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Sonoma County Is Like Its Wines: Big, Beautiful and oh-so Affordable

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Rarely is there a discussion of California wine country without that tired comparison being made between Sonoma and Napa counties. Yes, Napa has the glitz, the glamour, the star chefs and stellar Cabernets -- and along with it the crowds and high prices. Sonoma, on the other hand, cherishes its laid-back reputation and its (relative) affordability, though its many excellent wines could be better appreciated.

So let's stop right there, and throw out some numbers. Napa boasts around 450 wineries; its neighbor, less than half that. But what Sonoma lacks in quantity, it makes up for in variety. At 1,600 square miles, Sonoma County is twice the area of Napa, and is made up of 12 regions that vary greatly in terms of terrain, climate and grape varietals.

Closest to San Francisco (about 30 miles) and bordering Napa are the Sonoma Mountain and Sonoma Valley regions. Thanks to its dry climate, the area produces robust Zinfandels and Cabernets and fruity Chardonnays, and its undulating golden hills are a sight to see at sunset. This is where you'll find the largest concentration of wineries (more than 40) and some of the biggest names in California wine: Ravenswood, Gloria Ferrer, Cline Cellars, Schug, and St. Francis among them. Benzinger, one of the few bio-dynamically produced wines, is located in Sonoma Valley, in the tiny town of Glen Ellen.

Stay in the town of Sonoma itself, a peaceful little enclave in the center of which is the historic town plaza, dominated by an grand early-20th-century stone City Hall. Surrounding the square (designated a National Historic Landmark) are colorful, Mexican Colonial-style buildings housing smart boutiques, restaurants and even a classic 1930's movie house, the Sebastiani Theatre, its ticket booth manned by a stylish mannequin.

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Locals will point you to the New Haven-style pizza at The Red Grape, just off the plaza. If the weather is agreeable, head to the quiet back patio for a pizza -- try the Fig & Goat Cheese ($14.25) or the Margherita ($12.75); complement it with one of the 30 or so local wines available by the glass (starting at $6.50). If beer is more your thing, Murphy's Irish Pub, tucked away in a courtyard off the main square, has plenty on tap (including the Petaluma-brewed Lagunitas IPA). It can get rowdy at night, with live music and outdoor seating that fills up quickly with townsfolk sipping on 20-ounce Imperial pints ($6).

Lay your head at one of two boutique hotels: the 16-room, rustic Sonoma Hotel (home to the famous the Girl & the Fig restaurant) or the El Dorado Hotel, where several of the 27 sleekly designed rooms have balconies overlooking the plaza. Rates at the Sonoma Hotel start at $115; at the El Dorado rooms start at $175.

For a completely different experience, head about an hour northwest into the Russian River Valley, where the climate becomes noticeably cooler and damper, and more conducive to growing delicate grapes like Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay (for sparkling wine). Two-lane rural roads connect the many of the valley's wineries, which share space with pine, oak and redwood forests, apple orchards and of course, the 110-mile-long river itself. (Iron Horse, Korbel and Sonoma-Cutrer are some of the well-known wineries scattered throughout this scenic region.)

Santa Rosa is a good base for visiting area tasting rooms, thanks to its proximity to Highway 101, which cuts north through the Russian River Valley. Our pick for hotel is the 50s-era Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa -- easy to spot thanks to rotating pink neon flamingo -- which boasts a huge outdoor pool and live music in the kitschy cocktail lounge. Rates start at just $109. (Beware: it's a magnet for wedding parties on weekends.)

Another historic Santa Rosa spot is Stark's Steakhouse, located in downtown's Old Railroad Square. This 1906 structure, formerly a hotel and later Italian restaurant, was recently turned into a warm, cozy steakhouse and bar by successful area restauranteurs Mark and Terri Stark. Classic steakhouse decor -- dark leather booths, deep wood accents and a roaring fire -- are a showcase for the in-house dry-aged Certified Prime Black Angus beef, which ranges from $31 to $39, depending on the cut.

A 10-minute drive north of Santa Rosa is the town of Fulton, where you'll find the Kendall Jackson Wine Center, just off the on Highway 101. The European-style château surrounded by immaculately groomed shrubbery, rose bushes and culinary gardens with Italian, French and American herbs and produce. Visit the tasting area and tour the gardens, or better yet, enjoy a seated wine and food pairing ($25) with dishes created from the fruits and veggies harvested on site.

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There's also a fair share of smaller, artisinal wineries worth a visit. Like the little-known Foppiano Vineyards, Sonoma County's oldest family-owned winery, founded in 1896. Foppiano doesn't make a whole lot of wine -- growing mostly Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc in small quantities -- but what it does bottle is quite tasty and fairly priced (from $15 to $25). And a bonus, tastings are free!

Foppiano is just south of Healdsburg, a ritzy town that feels more Napa than Sonoma. The town plaza, with its impressive towering redwoods, is ringed by fancy art galleries, upscale clothing boutiques and kitchenware shops, and most notably, the two-Michelin star restaurant Cyrus, as well as Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen.

Eight miles north of Healdsburg, in the northernmost part of Sonoma County, is the Alexander Valley region, which, during the day, is one of the warmest places in Northern California. At night, however, it cools off considerably, which produces distinctive reds in the Bordeaux style, as well as French Syrah and Italian Sangiovese.

Alexander Valley's most famous winery is also its newest, the 88-acre Francis Ford Coppola Winery, near Geyserville. Where most tasting rooms in Sonoma keep a low profile, Coppola's isn't afraid to be showy .¤.¤. in a very show business kind of way. The Hollywood memorabilia on view -- including Vito Corleone's desk from "The Godfather," costumes from "Dracula," and an actual Tucker car parked on a rotating stage -- nearly takes precedence over the wines.

Then there are the winery's outdoor swimming pools (complete with cabanas) set to open later this month after extensive construction delays. It's been called "water park meets wine tasting," but don't dismiss the delicious, hearty Italian fare at the winery's restaurant, Rustic, with recipes culled from Coppola's family cookbook. Spaghetti Pomodoro ($11) and Mrs. Scorcese's Lemon Chicken ($24) are standouts.

Since Sonoma County covers such a vast area, a great way to experience the diversity of its wines is by having them all in one place. Fortunately, there's no shortage of festivals and tasting events here. The largest is the Taste of Sonoma (usually held over Labor Day Weekend) with more than 150 wineries pouring thousands of wines under three huge tents, and 60 local chefs offering tasty pairings.

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