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A Visit to Carneros

Love Champagne but don't have the time or funds to make a trip to France's renowned Champagne region? Head a quick 45 minutes north of San Francisco to Los Carneros ("the Ram" in Spanish), a California wine region unique in that it lies partly in Sonoma Valley and partly in Napa Valley. Here, some of Europe's most famous producers of sparkling wines have put down roots, including Spain's Freixenet and France’s Champagne Taittinger. 

Why Carneros?  It's one of the coolest grape-growing regions in California, making it the spot to grow crisp, high-acid Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes -- the two main grapes used to make those powerhouse sparklers from the Champagne region of France.

Touring and Tasting. Options abound for touring the dozens of wineries throughout the two valleys of Carneros. You can rent a car or a bike and meander on your own. However, many visitors opt for guided tours, as some of the smaller wineries can be hard to spot. Many wineries have a tasting fee running from $3 to $10; most reimburse this fee with the purchase of wine.

Keep in mind that Carneros isn't just about sparkling wines; while Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make up the lion's share of the grape crops, area vintners are coaxing terrific wines from Syrah and Merlot, too, and you can visit many small, family-owned wineries that dot the landscape.

However, if you've come to Carneros for its links to the famous European sparkling wines, you'll want to visit these big three:

Domaine Carneros.  Founded by France's Champagne Taittinger, the estate is crowned by the sumptuous Domaine Carneros château, modeled after an 18th-century French château owned by one of Taittinger's original founders.

Artesa Vineyards and Winery. This outpost of the famous Spanish sparkling-wine producer, Codorníu, mostly devotes itself to varietals made of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The impressive grounds -- including fountains, reflecting pools, sculptures and panoramic views from wrap-around terraces -- delight visitors.

Gloria Ferrer. This winery is part of the Freixenet company, a famous Spanish sparkling wine producer. Here, Spanish influences -- including graceful arches, red-tile rooftops, tapestries and antiques -- adorn the winery, where three daily tours help visitors grasp the secrets of making sparkling wines in the time-honored traditional method.

Beyond Wine. There's more to this wine country than wine! Art galleries, boutiques, and antique stores abound. Plan a day of golf, an afternoon flying above the region in a hot-air balloon or a visit to a local farmers' market. Art lovers should check out the diRosa Preserves in Sonoma, boasting fascinating collections of eclectic and ever-changing modern art. Also explore Sonoma's Mission San Francisco Solano, the last mission to be built in California.

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