SANTA ROSA, Calif.—"Winos" like me are never supposed to admit this, but sometimes California's wine country gets on my nerves. Sure, the wine writer in me thrills to roll up California Highway 29, taking in Napa Valley's most iconic names: Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Far Niente and Charles Krug. And the hedonist in me surely loves the welcome thrown by the wineries and wine bureaus in Napa and Sonoma Counties: fine wine, fine food, fine conversation all.
But sometimes I feel trapped, entangled in the seductive tendrils of the wine lifestyle that blankets this corner of northern California thicker than an unpruned vine and draws thirsty tourists from around the world.
That's when a part of me wants to rebel. Forget the chardonnay; gimme an uber-dry Tanqueray gin martini—stirred, and those olives better be packed only with pimento. Stuff The French Laundry in Yountville; a cheeseburger from Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena will do just fine. Stomp through yet another barrel room on your own, baby; I'm off to Napa to say how-do to the Motherwells, Bacons and Stellas hanging in the art gallery of the Hess Collection.
Unless you are a wine fanatic, don't be shy about insisting on a "break" from all things vino. Resist being muzzled by a glass of melodious merlot offered by your mate. Roam instead across Napa and Sonoma, doing whatever strikes your fancy, be it wallowing in Calistoga's famed mud baths or meeting the Peanuts gang at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. For me, a coastal New Englander now living in the urban prairie known as Chicago, there's nothing more exciting than racing 'round curvy mountain roads and hurling my car toward some deserted Sonoma beach north of Bodega Bay.
Lastly, even amid the platinum price tags of tony St. Helena and Healdsburg, never discount what's enjoyable for free—wine country's heady beauty. There's something in every season to catch the eye, from the vivid "greening" of the valleys when the rains come in winter to the reawakening of the grape vines in spring to the bustling harvest amid golden hills come fall.