<B>California drinkin'</B>California wine tourism isn't exactly the next hot thing; it's been a mainstay of West Coast travel for many years now. But with the boom in first-rate restaurants (most notably Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, La Toque in Rutherford and the Wine Spectator restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone campus), trend-setting spas and luxurious B&andBs (Sonoma Mission Inn, Auberge du Soleil), the sun is definitely rising in the west. Among the newest guides to the region are <B>Fodor's Escape to the California Wine Country</B> and <!--BPLINK=-->0062772899<B>Access California Wine Country </B><!--ENDBPLINK-->.
Despite the rather general titles, these refer only to areas north of San Francisco: i.e. Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. Given that limitation, however, these new books have many virtues, though they will better suit two different tourism desires. <B>Fodor's Escape</B> is, as the name suggests, aimed at travelers as interested in the landscape and amenities as the wines themselves, and so is far slighter than the Access guide. Like the other books in this series, <B>Escape</B> is a sort of mini-coffee table book, filled with admittedly gorgeous color photographs and chapters that are more like lengthy captions. (The essential facts and phone numbers are concisely arranged, along with a bit of background, at the back of the book.) This would be a nice little bon voyage gift for two relatively affluent adults planning a full-body getaway, not just a self-directed wine seminar.
The Access guide is, as always, nearly comprehensive, with a mix of restaurant, museum, shopping and accommodation profiles along with the wineries. A lot of research is packed into these paragraph-long entries: names, dates, anecdotes, some entertaining trivia and asides, and enough menu detail from the major restaurants to suggest that the editorial staff did in-depth field studies.
<B>One for the road</B>Both vacationers and wine hounds should pick up one other book before they head to Wine World West: Andrea Immer's <!--BPLINK=-->0767911849<B>Wine Buying Guide for Everyone</B><!--ENDBPLINK-->, a slender paperback that succinctly but accessibly rates not 90-plus pointers but inexpensive and general-sales wines. Immer, a master sommelier who is dean of wine studies at the Culinary Institute and author of the indispensable <I>Great Wine Made Simple</I>, has also served as beverage director for the huge Starwood Hotels &and Resorts, as well as Restaurant Associates, and she never stoops to condescend to either inexperienced or budget-minded drinkers. In fact, one hilarious rating, the kitchen countertop/ refrigerator overnight survival test, is so clearly useful one wishes all wine critics would deign to adopt it. (I know not everyone finishes whole bottles at one sitting; I just don't <I>know</I> anyone who doesn't.) Her similarly helpful advice on savvy retail and online purchases and on navigating restaurant wine lists; her easy disregard of pretentiousness ( We in the trade find it funny . . . that guests shy away from the least expensive wines ); and her mini-tasting seminar are classics. And her equally democratic hit lists hip wines ( impress the date ), blue-chip wines ( impress the client ), wines to take to dinner, wines to buy for Thanksgiving, even labels that are safe to drink on airplanes, once again prove Immer a champion of the people. Buy a handful of these books and pass them around; you'll never be afraid of the corner store again. <I>Eve Zibart is restaurant critic for the weekend section of </I>The Washington Post <I>and author of </I>The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.