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Tom Wark

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The Top Ten Off the Beaten Path Wine Country Experiences

Posted: 09/15/11 11:31 AM ET

Wine Country beckons to Bay Areans looking for a nearby getaway. But if you are like most visitors to Grapeland, your weekend will have you lined up elbow-to-elbow at well-traveled winery tasting rooms, browsing and buying grape-shaped trinkets and eating at the same fancy Wine Country restaurants as the couple that muscled by you at the bar at the last tasting room you visited that day.

The solution is to get off the beaten Wine Country path and experience the Wine Country less traveled. Here are my top 10 ways to create a unique wine country experience.

1. Find the Less Traveled Wine Valley -- Anderson Valley

Located about 100 miles north of San Francisco in Mendocino County between Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast, Anderson Valley is an isolated, bucolic, narrow wine region that has a host of tasting rooms that aren't crowded and deliver some of the finest Pinot Noir and delicate white varietals in the land. Anderson Valley is strewn with small B&B's, small hamlets and, most important, a lack of crowds.

2. The City of Napa isn't for Passing By Anymore

Once upon a time, the city of Napa, located at the south end of Napa Valley, was bypassed by wine lovers -- and for good reason. A shoddy downtown with an old Travel Lodge and boarded up storefronts didn't exactly beckon. Today downtown Napa has been renovated and is strewn with great new restaurants that have it challenging Yountville further up-valley as the culinary destination of foodies-in-the-know.

3. Make An Appointment

The vast majority of wineries in Napa Valley are not open to walk-up visitors, but rather, by law, require an appointment to visit. Make the appointment. These smaller tasting rooms, most of them off of the well-traveled Highway 29, are always less crowded, provide highly personalized attention, aren't strewn with trinkets and allow you to leisurely sip your way through generally very high quality wines.

4. Take The Backroad

Too many Wine Country visitors never get off the main drags wine roads in Napa and Sonoma. Yet, for those who love a leisurely drive will find numerous beautiful back roads across Wine Country. Get out Google Maps and find Dry Creek Road in Napa's western hills, Warm Springs Road in Sonoma Valley, the Trinity Road/Oakville Grade reaching between Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, or Lawndale Road in Sonoma Valley.

5. Go Mountain Climbing

They wouldn't be called "valleys" if there weren't mountains and hills surrounding them and few Wine Country visitors take the time to climb the mountains. In Napa Valley spend a day on Howell Mountain or Spring Mountain or Mount Veeder or Atlas Peak. Poised within these mountain regions overlooking Napa Valley are wineries that house less crowds and often provide spectacular views.

6. Spare the Wine Club and hit the Golf Club

When the boys think about their annual golf getaway it's usually Vegas or the Southwest that attract Bay Area golfers, but Wine Country is closer and has some great courses. In the Napa region there's the Silverado Golf and Country Club with a championship course recently redesigned by Johnny Miller. There's Eagle Vines where you can samples grapes on the vines while you look for your errant tee shot. The Sonoma Country Club, connected with Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma, was the longtime home for the Senior Tour's Charles Schwab Cup.

7. Village Hopping in West Sonoma

Most visitors to Sonoma Wine Country will gather around Sonoma Plaza and the Healdsburg Square. Take a day and get outta town and visit the tiny and quaint villages and hamlets that dot the narrow roads that lead to the Sonoma Coast. Occidental, Valley Ford, Freestone, and Duncan Mills are a selection of the tiny towns that you'll find if you don't blink as your drive by.

8. Less Is More: The Sonoma Co-Op Tasting Room Tour

How about this? Stop at three tasting rooms and get access to 22 wineries. Within ten minutes of each other in the town of Sonoma are three great co-op winery tasting rooms where you can sample the wines of 22 different producers. Spend a day co-op tasting in Sonoma at Sonoma Enoteca, The Cellar Door and Eight Street Wineries.

9. Sample the Napa Music Scene

Napa is not just for wine; it's for great performances too. Four outstanding venues for music exist in Napa, providing an array of genres from classical and Jazz to pop and rock. Before you head to Napa on your next getaway, check out who will be performing at the Napa Valley Opera House, Silos and the Uptown Theater in the town of Napa and the Lincoln Theater up valley in Yountville. These four venues often attract well-known musicians and bands the average Napa Valley visitor never knew were in their midst.

10. Chiles Valley--The Ultimate Off The Beaten Path Napa Destination

There's no one visiting the Chiles Valley except you and a few other very intrepid wine lovers. And that's why we love it. Located in the hills east of Napa Valley and accessed via Sage Canyon Road/Highway 128, Chiles Valley is a narrow, 8-mile long valley hidden in the mountains. A number of stellar wineries including Red and Green Vineyard, Volker Eisele Family Estate, Eagle and Rose Winery and Nichelini Winery among others make this remote valley home. Call ahead for reservations and be prepared to be happily isolated.

Tom Wark founder of Wark Communications, a wine indusry-focused PR and Marketing firm founded in 1994. Since 2004 he has written the award winning wine blog, "FERMENTATION: The Daily Wine Blog," which was recently named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2011 Wine Blog Awards. He lives in Napa Valley with his wife Kathy and their Italian Greyhound, Louis B. Shrimperton III.