The best kind of Christmas shopping is the kind that is fun. While some people actually enjoy going to the malls and standing in cash register lines 10 people deep, the reallysmart shoppers - in our opinion, anyway - are those who make the shopping experience a memorable occasion which they can remember with fondness.
A visit to California's wine country can be just such an experience. The festive decorations will all be there, of course, as you settle in for a brief stay at one of the exquisite inns. And instead of fighting downtown traffic, you'll be driving country roads to explore wineries of all sizes and shapes, each with its own ambience and colorful motif.
What's more, many wineries have shopping areas that include much more than just wine. Sure, you can take back wine as gifts, but you can also choose any of several related items usually on sale at the wineries - things such as glassware, cookbooks, picnic baskets and just about anything else having to do with enjoying fine wine.
And when all is said and done, and you're on your way home with a carload of gifts, you're also packing a weekend full of memories that will be decidedly more pleasant than they would have been shopping at the mall.
Here are a few suggestions for places to make this year's Christmas shopping memories:
The grapevine has an amazing power to transform a reasonably attractive countryside into an oasis of culture and beauty that speaks to all of one's senses - and no place is that better manifested than in the famed Napa Valley.
A visit to Napa is not just a chance to see where wine is made, or to explore the upscale shops and stores that now have found their way into the tiniest of Napa Valley communities. Rather, a trip to the valley is an almost spiritual journey that presents you at once with the beauty of 63,000 acres of vineyards and the industry that has brought a European elegance to the Valley lifestyle.
The town of Napa itself is no longer the sleepy berg it was before its name became synonymous with world-class wine. With 75,000 residents, Napa has become a city in its own right - albeit with the feel of a small town.
Up the 30-mile-long valley are much smaller towns such as Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga - each an easy and scenic drive from Napa and all of them offering their own unique versions of what a Napa Valley wine town should be all about. Taken together, the towns of the Napa Valley offer a Disneyland for wine-lovers whose E-ticket rides will include some of the most famous labels in the world.
The Napa Valley boasts a wide selection of impressive lodgings, none more so than Meadowood, a resort tucked along one edge of the Valley near downtown St. Helena. It's like a country estate where, once you go through the security gate, you enter a lush world of green lawns, rolling hillsides, meandering trails and forests so thick they might as well be in the Sierras.
If this were the 1920's, it's easy to imagine that Jay Gatsby would have loved Meadowood. Yet the opulence here is one that every-day working people can enjoy. Our suite was one of the newer accommodations at the resort, and situated on one of the forested hillsides. It gave us the feeling of being in a luxurious vacation home in the woods - cozy, yet spacious with its high ceilings and open floor plan.
For more information on the Napa Valley, go to napavintners.com or www.napachamber.org. To learn more about Meadowood, call 800-458-8080 or go to meadowood.com.
While the 20-plus wineries of the Temecula Valley are a fraction of what you might find in Napa, Temecula's wine-tasting experience is getting high marks from travelers who have happened on this scenic valley almost by accident.
Located just off thewell-traveled Interstate 15, between Riverside and San Diego, the gently rolling hills and scenic vineyards of Temecula now are becoming a destination in their own right. Not just a gimmick to boost local tourism, the wineries of Temecula make good wine - and presumably good money - turning the fruit of the Valley into wines that are satisfying even the most sophisticated palates.
And, as festive visitors now pack many of the tasting rooms on weekends, new wineries continue to pop up each year, according to Linda Kissam, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. Big resorts are on the way, too, such as the South Coast Winery's new Resort and Spa that cost well over $20 million by the time it opened in 2005.
Locals compare Temecula to the Napa Valley of 20 years ago when its tourism infrastructure was catching up with the growing popularity of the region. But one of the local winemakers pointed out there is a big difference - many of Temecula's wines are already considered competitive with Napa and certainly not 20 years behind in the attainment of overall quality
With the exception of the South Coast Villas, most of the accommodations in the Temecula Wine Country are bed-and-breakfasts or small inns. If you just have to visit a mall this holiday season, about 15 miles north on Interstate 15 is the Lake Elsinore Outlet Mall, which includes dozens of outlet stores, each offering discount prices on brand name merchandise.
For more information on Temecula Valley wineries and accommodations, contact the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association at 1-800-801-WINE or visit www.temeculawines.org.
The rolling hills and vineyards of the Sonoma Valley are just part of a natural tapestry that has beckoned art-lovers and wine connoisseurs to this region for decades. Indeed, the fathers who founded missions here were growing grapes hundreds of years ago.
Today, the Sonoma Valley is one of the cornerstones of the California wine industry. It's here that you're likely to see more family-run wineries and fewer of those owned by international conglomerates. The landscape is similar to Napa but everything seems just a bit more "small-town."
But small-town accommodations can sometimes also be world-class, and the Fairmont Sonoma is one of the most spectacular inns in the state. Driving into the Fairmont Sonoma is like arriving at your French country estate for the weekend. The ambience and grandeur just make this seem like a larger-than-life experience as you make your way into the circular driveway and are immediately greeted by the helpful hotel valet.
In fact, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn last year spent $62 million upgrading the inn to make it one of the most prestigious spa resorts in Northern California. Built in the style of a mission in 1926, the hotel has a rich history of beckoning travelers even before the present structure was built.
One reason the Sonoma Mission Fairmont Inn has long been popular with travelers is the natural hot springs that provides thermal mineral water for soaking. This goes hand in hand with the spa services offered at the resort - more than 50 such treatments in all.
For more information on Sonoma Valley, please go to www.bestinsonoma.com. For information on the Sonoma Fairmont Resort and Spa, phone 707-938-9000 or go to fairmont.com/sonoma/
Photos: Temecula Valley has come into its own as a wine-producing region in the past several years (photo courtesy Temecula Valley Winegrowers Associatoin); Meadowood is perfect choice in Napa Valley; Nick Palumbo shows off wine from Temecula's Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery; Fairmont Sonoma is elegant Sonoma Valley choice.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway