Weekend in Sonoma

In Northern California, Sonoma County is Napa's neighbor and is often confused for the illustrious valley where Robert Mondavi and other pioneers put American wine on the map. But they are quite different. Whereas Napa Valley is compact and mostly landlocked, Sonoma has several large wine growing valleys, a long stretch of breathtaking Pacific coastline and a more rural atmosphere. It should not be missed.

Sonoma has more than 400 wineries, among them Ravenswood, Benziger, J Vineyards, Jordan and sterling Pinot Noir producers like Littorai and Paul Hobbs.

You can't visit them all in a weekend, but one good choice is Ravenswood, a Sonoma Zinfandel specialist since the mid 1970s. Ravenswood winery offers an informal atmosphere and a $25 walk-in tasting consists of six specially selected small-lot wines in its recently updated tasting room. At Ravenswood, great care is taken in making the wines as well as sharing them with visitors. You can belly up to the bar or enjoy a tasting at a table on the sunny terrace, perhaps with a pairing of local cheeses ($25 for 2). It's quiet, with a laid-back vibe, and the wines are superior in quality and taste. Some favorites include Ravenswood Rosato, Sangiacomo Chardonnay, Icon Red Blend and Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel.

Ravenswood tastings go even deeper: a barrel tasting, winery and vineyard tour ($30), -- my very first reaction to barrel tastings was "No thanks, I'll wait until its done." but they can be interesting and instructive in how wines evolve -- a personal blending session, and tasting through the private cellar of Ravenswood founder, Joel Peterson.

The winery is a short drive to the center of Sonoma, an eight-acre central town plaza with myriad gift stores, chocolate shops, art galleries, clothing and jewelry boutiques, restaurants, bars and local winery tasting rooms. You could spend a whole afternoon here and not see it all.

On the Sonoma Plaza, the El Dorado Kitchen is a good choice for lunch or dinner with a menu highlighting Sonoma's fresh, stellar ingredients and a wine list heavily bent toward local Sonoma and Napa wineries. Fried green tomatoes ($14) and a crab roll ($19) are especially good.

The restaurant is attached to the El Dorado Hotel, a cozy, stylish boutique inn with rooms starting at $275. If you prefer more room to spread out, the nearby Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is another choice with spacious rooms, some with balconies, from $305. Watch out for groups, though, as conferences and meetings can make the atmosphere noisy and hectic.

If you're a guest at the Sonoma Mission Inn, you can use the Willow Stream Spa with its pools and "bathing ritual," which includes steam room, sauna, rain showers, hot spas and a fitness room.

If you're not a guest, you can still make some serious R & R part of your visit with a day pass to the spa for $89. This comes with use of all the facilities, robes, towels and an opportunity to lounge the day away, wet or dry, in sun or shade. Pure indulgence.