A First-Timer Discovers Sonoma and Napa

11/12/2010 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I finally made a pilgrimage that I've been meaning to make for years. It's a sacred trip for some, an annual trip for others. No matter the audience, the mention of a visit to this place always draws raves, guttural oohs and aahs, and much unsolicited advice. "You must go here," says one friend persuasively. "No, no," insists an eavesdropping other, "you absolutely, positively must go here." With a head full of contradicting information, my brain on overload, I have always pushed this place back to the bottom of my list. I'm a book-a-ticket-and-show-up kind of traveler and this particular trip always felt like a lot of work. Figuring out the perfect itinerary seemed a lot like figuring out the perfect vintage -- impossible. I'm talking about Napa and Sonoma.

Having tasted and learned the wines of the world in countries like Chile and Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, Spain and Portugal, it was high time I took a taste of what was going on in my own backyard. Perfect itinerary be damned, I reached out to all of the friends who once offered suggestion; I called on various wineries that had informed and influenced my former life as a publicist and started to make a list of possible places to visit. I made sleeping arrangements and I booked my flights, and as the dates grew closer and my itinerary grew longer, I had a sneaking suspicion that the scary, intimidating trip to wine country that I once envisioned was going to be grand.

For the first week of October, I spent some time in Northern California's wine country, a place I can describe using the very same words of affection as those before me -- charming, expansive, delicious, and peaceful -- but to this list I'll add something with a little more flair: a sanctuary with great booze. Every nook and cranny of wine country delivers with a smooth finish. First I hit Sonoma, and then Napa. After, I flew back through San Francisco, enlisting the help of wine friends new and old to inform and educate my palate.

Over a series of blog posts, I plan to share my first-timer wine finds. A neophyte, I made no bones about that fact during my trip and checked my know-it-all-inclination into long-term parking at SFO on arrival. While I certainly "knew" what I liked (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc), and what I didn't (Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir) going into this trip, I opened myself to the pros and found that all of my preconceived ideas about wine were turned on their head. I came out of Napa and Sonoma with a more informed palate, a curiosity for exploring new wines, and a desire for more learning. The best revelation was that Napa and Sonoma aren't communities of the wealthy or the privileged, they are communities of hard-working folks who love what they do, and love to share their wines with those that are lucky enough to be passing through. And don't even get me started on the restaurants...

Five full days (and nights) of tasting, blending, pairing, crushing, picking, harvesting, eating and drinking -- a crash course in California wines and winemaking -- and, I think, I've come out a champ. Albeit a champ with a few extra pounds on her middle, but everything has its price!

Stay tuned for more...