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Senior Highlights....

CALIFORNIA WINERIES:

A TASTY WAY TO TOUR THE STATE

California is blessed with ideal weather for growing older gracefully and for growing grapes for winemaking. Seniors in search of a unique California travel idea need look no further than the wineries and grape-growing regions of the state.

"Put your passport away," says Jan Aaron in Wine Routes of America. "You don't need to go to Europe for wine touring." You just need to tour California wineries. A visit to almost any bookstore will lead to this book and many others about wine touring, which has become very popular throughout the state.

When Spanish missionaries started spreading religion more than 200 years ago in California, they also started spreading grape vines. By 1800, ten out of 13 missions had vineyards. The gold rush's thirsty miners made wine big business in the Eureka State and, though that boom faded, the crush of fine California wines has continued.

About three-quarters of the nation's wine is produced in California and more than one-half of the viticultural areas are located in the state. The basic division of the nine wine regions is: the Central Valley; Lake and Mendocino counties; Napa County; the North-Central Coast; San Francisco Bay; the Sierra Foothills; Sonoma County; the South-Central Coast; and Southern California.

Wine touring has become very popular throughout all of these regions and the tourism infrastructure is in place to provide seniors with a wide range of options. Welcoming wineries, luxurious resorts, quaint B&Bs, a wide range of restaurants, outdoors activities, annual festivals and fairs, and much more await the senior traveler in search of a taste of the good life in California.

Of course, Napa and Sonoma to the north of San Francisco are the destinations for many travelers and for good reason. These two counties have some of the finest and most tourist-friendly wineries in the country, along with a wide range of accommodations, dining, and varied activities.

Napa Valley's St. Helena Highway (Highway 29) in the east and the Silverado Trail in the west make wine touring easy. But these roads can get busy on weekends, so it's best to visit during the week, if possible. The Robert Mondavi Winery (707-224-3995) is a worldwide wine mecca and definitely worth a lengthy visit. Then, from Christian Brothers to Inglenook and many much smaller wineries in between, this region is a wine-tasting treat. As with neighboring Sonoma County, Napa tourism officials have published detailed brochures specifically for wine touring. For a unique base in Calistoga, Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs (707-942-4102) provides contemporary and Victorian-style lodging, a spa, mud and mineral baths, massage, facials, and more.

To the east in Sonoma County, a similar experience awaits seniors. Highway 101 parallels the Russian River and runs straight through many rolling vineyards like the top Clos du Bois (800-222-3189). Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, and West Dry Creek roads lead further afield, while many other wineries, like family-operated Kunde Estate Winery (707-833-5501), await off Highway 12. If you want to take home some fresh Sonoma County products, contact Kozlowski Farms (707-887-1587) in Forestville. Mid-week is a less busy option for visiting this region, when possible.

If, like many seniors, you travel to the wine country by RV, be sure to contact the Wine Country RV Superstore (707-585-7895), where owners Mike and Vicki Doyle can provide parts, accessories, service, and helpful tips about the region. For non-RVers, Petaluma's Getaway Bike & Hike Vacations (800-499-2453); Santa Rosa's Flamingo Hotel & Fitness Center (800-848-8300); Glen Ellen's Gaige House Inn (800-935-0237); and Healdsburg's Madrona Manor (800-258-4003) country inn are particularly nice possibilities. If you do make it to Santa Rosa, be sure to visit Mistral Restaurant (707-578-9421) for unique mediterranean fare and great local wines. For a real treat, contact Sonoma Thunder (888-2 FUN FLY) about unique hot air balloon tours and other options.

Further north, Lake and Mendocino Counties make up the state's most northern region. The combination of lakes, woods, and wine make this a wonderfully refreshing region to explore. Some of the top areas include Clear Lake, Guenoc Valley, McDowell Valley, and Mendocino.

Back to the south, along with easy access to Napa, Sonoma, and other regions, the San Francisco Bay area is an ideal base for even further exploration. San Francisco's Gray Line (415-558-9400) offers a convenient option with three Wine Country Tours, including a full-day option to Napa and Sonoma, a 6 1/2-hour trip focusing on Sonoma, and a 'Sipping and Shopping' trip. In the immediate vicinity, vineyards like Almaden and Paul Masson are extremely convenient.

From Sacramento down to the Tehachapi Mountains, the Central Valley is the home of the huge Modesto winery of Ernest and Julio Gallo (not open to the public) and many fine small operations that offer informal tours. Further west, the Sierra Foothills once provided gold and earned the nickname Gold Country. Now, the area provides gold in the wines. Zinfandel grapes have proven especially successful with the small and friendly wineries of this region.

To the south of San Francisco, the North-Central Coast combines the Pacific Ocean and the mountains with great wine-growing conditions. Santa Clara County is the heart of the area, with drives along Highway 101 and Highway 152 providing visits to many fine wineries along the way.

Further south toward Santa Barbara, the South-Central Coast provides top wineries closer to home. The combination of warm weather and ocean air provides ideal conditions for pinot noir, chardonnay, and riesling grapes. The Paso Robles area along Highways 101 and 46, as well as the Santa Ynez Valley, are primary grape and wine stomping grounds for southern Californians.

In addition, the Southern California region provides even closer wine touring options. Basically bounded by Los Angeles and San Diego. The L.A. area includes San Antonio Winery (213-223-1401) right in the city; Ballona Creek Winery (213-870-0320) in Culver City; and McLester Winery (213-641-9686) in Inglewood. The Temecula area and, particularly, Rancho California Road wineries like Callaway Vineyard and Winery (714-676-4001), is another popular destination.

Of course, it's best to contact individual regions and tourism officials for further information. They can help with lodging, dining, and activities. The California Division of Tourism, P.O. Box 1499, Dept. 200, Sacramento, CA 95812-1499, 800-862-2543, ext. 200, can provide further information and specific regional tourism contacts.