In my childhood, winding roads were the enemy. They mounted a swerving conspiracy against my stomach, a plot by my parents to make family vacations as painful as possible as we toodled around the Appalachians, rural Maine and even, once, southern France.

As an adult, however, I have discovered that twists and turns offer a hidden payoff: access to more secluded spots. Such is the case with Anderson Valley, an idyllic spot in Northern California's wine country. More remote than Napa and Sonoma, but still just 2 1/2 hours from San Francisco, this region in Mendocino County offers a low-key introduction to the world of wine.

That environment was critical to my mission last summer, which consisted of convincing my boyfriend, Vic -- who had (mis)spent much of his youth in the Old World -- that California wine was worth drinking. When he recoiled at the idea of mingling with the "hordes" in Napa (his words), I knew that my only chance to lure him was with the promise of less busy roads and less famous vineyards.

This is not to imply that the wineries are inferior, by any means. As one of the coolest grape-growing regions in California, due to fog that rolls in off the Mendocino coast, Anderson Valley produces excellent pinot noirs and sparkling wines. While it features a couple of big names, such as Roederer Estate, its real charm lies in smaller outfits like Lazy Creek Vineyards and Handley Cellars.

"It's like the Napa Valley was 40 years ago, with a bit of an upgrade," explains Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who represents the area.

At Lazy Creek, for example, you literally drive down a dirt road until you approach what looks like someone's garage. As long as the gate's open, you can walk in and sample wine with one of the two owners, Josh and Mary Beth Chandler.

The Chandlers, like many Anderson Valley residents, are converts. They had been working in the wine business in Napa when they came up for the weekend and saw the vineyard. They closed on it without even walking into the house.

"It was a completely emotional purchase," says Mary Beth Chandler, and they never regretted the decision. "That initial impression is exactly what it's like to live here."

Nearly every winemaker has a similar story. Tex Sawyer, who produces sparkling wines at Pacific Echo, describes the valley as "Shangri-la." And the winding roads, he notes, protect the valley from being overrun.

"You've got to really want to be here to get here," he says.

This also offers visitors a unique opportunity to meet the men and women who make the wine. Most tasting rooms don't charge a fee, and frequently you can spend half an hour chatting with the vineyard's top winemaker.

But Anderson Valley is no longer a backwater. Milla Handley and her husband, Rex McClellan, started their own winery, Handley Cellars, 20 years ago in the basement of their home. Now they produce 15,000 cases a year, offering sauvignon blanc, Gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot noir as well as a signature brut and a brut rose{acute}. Duckhorn Wine Co., which is based in Napa, has bought land in recent years to create its Goldeneye vineyard in the valley.

But even in the height of the summer tourist season, Anderson Valley feels like a quiet retreat. Following the twists and turns of Highway 128 (we blasted Blondie's greatest hits as an accompaniment, and the wave of '80s nostalgia distracted me from the winding path), the road opens into a lush valley of vineyards with rolling yellow hills in the distance. Boonville spans all of about four blocks and, according to the county clerk's office, has 974 residents. Just a few minutes up the road, you hit the 218-person town of Philo, which consists mainly of a restaurant, a deli, a gas station and the Philo Pottery Inn.

The inn was unlike any other bed-and-breakfast I have visited. Run by Monika Fuchs and Beverley Bennett, it offers nearly every comfort you could envision. In the morning, Fuchs delivers tea or coffee to every room at 8, followed an hour later by a full breakfast of fresh juices and local produce. (The first morning we had corn cakes with a spicy tomato compote, along with bran muffins; the second day included an amazing zucchini and feta souffle and an apple cake.) Before dinner each night there's wine from a local vineyard, and Fuchs also places a freshly baked treat in the dining room for guests to snack on. If that's not enough, there is port and chocolate in the living room to satisfy late-night munchies.

The two innkeepers have been running the place since June 2001, when they opted to leave San Francisco and lead a less hectic life. Fuchs, a former travel agent, jokes that she's had "a long and checkered history of customer service," but in fact she and her partner have achieved a perfect balance of making guests comfortable without being too intrusive, something that most B&B owners never manage.

"We want [guests] to be able to leave their stress behind, read a book or wander around," she says.

The inn has five rooms, including a small cottage in the middle of a garden. The cottage offers a perfect rustic retreat, including a tiny deck out back. I opted, however, to spend much of my time in the garden, where you can read beneath flowering trees and pick fresh plums off a few of them, if you feel like it.

Eating, in fact, is a major part of any Anderson Valley stay. For upscale dining there's the Boonville Hotel, a beautiful old building with a yuppie-ish restaurant. We had quite a good meal there, only slightly marred by the fact that Vic declared the local bottle of organic cabernet franc we ordered "undrinkable" after taking a few sips.

We didn't have a chance to eat at Libby's, a Mexican restaurant in Philo, but others rave about it. Rep. Thompson likes the place so much that he and his wife recently restrained themselves at a nearby salmon bake so they could have "a little Mexican food" on their way back home. And for beer lovers, there's the Anderson Valley Brewing Co.

True foodies might want to book a stay at the Apple Farm, where they can take cooking classes from Sally and Don Schmitt, former owners of Napa's renowned French Laundry restaurant. If you just want to stop by instead, you can buy apples, cider, tomatoes and chutneys there.

Even the more casual markets offer delectable treats. We became addicted to the chicken and avocado sandwiches at Boonville's Boont Berry Farm, a store that featured quality chocolate bars and a good selection of local wines. A weekly farmer's market in Boonville offers fresh berries, gourmet olive oils and local produce. Residents also frequent Gowan's market, which is known for its apples.

Luckily, Anderson Valley offers opportunities to work off some of these meals. Walking through towering redwoods at Hendy Woods State Park, just a few minutes north of Philo, gives you the feeling of traversing an ancient cathedral. Drive another half-hour or so and you can wander through several state parks around the coastal town of Mendocino. When we visited during the Fourth of July weekend Mendocino was packed with tourists, crowding out the stunning views of the Pacific, but off-season it might be a nice place to visit. We opted for the Russian Gulch and Van Damme state parks, with redwoods and coastal views, respectively.

You can easily hike all three state parks in one day, if you're in the mood, or choose the bicycle loop through Hendy instead. When the weather's warm enough, innkeeper Fuchs and her friends also take dips in the Navarro River.

I wish I could report that by the end of our stay, Vic had warmed to California wines. This was not the case, and he spent an inordinate amount of time muttering that the zinfandels and the pinot noirs we sipped were "too jammy" or "too tasty." Still, he did fall for Handley Cellars' Gewurztraminer, and we took a couple of bottles back to D.C. Their elegant long necks and African-patterned labels serve as a reminder of a rare find, one we hope to immerse ourselves in again.

Anderson Valley, Calif., has some big-name wineries, but its real stars are the smaller vineyards, like Handley Cellars.