There's nothing like a fall drive to help put things in perspective and remind us that we live in a pretty special place. Harvest is over, so the bruising trucks should be off the road, and the trees and grapevines are turning colors. It's not quite Thanksgiving or the holiday rush, so it's the ideal time to appreciate the season and do a little food-and-wine reconnaissance.
The one California appellation straddling both Napa and Sonoma counties, Carneros is a flat, fairly small and straightforward region to get around and a great destination for eating, drinking and art.
Starting near Sears Point and the Sonoma Raceway, begin your journey at Ram's Gate Winery (29700 Highway 121, 721-8700, ramsgate.com), a luxurious hilltop spot with great views, lots of outdoor space and a high level of personalized service, from small bites paired to go with the wines to picnics prepared to take near the lake. Ram's Gate makes very good chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah.
Continue along Highway 121 to Meadowcroft Wines (23574 Highway 121, 934-4090, meadowcroftwines.com) for cabernet sauvignon and merlot, within the larger CornerStone Sonoma compound (cornerstonegardens.com) that features garden installations, shops, other tasting rooms and the Park 121 Restaurant.
Right across the road is Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards (23555 Highway 121, 933-1917, gloriaferrer.com), one of the best views of Carneros in the region, enjoyed best with a glass of brut ros?or Sonoma brut in your hand.
Sit down to spicy chicken and waffles, a ham buttermilk biscuit or black-pepper-smoked brisket at The Fremont Diner (2698 Fremont Drive, 938-7370, thefremontdiner.com), a favorite outpost that grows a lot of its own food and offers milkshakes, fried pie and plenty of yummy local beers on tap.
Keep the bubbles flowing by heading straight to Domaine Carneros (1240 Duhig Road, 257-0101, domainecarneros.com), celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and perch atop the terrace for vintage brut with caviar and cheese plates for your table. To take a break from food and drink, stretch your legs and your mind at the di Rosa Preserve (5200 Sonoma Highway, 226-5991, dirosaart.org), a 200-acre sprawl of some 2,000 works of art set around the former home of Rene and Veronica di Rosa, their vineyards and winery lake.
From there, your best next stop for winding down is Farm at The Carneros Inn (4048 Sonoma Highway, 299-4880, thecarnerosinn.com). Try the Carnivore Cocktail, centered around bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup and pickled quail egg. Or drop into Market (299-4820) next door, for all kinds of Carneros-made wines, charcuterie and cheese.
<b>Russian River's Westside Road</b>
The Russian River Valley's Westside Road is a picture-perfect backdrop for fall, full of color and winding turns. Start or end atRiver Road and include Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant (7871 River Road, 887-3300, farmhouseinn.com) for one of the best dinners in Northern California. Many of the ingredients are grown on fifth-generation owner Catherine Bartolomei's farm.
Then continue west on River Road until it meets Westside just a few miles more. The first place to visit is Gary Farrell Winery (10701 Westside Road, 473-2909, garyfarrellwinery.com), where new winemaker Theresa Heredia, previously of Freestone Vineyards, is doing phenomenal things with single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays, as well as continuing the winery's commitment to making lush zinfandel.