California Dreamin'

California Wine Country, north of San Francisco, has become famous for its natural beauty, rich history, distinctive spas and, of course, incomparable collection of wineries. It consists of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys with their charming towns and villages including Sonoma, Napa, Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville and Glen Ellen.

Sonoma is recognized as the birthplace of California's wine industry (valley residents and partisans like to joke that Sonoma makes wine, while Napa makes auto parts), but hundreds of wineries are dotted throughout both valleys, as well as stunning scenic vistas of majestic old redwoods, tranquil valleys, orchards, gardens, farmlands and the winding Russian River.  California's Wine Country is the focus of a new line of tour products from Creative Leisure.

In Sonoma, the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza is the largest town square of its kind in California and a National Historic Landmark. Sonoma is also home to the northernmost and last Spanish mission in the chain of 21 built in California by Father Junipero Serra and others in the Franciscan order.

Wine lovers and sybarites have flocked to the region for years. Now, a company called Creative Leisure has introduced a series of California Wine Country Experiences that venture off the beaten path and behind doors normally closed to the average traveler.

The itineraries feature visits to wineries that are not open to the public and personal visits with leading winemakers and winery owners. Participants can learn how to blend their own wine, take cooking classes in a winery kitchen, and enjoy personally escorted tours of winery estate gardens, unique culinary experiences, and heritage excursions into the region.

Flexible Options

"Creative Leisure's Experiences are designed with flexibility in mind," says Dean Johnson, the company's senior vice president of marketing and product development. "Guests can select their accommodations from our portfolio of rooms and suites at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, the Car-neros Inn, Calistoga Ranch or in one of our villas, then choose a tour that best matches their interest in wines." The Hilltop Inn is also on the tour menu.

The "Entrée" tour is designed for guests who are just beginning to explore the world of wine making. It includes food and wine pairings plus full days of wine tasting and gourmet meals. Guests looking for the ultimate wine country experience can book the "Connoisseur" tour, which includes accommodations at the Sky Ranch, a magnificent villa estate, along with transportation via helicopter to exclusive wineries and the services of a world-class chef, who will prepare meals in their villa. The focus of the "Vintage" tour is on the heritage of the wine industry, while the "Prestige" tour explores wine, food, the arts and nature.

The tours are all two to three days long, although the company can also customize longer, more in-depth experiences. Creative Leisure worked with Viviani Inc., a destination management company specializing in the wine country, to design the itineraries. Linda Viviani, the head of the company, is a wine maker and a member of the Napa Valley Vintner Association. She leads some of the tours herself. Sonoma Mission Inn is one of the Wine Country's lodging choices.

Wineries featured in the program include Loxton Cellars, owned by physicist Chris Loxton; Hanzell Vineyards, one of the oldest established vineyards in California; and the Robledo Family Winery, the first Mexican-owned winery in the state.

Sample prices for the program include from $1,597 per person for three days at The Carneros Inn, combined with the Entrée tour, and including car rental and flights for two from Chicago. Prices start at $4,617 per person for four days at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa with the Prestige tour and including car rental and flights for two from Chicago.

Roundtrip flights on United or American and a Hertz rental car are also included, and each tour includes the services of a personal driver and guide.