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Spring /Summer 2009

The Bocce Boom

Toss 'em forward while you toss it back

By Bonnie Wach

The game of darts has Guinness, horse racing has bourbon, and here in Northern California, white wine accompanies everything from croquet to baseball. But ask any Wine Country sports fan what goes best with red, and you're likely to get a quick, certain answer: bocce.

In Napa and Sonoma these days, it's hard to hoist a glass of Zinfandel without hitting a pallino (the small target ball in bocce). The two counties boast more than two dozen courts, many nestled next to wine-tasting rooms and on the grounds of upscale inns and resorts. The new Westin Verasa, Villagio, Carneros Inn, Solage Calistoga, and Calistoga Ranch all feature a set. Wineries offer courts, ranging from kid-friendly ones at Larson Family Vineyards in Carneros (you play bocce while the kids entertain themselves petting Dolly the llama and SpongeBob the sheep), to the more official types at Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg, Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen, and Pedroncelli Winery in Geyserville. At Summers Estate Wines in Calistoga, you can play while watching superheated thermal waters shoot out from little Old Faithful geyser; at Brutocao Cellars in Hopland, you can play on one of six regulation courts that are lit at night.

"I think it has become popular because it's probably the only game you can play where you throw a ball with a glass in your hand," says Jim Pedroncelli, who was among the first to build a bocce court some 20 years ago at the historic Pedroncelli Winery. "In the early days, we had to tell people what [bocce] was. Now, people sometimes come just to play."

The object of the game is to roll the boccias (large metallic or plastic balls) as close to the pallino as possible. Certainly, people play to win, but equally important is the ability to bowl without spilling the contents of your glass. "I'd say not spilling wine takes precedence over winning," says Pedroncelli. "It's definitely competitive, but the wine takes the edge off, and keeps it from getting too serious."

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