"To experience the simpler pleasures of a small family-run winery, search out Nalle Winery." - NY Times, February 24, 2002

Excerpted from The New York Times
© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Travel : In Sonoma County
by David Hochman

Not so long ago, Sonoma County was considered the Napa Valley's country cousin. But with hip new hotels and restaurants sprouting up between the vines, the once-bucolic stretch of wine country, an easy hour's drive north from San Francisco, is now about as unrefined as a $100 bottle of the local cabernet.

Healdsburg, at the north end of Sonoma Valley, is the center of the action, with fashionable shops, inns and bistros opening around the main square. Other towns are following suit, but even as sleepy communities like Geyserville and Glen Ellen become more upscale, the region maintains the small-town feel of a place where winemakers still consider themselves farmers.

Still, there's been enough growth that Sonoma is no longer an easy appendage to a weekend trip to Napa. The county is enormous - roughly the size of Rhode Island - and its increasingly prominent wineries and attractions are far-flung.

It is that very expanse that sets Sonoma apart, with a topography that varies from mountains to farmland to redwood forest to rugged coast. There are 11 separate microclimates, each yielding its own gastronomic treat. Blueberry enthusiasts will argue there's no better place to be. Lavender lovers will say the same; so will artisan cheese fans, olive oil aficionados and anyone remotely enthralled by the grape.

With off-season prices still available through April, now is a good time to visit. There aren't crowds to battle, as there are in summer or during the grape crush, usually around September. Those who beat the rush might even persuade a lonesome vintner or two to preview next year's vintage straight out of the barrel. Certain Sonoma traditions never go out of style.

To experience the simpler pleasures of a small family-run winery, search out the Nalle Winery, 2383 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, (707) 433-1040, or at www.nallewinery.com, where tastings are by appointment only and Solo, a Labrador retriever, joins guests during Zinfandel tastings.