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Travel: Wine Country Weekend

California wine country's beauty, rich history and amazing wine create

the perfect setting for a weekend getaway and this is a great time of

the year to go because the harvest is over and it's the off-season.

Because it's quieter now, tasting rooms are less full and you'll receive more attention.

Sheila Sutton, Annie Carmichael and I, all from Duluth, decided to have a

girls' weekend in wine country last February. We had such a great time that

we've already booked another trip there in February 2010.

We arrived in California mid-morning on a Thursday, drove to Sonoma and

stayed at Alexander Valley Vineyards, an estate winery owned and operated by the Wetzel family. It is located in the quaint town of Healdsburg in Russian River Valley. When we arrived, Toni Echos, the Wetzels' event planner, tasted us through the family's collection of wines, giving us an ounce of each to try. In the guest home we received more wine and a fruit basket from the Wetzels.

After relaxing a while, we enjoyed an outstanding meal in town at Ravenous Café and Lounge, an old bungalow home that has been converted into a hip restaurant. The ambiance was exactly what we were looking for -- low lighting, fire crackling, candles and dining with a great local crowd. The

menu is handwritten daily and features local food and wines. We enjoyed Siduri Pinot Noir 2007 from a local vineyard while dining on fresh crab

cake, salads and fish.

The next morning we were up early to meet Kevin Wetzel, the Wetzels' youngest child, who drove us all weekend. He took us to Napa Valley where

our first appointment was with Dave Miner of Miner Family Vineyards on the

famous Silverado Trail.

Emily Miner, Dave's wife, is from southern Minnesota and they love seeing

people from home. There we tasted through the extraordinary line-up, served in Riedel glass that's made specifically for each variety of wine, and we were off to try barrel samples.

Three hours later, we drove to Trefethen Family Vineyards, also on Highway 29. There we met Loren Trefethen, the son of owners John and Janet Trefethen, for a behind-the-scenes tour and tasting.

After a late lunch at Rutherford Grill, we took a leisurely drive back through Sonoma, stopping at wineries along the way. We had dinner reservations later that evening at Mustards Grill, a classic restaurant on

Highway 29. There we dined on amazing food, but it wasn't cheap. The tab came to $200 for the four of us, excluding wine. Dave Miner and Kevin Wetzel donated wine for our meal.

Saturday was Annie's birthday so we surprised her with a private appointment at Cain Vineyards on the top of Spring Mountain. This winery has a breathtaking view overlooking the historic town of St. Helena. Holly Evans White showed us a memorable morning that included tasting the highly coveted Cain Five wine, made with five classic varieties of the Cabernet/Bordeaux family.

We later lunched in town at a burger stand, Taylor's Automatic Refresher.

This retro drive-in offers more than nine burger choices, five kinds of fries, red or white wine and one local beer on tap. Then we headed into

Sonoma to spend more time in Healdsburg.

On the way back we stopped at the Culinary Institute where we saw an old Lake Aire Bottle Shop wine opener from Duluth in the collection. We dropped in at tasting rooms, and then ate dinner at a wonderful restaurant called El Taco Grande. With pink interior walls and a staff that spoke Spanish to each other, we knew we would eat terrific, authentic Mexican food -- and we were right. Then we called it a night since we were

leaving early the next morning.

It was an unforgettable trip and we can't wait to return.

Here are a few tips for planning your trip to California wine country:

- Consider the amount of time you will be there. Napa and Sonoma

valleys are huge.You can spend more time driving than touring the vineyards. Get a map and prioritize wineries you want to visit.

- Hire a driver. You'll be consuming a lot of wine and may not be

able to drive safely. There are a number of car services in the area.

- Lodging is limited in both Napa and Sonoma so make your reservations early.

- You can fly to either San Francisco or Sacramento, but Sacramento is closer to wine country.

- If your heart is set on eating at a particular restaurant, book a

reservation before you go.

- Most tasting rooms close around 4 p.m. If your dinner reservation

is late, you'll have time to schedule something in between.