last spring was a revelation: A wine sample made from an American clone of Grenache, say, tasted fine—until you encountered the intense, violet aromatics of a French-clone sample. The wines due from Tablas Creek in coming years—a blended red and a blended white—will make a huge splash. Meanwhile, where else but this spare, hangarlike winery amid moss-draped oaks can you taste an American Rolle (a Provençal white), or a Counoise? Phone ahead for an appointment. Paso Robles; 805-237-1231.

A Sipping Detour
Driving south on Highway 101 near Paso Robles, the vineyards stretch from the break-down lane to the western horizon. But you could drive right by the Highway 46 West exit, north of Templeton, and never know that you had passed up a mouth-watering smorgasbord of unusual wines. This seemingly anonymous stretch of road has accumulated small winery tasting rooms like odd charms on a bracelet. Highlights:

Peachy Canyon
This winery specializes in blockbuster-sized, 15-percent-alcohol Zinfandels, and the demure tasting room in an old frame schoolhouse tucked away among the oaks seems almost to belie their party-hearty spirit. The best of the wines, like the Benito Dusi, Snow Vineyard, and Especial bottlings, are also possessed of a balance and well-turned harmony. Paso Robles; 805-239-1918.

Bonny Doon
This is the Central Coast outpost of the puckish Randall Grahm's Doon empire (headquartered in Santa Cruz). It shares quarters just off a leafy yard with a pair of goats in a pen and Sycamore Farms, which sells folk-art Americana and herbs. Bonny Doon's boutique sells its wines, like the flagship Rhône blend Le Cigare Volant and Critique of Pure Riesling, along with tee shirts depicting the Rorschach-like label of Cardinal Zin by Ralph Steadman. Paso Robles; 805-239-5614.

Napa Valley star Caymus Vineyards bought grapes from Hope Farms Winery for many years, and then the two teamed up to create Treana Winery, which is now bottling wines under Caymus' old Liberty School label. The tasting room has the added benefit of a modest gourmet shop, and Treana runs a bed-and-breakfast right across the street. The wines that we sampled, including the broad-textured, floral white (Marsanne and Viognier) and the generous, full-bodied red, were tasty but overambitiously priced at $25 and $32, respectively. But keep an eye on this one. Paso Robles; 805-238-6979.

Your Piece Of The Dream
Top vineyard land (already planted) has risen above $100,000 an acre in Napa Valley, but in Paso Robles, arguably the state's hottest up-and-coming wine region, $10,000 (for vacant land) still carries weight—all the better, since planting costs routinely add another $25,000 an acre. Among the special attractions of the area are the rare (in California) limestone outcroppings that so appealed to the Perrins, as they would to winemakers from many of the most famous vineyard regions of France.

The man to see in these parts is Bob Graham, of Bob Graham Realty, who has sold vineyards and wineries to such luminaries as Justin, Treana, and Villa Mt. Eden, to name a few. And those purchases have appreciated. Graham says the 156-acre parcel of raw land he sold to the owners of Rabbit Ridge for $3,365 an acre back in 1996 could easily fetch three times that today, and maybe more, because vineyard land in the current boom market is extremely scarce. One offering in the region: an 80-acre vineyard planted with Bordeaux varieties, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay, with an existing 6,000-case winery (currently called Mission View) and luxury home, has been put on the market for $2.15 million. Paso Robles; 805-239-2100.

This Just Inn
You find Justin Vineyards & Winery listed in a pamphlet called "The Far Out Wineries of Paso Robles," and as you drive and drive and drive to find the place, you get the joke. The good news is that once you track it down, Justin will not only wine you but dine you—and at its small, high-luxe Just Inn, lodge you as well. The deep-country dream of former Los Angeles mortgage and investment bankers Justin and Deborah Baldwin, everything from the Provençal bastide look of the buildings to the splashy tile art in the kitchen has been done Just-so.

