By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 17, 2002

Nailed to the trunk of an ancient-looking tree on West Dry Creek Road is a sign that says "Slow." Around the next bend is another: "Slower." This is good advice.

After rounding a couple more bends along this sinuous road, I arrived at a place where rushing would be beside the point -- Preston Vineyards, one of the northernmost wineries in California's Sonoma County. In a region with tremendous power to seduce the senses, I had found the quintessential example.

Inside Preston's tasting room, in addition to a selection of syrahs, sauvignon blancs and zinfandels, were hearty French breads, dense pumpernickel and sumptuous olive oil -- all made on the premises. Outside, picnic areas surrounded by pomegranate, pear and persimmon trees beckoned, and when I ventured beyond, I found a boccie court and more picnic areas with more fruit trees (fig, quince and lemon). A young woman appeared from behind the trees with an armful of peppers in shades of early autumn, and when I asked what the winery did with such bounty, she explained that her father, Lou Preston, used it to make sauces and side dishes for parties at the vineyard.

"With much of the fruit, though," Francesca Preston said, pointing to the deep purple figs hanging above, "we just pick them and eat them."

When she saw my expression, she said, "It's pretty Eden-like, I know."

This Eden is little more than a 90-minute drive north from San Francisco, in Sonoma County, a 1,600-square-mile oenological treasure with more than 190 wineries open to the public. Napa Valley, its more famous neighbor, is a good deal smaller but boasts about 270 wineries. These basic facts -- along with Napa's years-long marketing campaign -- have much to do with their differences in character.

It's a matter of space. With all of the fine dining, luxurious spas and sporting opportunities available in Sonoma, it is still the country -- vast, exquisite, peaceful country. And although tourism is on the rise, the pace still feels leisurely.

Having grown up just south of Sonoma, my perception is that its character, born of farming roots, has held strong even through the recent wine boom. But when I asked Sonoma vintners to characterize the differences between the two counties, they never gave me a straight answer. They'd just laugh and say, "Doesn't Napa make auto parts?" or "Napa is a four-letter word." The rivalry remains friendly.

Sonoma is divided into 10 appellations, or growing regions, four of which hold most of the wineries: the Sonoma, Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. Recently, I spent a weekend visiting some of my favorite haunts and discovered a few new ones along the way.

My much-anticipated first stop is Gloria Ferrer, a champagne producer about an hour from San Francisco (a bit longer from the airport). The winery is perched on a hill, and sipping a flute of one of its sparkling wines while sitting on a patio overlooking the valley feels like a reward for having arrived, a toast to the day to come.

From there, the drive north toward the town of Glen Ellen offers a taste of visual pleasures to come. If it's summer or fall, the land is a patchwork of striped green miles of vines, with stretches of tawny grass between, hills rising in the distance. Even in hot weather, I prefer open windows to air conditioning here, where the sweet, dry air is redolent with rosemary and fennel. Strands of silver tinsel shimmer among vines, keeping birds from the grapes. In winter and spring, the valley is a lush bowl of green, except where vines are bare, standing as sculptural reminders of the lode that fills our bottles. In any season, the sense of moving through a place removed, a place protected -- surrounded as it is by ancient volcanic hills -- persists.

Sonoma is often referred to as the Valley of the Moon, which Jack London claimed as the translation of the Miwok Indian name. London was one of the area's most famous and revered denizens -- and his renown is never more evident than in the Jack London Bookstore at the southern end of Glen Ellen. It's a mine of local history, and after picking up a copy of the "Self-Guided Walking Tour of Downtown Glen Ellen," I strode across the street to a stretch of Wild West-style redwood buildings to sample oils at the Olive Oil Press and eat lunch at the Cellar Cat Cafe. If I'd stayed through the evening, I could have heard a local jazz band playing under the canopy of oak trees out back. As with so many of my missed experiences in Sonoma comes the refrain: next time.

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