Napa and Sonoma valleys are the obvious choices when plotting a trip through wine country. But there are other pleasures to be found by going where many haven't ventured: Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties and Willamette Valley, Ore. Cheaper, less crowded and more tranquil, these hypnotic destinations reflect a pace of life that seems unattainable given my manic machinations. But a serene sojourn to wine country at least provides a desired dose of peace.
One-and-a-half hours north of Los Angeles lies Santa Barbara County: quaint towns; friendly, fun wineries; and a smattering of Sideways-inspired glitz. This county's coastal wine region has three appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Santa Maria profits from the east-to-west mountains that funnel natural air-conditioning over the vines (and results in nipple-hardening mornings even in the summer). It's here that Bien Nacido Vineyards – a sprawling, coveted 90-acre plot of land – births some of my favorite chardonnays and pinot noirs. In this valley, you'll find Au Bon Climat, Foxen and Qupé – three stellar wineries. Santa Rita Hills, the newest and smallest region, has one of the most anal-retentively maintained wineries I've ever toured: Melville Vineyards. Its amazing estate pinots prove cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.
The Santa Ynez Valley, the hottest region that ripens robust Rhône grape varieties such as syrah and grenache, hosts the majority of the wineries. For prime location, stay in or around Los Olivos and avoid Solvang, unless you prefer cheesiness with your brats in a German Disneyesque town. Outside Solvang, however, is the Hitching Post, a carnivore's restaurant dream. If your pilgrimage is during the summer (recommended) bring a picnic, grab a bottle of chilled viognier at Zaca Mesa Winery and soak up atmosphere that purifies the soul.
Mendocino County, which thrives on two different crops – the legal and illegal – grew organic before organic was cool. And not the hairy-armpit-chick-from-your-woman's-lit-class organic. It grows good grapes. Mendocino evokes idyllic vineyard landscapes: agrestic, rolling hills covered in meticulous rows of vines and peaceful mountains that keep the grapes blanketed with nurturing warm air. You won't find ostentatious, affluence-ridden wineries, though; the attitude here is "we're all about the land." The place feels genuine – untouched by the effete commercialism that has permeated, and in some aspects spoiled, Sonoma and Napa valleys. It's as close to heaven as this heathen will ever get.
Stay in Ukiah and sample its microbreweries for a change from a wine-stained day. From this liftoff, visit Roederer Estate, the American home of its French Champagne parent, then Husch, Navarro and Yorkville Cellars. If time permits, travel east to Lake County and check out the biodynamically farmed Ceago Vinegarden.
Fifteen years ago, Oregon wine conjured up hillbillies with bathtubs, but they've matured. Their pinot noirs, and its cousin, pinot gris, are made with love and lots of money, and have become the new VIP of American pinots. Fly into Portland and drive one hour south to Willamette (rhymes with "dammit") Valley. A central place to stay is Newburg (cheaper) or Dundee (more scenic). Good eats in the 'hood: Tina's and Dundee Bistro.
Wineries to visit (and limiting my choices proved excruciating): Adelsheim, Benton Lane, Bethel Heights (pack a picnic to park next to the vineyards), Carlton Winemaker's Studio, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, Lemelson, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser and Witness Tree. And for the sake of novelty, take a tour of America's only rice wine producer, Sake One, in Forest Grove to the west of Portland.
If you've ever thought about visiting wine country, don't hesitate. With everything attacking our spirit these days, we deserve a respite. Go – you and your soul will embrace it.
Robertson 2007 Sauvignon Blanc South Africa Exceptional quality for the price. Soft and citrusy with ripe red apple and a tart, steely, flinty aftertaste. Sw = 2. $10. 3.5 stars.
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.