You can take your dinner in the little five-table dining room with ($75) or without ($50) Justin wine pairings. "With" works out nicely because most of the winery's varied offerings are very good, and some outstanding. Best of the lot are: Justification, a soft, blackberry-permeated St. Emilion-style blend, and the billowy, black-plum Médoc-style Isosceles. As you're strolling around the corner to your room, under a dense spray of stars and surrounded by the vineyards that created your dinner wines, the Baldwins' notion of the right place to be doesn't seem so remote. Paso Robles; 800-726-0049.

Santa Barbara

Red Oak, Red Meat, Red Wine
How does the Hitching Post II, an unpretentious roadside steak joint in out-of-the-way Buellton, elicit the sentimental fondness of wine aficionados and foodies from Sonoma to SoHo? Just ask Frank Ostini, the exuberant, earringed owner who tends the open red-oak fire. A longtime Santa Barbara wine insider, Ostini also makes, with his salmon-fisherman pal Gray Hartley, the Hitching Post wines that grace lists all over the country. The handcrafted line seems ever-expanding, but it is the firm-bodied, juicy Pinot Noirs like the Highliner—a luxury blend from several of Santa Barbara County's top vineyards—that one remembers most vividly (perhaps because they taste so perfect with the steak). And yes, that's Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen and Beckmen's Steve Beckmen at the other tables; the Hitching Post is the winemakers' commissary. Buellton; 805-688-0676.

Santa Barbara Wine Roads
Unlike Napa Valley—or Bordeaux, for that matter—there's no central strip where wineries cluster shoulder to shoulder in the vast, western vistas of Santa Barbara County. Visiting the far-flung wineries here involves meandering through gorgeous landscapes of windswept valleys, rocky bluffs, sudden canyons, and rolling hills carpeted in chaparral or wildflowers. And the journey, of course, is only part of the pleasure: You will taste the work of some of California's most exciting, individualistic, primarily family-scale wineries. Though different wineries have specialties of their own, this is one of California's coolest wine regions, which implies certain leanings. Here, Burgundian grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with a few exceptions, far outclass warmth-loving Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet and Merlot. And now Santa Barbara has become a hotbed for California's trendiest red, Syrah, and there are some beauties here.

Get the excellent and exhaustive touring map from the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association (805-688-0881, or download it at and plan your route. Below are five wineries worth putting on the itinerary:

Old Guard

Richard Sanford not only planted the county's first great vineyard of the modern era, Sanford & Benedict, back in 1970, but he planted it out west, near the ocean, on a site so chilly that it still seems daring. It is only right that Sanford & Benedict Estate Chardonnay should be styled similarly to a Chablis, that coolest area of Burgundy, with no secondary fermentation to subtract from its fresh, lively feel. The S. & B. Pinot Noir—plump and graceful in 1997, said to be darker and more brooding in '98—is a benchmark wine for the area. The tasting room, in a mountainous landscape miles from anything, has picnic tables by a pretty creek that are worth investigating. Buellton; 805-688-3300.

The rustic tasting room, couched at the mouth of an impressive canyon, belies the fact that this Robert Mondavi-owned label is among Santa Barbara's most lavishly funded wineries. The winery building itself, out of sight behind the hills and not open to tours, is a postmodern wonder of high- and low-tech built by architect Scott Johnson (Opus One, Transamerica Tower). Mondavi had the good sense to let founder Ken Brown continue making its wines, which include a bright, fresh Pinot Gris and the top-of-the-line Byron Vineyard Estate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Santa Maria; 805-937-7288.

These humorous vintners—Richard Doré and Bill Wathen—rhumba to their own private orchestra. Their roadside tasting room may look as if they built it themselves (and then tacked up postcards and added kitschy souvenirs), but it's actually the former blacksmith shop of a 19th-century farm owned by Doré's ancestors; the stables are now the site of the very anti-tech winery. Wines such as the powerful, lingering Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay and the slow-blooming Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir have made Foxen a connoisseur's cult label. Santa Maria; 805-937-4251.

