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It's a dress code that has left more than a few guests wanting to disappear in their $260 Diesel jeans or reach for a pashmina to throw over a low-cut cocktail dress that looks downright absurd in a dusty vineyard setting.

In a land where agriculture can be surprisingly upscale, the fashion rules for social events are fuzzy, making it tough to intuit the right look.

Blame it on three little words: "Wine Country Casual." Event hosts, fashionistas and shop owners toss around the term with breezy assumption, as if it were as blatant a no-brainer as swimwear for a pool party. "Wine Country Casual" shows up in verbal directives and formal invitations, as well as the marketing strategies of upscale boutiques that cater to the social set.

But what on Earth does it mean? Is it khakis and Lacoste, a flirty skirt and cashmere sweater, or something sidling close to lam?and chiffon? Is it more Ralph Lauren, Norma Kamali or Juicy Couture?

In fact, some observers of the region's social circuit - a whirl of auctions, harvest feasts, awards nights, galas, charity bashes and salutes of every stripe stretching from the Carneros to the Mendocino Coast - say "Wine Country Casual" is so open to interpretation, so utterly inclusive in a loose, Northern California way, that it can mean almost anything goes.

Carrie Brown, owner of the Jimtown Store in the Alexander Valley, learned soon after her arrival in Healdsburg that if there was a fashion code in Wine Country, no one was consulting it. She dressed for a barbecue in jeans, sweater, boots and a bit of jewelry. But everyone else at the party was all over the fashion map. The hostess in a spangly outfit, her husband in chinos, another guest in a fall skirt and sweater, and the host's father in suit and tie.

"I said, 'Oh, no. I just can't win,'" Brown moaned. "That was 15 years ago. And I say it's still the same."

That freedom of fashion expression leaves a lot of latitude for the veterans comfortable with their own crowd who also know the terrain. They know to dress for the setting and the occasion. No exposed flesh in a chilly wine cave, sensible shoes for any event "set among the vines" or on cold concrete floors, no sober suits when the tone is bacchanalian.

"'Wine Country Casual' is what anybody really wants to put on," said Boots Brounstein, the owner of Diamond Creek Vineyards in Calistoga. "It's being comfortable with yourself; and if you're comfortable with yourself, you're going to be comfortable wherever you go." Whether a guest or playing host, she prefers to blend in safely with the crowd in silk or wool slacks and a dressy blouse.

But an out-of-towner can easily equate country with picnic wear or mistakenly assume that the higher the ticket price, the more formal the attire.

"They think the vineyards are farms and it's going to be casual. They don't realize how sophisticated it is," said Healdsburg clothier Susan Graf, who has outfitted many visitors who flew in for a special event, only to realize with horror that they packed all wrong once they got a load of the region's understated swank.

Former Sonoma County Museum curator Natasha Boas once characterized the dinner attire at an exhibit opening as "very North Bay" with guests in "Zen attire, flip-flops and linen." When the quote appeared in a San Francisco social column, it caused a bit of a stir behind the scenes. But museum executive director Ariege Arseguel confirmed that it was indeed "what the majority of people were wearing."

"But I also see here that people really enjoy a lot of color," Arseguel said, "lighter-weight fabrics and open-toed shoes."

Women tend to experience the greater angst when it comes to decisions about what to wear in Wine Country. But men also wrestle over how to come off not looking like an executive at a chamber mixer, a hayseed or worse - a tourist. Many default to slacks and Tommy Bahama shirts.

Wine Country dwellers almost take pride in their relaxed fashion rules. It takes a certain ?an to show up at an exclusive affair in jeans and cowboy boots and feel uncaringly at ease. "It's kind of a passport, a free ticket to do whatever you want," said Claire Samara, who owns the Angelique boutique on the Sonoma Plaza and is the regular date of Glen Ellen vintner Bruce Cohn.

"Whenever I'm on buying trips I tell people, 'I'm not San Francisco, I'm not Marin, I'm Wine Country Casual,'" said Samara, seen at the recent Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction in an asymmetrical draped skirt with bold back and white stripes, a sleeveless black shell, a Tahitian pearl necklace and low-heeled, patent leather slings. "There isn't a day when I don't use the phrase five or six times. People ask me all the time what it means, and yet it's a difficult question for me to explain."

Sometimes out-of-towners fly into the shop in a panic that the outfit they'd planned will make them overdressed.

"They want to look special, in a Wine Country Casual kind of way," says Samora. "Just as every cabernet has its fruits and flavors, each person can be distinctive without being flashy. If it's not fun, I tell them 'Don't get that.' It's got to be about the joy of living in Wine Country."

People do seem to know the look when they see it. It's creative, playful, not off-the-rack or label-driven. It may be whimsical or classy in an understated way. No decolletage. No bling. No hemlines too far above the knee. A splash of color and cute accessories. Low slings or kitten heels. Nothing that is going to drill holes in a winery garden. The go-anywhere little black dress that is a staple of the urban closet can seem almost dowdy once you get well north of the Gate.

Elaine Yourick, manager of the Euro-style boutique Circe on the Healdsburg Plaza, said people who party in Wine Country don't want to be imprisoned by their clothes. Casual means not having to be vigilant about sucking in the stomach, keeping the bust in or straps up.

"They may want to look elegant but be comfortable. That would include fabrics with sheen that stretch and you can really have a good time in them," Yourick said. "You can sit, you can dance, you can eat, but you look fabulous and not overly fussy."

Those who love to dress up lament that too much fashion forgiveness can take away the fun of dressing for the occasion.

"Casual doesn't mean sloppy. Recognizing different events and different situations provide opportunities to have different looks - to me, that's a blast," said Elizabeth Candelario, the marketing director for Quivira Winery in Healdsburg. "In the days of $500 designer jeans and $300 bejeweled sandals, just because you're Wine Country Casual doesn't mean you're not spending a lot of money on clothes."

Brown concedes it sounds old-fashioned, but she wants to look ladylike and stylish when venturing out of her country store for an afternoon reception or evening on the Plaza. "It might be a pretty little dress and pretty shoes. A linen skirt and beautiful blouse. Downsizing to the smaller handbag," she said. "I'm not trying to outdo anybody. I'm doing it out of respect for the occasion."

Pam Hunter, a public relations consultant who has put on dozens of events for more than 20 years, including the early Napa Valley Wine Auctions, said the concept of Wine Country Casual - however amorphous - evolved out of necessity. Too many miserable nights shivering in skimpy cocktail dresses and "sinking their high heels like golf tees in the grass" forced women to develop a style that is festive but not too fussy for the vines, she said.

Hunter has one image to offer that epitomizes what Wine Country Casual is - when done right.

"I think of Molly Chappellet at Schramsberg's 40th Anniversary party," she recalled. "She was wearing this diaphanous lavender jacket and lavender silken linen slacks. We were up on a mountain. It was rugged and dirty. You're out in the trees. But I'm watching her move the length of this great long dining table taking plates of food back to her family and friends. And here she is with this beautiful jacket flowing behind her. She just looked glorious."