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Winter Wineland puts delicious spin on winery tours

The first hint that Winter Wineland is one of Sonoma’s largest events is that the program is 15 pages long. It spans three columns on each page simply to fit the names of the participating wineries, in a type size of just 9 points that means reading glasses might be in order.

Yet the list is well-worth slogging through, and the weekend of Jan. 15 and 16 is well-worth putting on your calendar, for the 140 wineries that throw open their cellar doors for tours, tastings, art shows, live entertainment, food, and bottle or case discounts. Many of these venues are private operations, so this is the one of the only times the public can catch a glimpse, and maybe even meet the winemakers.

If you think you’ve been-there, done-that with winery drive-arounds, this homegrown event will prove otherwise. Rather than packing in just tourists, the weekend gears towards locals, who crave something different. Forget pretension, Winter Wineland is relaxed elegance, with a bit of humor to boot.

So at Armida Winery in Healdsburg, it's a tailgate party with deep fried Willie Bird turkey. At Healdsburg’s Bella Vineyards, the caves will be transformed into a winter fantasy, complete with glittering lights and faux snow, warmed by paella from local celeb-chef Gerard Nebesky.

Some gatherings will be educational, such as the barrel-making demonstrations at Santa Rosa’s Benovia Winery, or the tasting seminar at Geyserville’s David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery (alongside an elaborate art show and extras like red wine and popcorn pairings). There’s the sensory exploration at Sebastopol’s Dutton-Goldfield to explore aromas and bouquets, while Healdsburg’s Kendall Jackson will explain all those intriguing terms on the aroma wheel (leather, forest floor, lychee). It all comes together at Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg with tips on how to read a wine label.

Some of the parties are about the food. Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville will showcase hearty winter fare from its new Rustic restaurant, and to beat the chill, Forth Vineyards in Healdsburg will serve up braised short ribs, cioppino and dark chocolate mousse cups. Healdsburg’s Hop Kiln promises more than 50 food tastings including gourmet mac-n-cheese, next to Healdsburg’s Hudson Street Wineries’ Swedish meatballs and French onion soup. At Harvest Moon Estate & Winery in Santa Rosa, the chefs are crafting Caggiano sausage-white bean stew and roasted beet tartar.

If there’s a theme to the enormous event, this year, it might be Cowboy, showing that indeed, wine is versatile. Frick Winery in Geyserville is roasting hot dogs and s’mores over a campfire (really delicious with the signature Syrah). Graton Ridge Cellars in Sebastopol is sending out chuckwagon chili and inviting guests to try their luck with Russian River Roulette games. At Santa Rosa’s Hook & Ladder Winery, you can spoon up Cecil's firehouse beans, while Healdsburg’s Longboard Vineyards is dishing up homemade chili from the World Famous Hamburger Ranch & Pasta Farm in Cloverdale. For more chili, head to Murphy-Goode in Healdsburg for hot bowls of red beef or green pork, or both.

For the most creative undertaking, however, the award goes to Portalupi Wine of Healdsburg. In an effort to prove that wine doesn’t have to be fussy, and can enjoyed with almost everything, the winery is staging a taste bud test. For the Bianco pairing challenge, it’s pan seared scallops vs. Pringle potato chips. In the Barbera pairing challenge, it’s wild boar carpaccio vs. cocktail wieners and BBQ sauce. And for the Dry Creek Zinfandel challenge, it’s marinated pork loin vs. mac ‘n' cheese.

Whatever your preference, it’s yours to discover, in the magic that is Winter Wineland.

Details: Winter Wineland, Jan. 15 and 16, across Sonoma County. Advance* online ticket prices: $45 weekend, $35 Sunday only, $5 for designated drivers. At the door prices: $55 weekend, $45 Sunday only, $5 for designated drivers. *Advance sales end Monday, January 10, 2011 at 9 p.m. After then, purchase tickets directly at the wineries. 800-723-6336, wineroad.com.

Tip: Enjoy the weekend to its fullest, and leave the driving to Pure Luxury Transportation. For small groups, a Town Car is a smooth ride. Many of the wineries allow limousines groups, too – ask your Pure Luxury concierge to help you map out the best route for your favorite adventures.

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