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by Erika Lenkert

Cook Up a Culinary Adventure

When I travel I always do two things to familiarize myself with the destination at hand. The first is to take early morning jogs through the town or countryside so that I can watch its morning routine unfold. The second is to take a cooking class. An afternoon spent whipping up Thai curries or elbow deep in French pastry always leaves me with a delicious and very intimate understanding of local flavor. It's also a fast and fun way to meet other travelers and feast with abandon. But my favorite thing about cooking classes is that they leave me armed with new recipes and techniques, so when I return home I can recreate the tastiest elements of my trip—and share them with friends who tend to be far more interested in a good meal than a flip through a photo album.

Visiting restaurants in Northern California Wine Country will undoubtedly divulge why the region is just as much a culinary capital as it is one of the world's top spots for sniffing and sipping. But if you want to spice up your trip with knowledge of the astounding bounty of fresh local ingredients and culinary talents and ways to make dinner at home smack of a four-star restaurant, sign up for classes with any of the following companies.

Copia: American Center for Food, Wine, and the Arts
Downtown Napa's interactive museum showcases food- and wine-related art exhibits, boasts astounding vegetable gardens, and offers daily 1/2-hour food classes led by Copia staff. Demonstrations begin at 11am and are included in the $5 admission price. Recent topics included "The Latin Pantry: Making Mexican Food at Home" and "Sweet Dreams: Quick Chocolate Confections." (500 1st St., Napa, 888-51-COPIA or 707/259-1600,

Signorello Vineyards
One of the most winecentric culinary excursions awaits you at this Napa Valley winery, which launched its interactive culinary program at the end of 2006. Held each Saturday, the $150 per person 2-1/2 hour hands-on class underscores the nuances of food and wine pairing, showcases scenic facilities, and ends with a three-course wine-paired grand finale. (4500 Silverado Trail, Napa, 800-982-4229 or 707-255-5990,

The Culinary Institute of America
You can learn to cook without even getting your hands dirty at this California outpost of New York's famed cooking school. Hour-long $15-per-person demonstrations take place in a state-of-the-art theater and around cooking islands in the teaching area several times per week (2555 Main Street, St. Helena, 707-967-2320,

Despite the whimsical name, Ramekins does some serious cooking. Courses often begin just in time for dinner, include a full-blown food and wine feast, and are led by local and national talents. A recent $98-per-person gourmet gathering paired the instruction and food of chef Victor Scargle (of St. Helena's Go Fish and previously of San Francisco's Jardinière) with the wine and winemaking knowledge of Jeff Stewart, Winemaker at Buena Vista Carneros. But traveling clans can also opt for private cooking classes. (450 West Spain St., Sonoma, 707-933-0450,

Sonoma visitors relish Relish because its programs allow home cooks to whip up feasts at any number of locations—including private homes—under the guidance of the nation's top talents such as famed Wine Country chef John Ash. While off-campus classes tend to be hands-on, other three-hour classes are demonstration only, which means you get to feast with your eyes through a lecture and cooking demo, and then devour generous portions with your hands (fork and knife included). (Call for locations; 707-431-9999 or 877-759-1004,