Bottle Rockets
By Matt Markovich

Seek and ye shall taste

FLEE. GET the hell out. You owe those swine nothing; they owe you a ditch day. It goes against every human instinct to spend sunny summer days trapped in some kind of grim, desk-bound drudgery. Face it, telling them you're sick isn't even a lie anymore. "I'm sick" can easily mean "I'm sick of this friggin' straight job, Slappy, and if you insist on keeping me here, you're going to find me curled up in the supply closet giggling distractedly, huffing toner, and contemplating an office-clearing kill-crazy rampage." Consider that the average Japanese worker takes 18 days of vacation and that although some American workers get 10 days' paid vacation, the average American vacation lasts only four days. Indeed, we are the victims of a cavernous vacation gap that puts us well behind 17 of the top 20 industrialized nations. You need not live a life of quiet desperation: lie your way out. Drinking fine wine in the sunshine quickly kills any residual guilt that may linger after overtly lying to your supervisor.

First, check the extended forecast at www.weather.com Sunday night for locations such as Cloverdale and/or Healdsburg, because you'll be heading to the Dry Creek Valley, which sits between those two towns. Next, select the best day and call in that morning with an excuse that will leave you incommunicado for an entire day, if not more. One strategy is to come up with something so humiliating that there's no way you'd admit to it if it weren't true, but the standard migraine or mild food poisoning will do. Next, if you don't have a car, you can rent a compact for around $24 a day with unlimited mileage – which ain't that much when you consider wine tasting is generally free and with a rental car you're "fully insured" if you pay with a credit card that offers rental-car insurance. Next get a reggae CD, a blanket for the picnic, a cooler to stash your potential acquisitions, and point your rig toward Cloverdale.

The Dry Creek area is just south of Cloverdale and has a huge number of vineyards. The winding country roads that connect them conjure memories of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys of yesteryear. It's the perfect ditch-day destination and virtually empty on weekdays. Many of the wineries have excellent picnic areas, some even have bocce courts (Preston, Armida), and all are set amid some of the most picturesque vineyard country in California. Here's a quick roundup of some interesting places to taste wine:

Fritz Winery (24691 Dutcher Creek Road, Cloverdale. 707-894-3389) is the winery farthest down Dutcher Creek Road and the perfect place to begin or end a tour of Dry Creek winemakers. From there you can either wind your way back toward the city or continue on to Ukiah, Mendocino, or the Anderson Valley if you decide to bag your job entirely.

As Prince Hal gave up carousing in pubs with the likes of Falstaff to become King Henry V, so "Fritzy" became Clayton B. Fritz when he took the reins of the family winery in his mid-30s. He's now presiding over an ambitious expansion of the winery that includes moving toward 100 percent estate-made wines in the coming years. Fritz wines have been gaining recognition (and are now available at Andalu in the Mission District); though many are priced in the $25 to $35 range, one of their more affordable offerings is the 2001 Fritz Colombini Vineyard carignane ($15). Carignane is traditionally a French blending grape known for deep crimson and purple tones, and the Fritz carignane is made from 60-year-old vines. The color is beautifully rich, and its dark berry flavors resolve into a smooth, spicy finish.

The Fritz tasting also led me to the theme of my tasting: Rhône varietals for around $20. It seemed wherever I went, everyone was making stand-alone wines from French varietals traditionally used as blending grapes. The presence of all these old French blending vines in the region makes sense because they were originally planted by French immigrants. Through careful management, the grapes they once used to bulk up their production are now being made into nice wines in their own right that also allow drinkers to better understand how and why those grapes are used in the composition of their favorite blended wines.

Two local winemakers independently recommended a visit to Preston Vineyards (9282 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. 800-305-9707), and it's easy to see why: the bounty of Lou Preston is almost biblical. In true "living the dream" fashion, Preston produces all his grapes organically, grows olives for his own olive oil, and even bakes a mean bread. Preston's wines range from French varietals such as roussanne, syrah, and cinsault to Italian sangiovese to, of course, zinfandel. In keeping with the theme of the trip, I checked out the 2002 cinsault ($20), which is termed a "Southern Rhône bistro wine" and is a perfect bottle to drink at the vineyard while enjoying the bocce courts and cozy picnic area.

Hop Kiln (6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg. 707-433-6497) is, well, a hop kiln. The historic building housing the tasting facility is testimony to the region's history of hop-growing and beer-making. I tried the 2001 Valdiguié ($20), made from a Rhône varietal prized for its high yields and resistance to disease. Awarded a silver medal at the 2004 Grand Harvest Awards, the Valdiguié has a mellow presence that doesn't overpower.

Roshambo Winery (3000 Westside Road, Healdsburg. 888-525-WINE) is host to the upcoming 2004 Rock Paper Scissors Pro-Am Invitational. The irreverent vibe of über-nü, über-contemporary Roshambo is encapsulated by the event wherein contestants do battle for a $1,000 purse (go to www.roshambowinery.com for details). These vinters are lousy with zin, so I strayed from the theme to sample the 2001 Dry Creek Zinfandel ($21), which recently pulled a silver medal at the San Francisco Chronicle's wine competition. Mixed herbal scents became a mouthful of sweet, red fruit with a touch of cinnamon and made it clear why Roshambo has been making serious inroads recently.

Of course, one of the best parts of the experience is getting lost in the back roads. Luckily there are signposts at most major intersections pointing the way to all the vineyards, but if you feel compelled to know where you're going, stop by the North Coast Wine and Visitor Center (105 N. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale. 707-894-0818) for a massive selection of free maps and literature covering the entire region. Whoa ... you look a bit peaked. You sure you're feelin' OK?

E-mail Matt Markovich at mmarkovich@hotmail.com.