New And Noteworthy

The Beckmen family—they made the Roland synthesizer for a generation of musicians—moved up here from L.A. and went at the wine business with a will. The smart, two-year-old, tile-and-polished-pine tasting room looks out onto a glittering duck pond and gardens. But what's on the counter is starting to keep people's attention inside. Beckmen's diverse, experimental plantings in a vineyard they purchased in 1996 and rechristened Purisima Mountain are showing intriguing results. Among the wines to sample here: the Purisima Mountain Sauvignon Blanc and Marsanne, and the Estate Syrah. Los Olivos; 805-688-8664.

This spanking new winery opened its pretty, mustard-stucco hacienda-style tasting facility last summer for weekends only. The problem with longer hours is that the combination of hot word-of-mouth and limited production might cause the winery to run out of wine. Behind this heat is winemaker Greg Brewer, a young, hyper-articulate man whose own tiny-production wines, Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays (made with partner Steve Clifton), are presold almost before the grapes are picked. Brewer has put similar hands-on care into Melville's Burgundy and northern-Rhône-style wines, all from the estate surrounding the winery, and imbued them with equally explosive, luscious flavors. Lompoc; 805-735-7030.

Darling I Love You, But Give Me Anacapa Street
Had enough of wine country's countrified charms? Slip into Santa Barbara proper for a languid, eclectic American cuisine lunch on the patio of Wine Cask. Spend some quality time with the staggering wine list as leaves from the whispering tropical foliage overhead drift into your aperitif. Récoltant Champagnes, multiple vintages of Château Rayas? Got 'em. Want to go local? How about 13 different Au Bon Climat Pinots or 15 Qupé Syrahs or 10 wines from Lane Tanner? You get the picture. The best part is that you can saunter over to the retail store across the patio afterward and pick up bottles of whichever wines you haven't already put down during lunch. Santa Barbara; 805-966-9463.

Duel In The Sun
The charming, three-block hamlet of Los Olivos has, for some reason, become a magnet for winery tasting rooms. Its small-town Victorian frame buildings house outlets for Richard Longoria, Andrew Murray, and Los Olivos Vintners. But the town's main attraction for wine tourists is comprised of the Santa Barbara wine country's two best wine shops/tasting bars, the Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop and the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium. The fact that they are nearly identical—with stacked cases of area wines and long tasting bars with open bottles ready to sip—couldn't be coincidence, and it isn't.

The Emporium was founded by tart-tongued Bob Senn, a onetime (disgruntled) Tasting Room employee who is a fount of local wine knowledge. Not only do both places offer expertly chosen small stocks of wines, but they act as tasting rooms for wineries that don't receive visitors. Sometimes choosing one over the other seems like an effort of diplomacy on the part of the winemakers.The Tasting Room, for example, is the outlet for Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat; his wife, Morgan Clendenen, sells her Cold Heaven through the Emporium. Best advice: Be ecumenical. Visit both, and get a head start on planning which wineries you would like to visit or taste in depth. Depending on where you live, these shops can also be great mail-order sources for hard-to-find Central Coast wines. Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop, 805-688-7406; Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium, 805-688-4409.

Sacramento Valley

The West Point Of Wine
Did your local wine course leave you dissatisfied, too distant from the center of the action? Try an extension course at the University of California, Davis. There are various study tracks offered for home winemakers and more casual students, taught by wine professionals and faculty members from U.C. Davis' Department of Viticulture & Enology, the New World's launching pad for wine stars. Recently offered courses were a two-day Introduction to Sensory Evaluation of Wine, in which students blind-taste wines that have been doctored to exaggerate certain characteristics in order to develop a sense of the flavor and aroma building blocks of wine ($395); and a one-day Advanced Tasting Seminar ($210) that prepares you for qualification as a wine judge—if you wish, your instructor will even send your final test off to the California State Fair Wine Judging Committee to see if you qualify. You can also take some courses on-line through the university's Distance Learning program. Surf the possibilities at Davis; 530-757-8777.