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In wine country, boccie and wine make a nice pairing

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Here's the downside of visiting the Northern California wine country: There are too many wineries. Without expending any real effort, a semi-dedicated wine enthusiast could consume enough wine in a day or two to drive Bacchus into rehab.

This means that, unless you want to come back from your weekend in the wine country looking like you stepped from the pages of the National Enquirer, you have to pace yourself. You have to find something to do between tastings.

This is where boccie (sometimes spelled bocce) comes in.

According to the U.S. Bocce Federation, back in the time of the Punic Wars (circa 200 BC), Roman soldiers played boccie to unwind between confrontations with the Carthaginians. Their version of the game largely involved throwing big rocks at a smaller rock. Two thousand years later, the modern adaptation of this rock-throwing turns out to be just as therapeutic between confrontations with Cabernets. And the object of the game hasn't changed much, it seems. According to the federation, the purpose of the game is to roll the boccie, a 4 1/2 -inch ball weighing about 3 pounds, as close as possible to the pallino, a 1 3/4 -inch ball that is rolled down the court first.

Winery owners realize this. Every week, it seems, a truck arrives at yet another tasting room and dumps a load of limestone and crushed oyster shells into a newly constructed boccie court.

I consider this an excellent trend because it combines two of my favorite things: a sport that requires no actual skill and wine. It's the reason I persuaded my significant other, Chris, who likes sports at which he's better than me even more than he likes a nice Sauvignon Blanc, to head to the Sonoma town of Healdsburg, which boasts three wine-growing valleys (the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River) and five boccie courts, all within a 10-mile radius of the center of town.

Backyard hangout

Our first stop was Seghesio Family Vineyards, just outside the town square. Playing boccie at Seghesio is like playing boccie in the backyard of your Italian uncle's house, if your uncle owned a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen and wood-burning pizza oven. The grounds here aren't manicured. You'll even find a couple of over-watered lemon trees. Seghesio's two courts are among the few in the area that fall within the official 76- to 90-foot length (87 feet, 6 inches is exact tournament length). There's no view to speak of -- the courts sit right up against a residential street -- but the shade trees and nicely packed playing surface make for excellent boccie.

And Seghesio's wine makes for excellent tasting. Its Sangiovese, from the oldest plantings in North America, made me regret ever maligning the varietal as the Merlot of Italy. And their Pinot Grigio, sipped while "spocking" (the term for an underhand throw), seriously improved my score.

At Davis Family, our second stop, the court was shorter (about 60 feet), but the setting went a long way toward making up for it. As did the fact that my "banking" (the word for purposely knocking your boccie ball against the sidewall) is more accurate than Chris' on a shorter court.

The single court at Davis Family is next to the Russian River, near enough for passing kayakers to check out whether you've mastered the four-step run and throw. There's an unfussy warehouse tasting room, six picnic tables and a three-story winery goddess. This last is an homage to recycling. Her clothing is made from an enormous steel wine vat trimmed with hubcaps and her nose started life as a bundt-cake pan.

Davis Family's signature wine is their Pinot, but I was knocked out by their Old Vine Zin Port. Different from most Ports I've tasted, which tend to be sweet and syrupy, this one was light and peppery. The perfect libation to celebrate my win. (Yes!)

Next up was the collection of tasting rooms at 4791 Dry Creek Road, just north of downtown Healdsburg. It's a treacherous place for anyone practicing moderation. Five tasting rooms perch on this hill (Amphora, Family Wineries, Kokomo, Papapietro Perry and Peterson), a situation rendered even more perilous by the fact that Family pours wine from six wineries. Deciding where to taste takes some mental energy (I flipped a coin and wound up trying an amazing Russian River Pinot at Papapietro); deciding where to play boccie doesn't.

There's one court, a bit shorter than regulation, with a spectacular view of vineyards. Rather than the usual oyster-shells surface, this court is topped with fine pebbles, which I blame for my poor performance.

Farther north in Geyserville is longtime wine producer Pedroncelli. Their boccie court, at 20, may be the oldest in the area and has a pretty setting, pressed into a trellised hillside covered with grapevines, rosemary bushes and olive trees.

Twenty years worth of boccie-playing feet have stamped down the Pedroncelli court into an uncommon hardness. Which makes it fast. Put any force behind your throw and you'll wind up with a dead ball (one that's hit the backboard and is out of play). This can be embarrassing, especially when the court-side wrought-iron tables are filled with picnickers.

Pedroncelli has some of the most reasonably priced wine of all three valleys. Downing a glass of its deliciously dry and spicy Zinfandel rosé ($10 a bottle) is an excellent way to put some drag on your ball.

Boccie with the best view

Hands down, the boccie court at Armida Winery has the best view. Up a winding driveway and away from the road, it's all vineyard-covered hills and cypress trees. As long as you don't turn around and catch sight of the geodesic-dome-shaped tasting room, you'd swear you were in Tuscany.

The court at Armida, decorated with a snarling Venetian-style stone lion at each end, falls into regulation length. The winery supplies players with a print-out of the rules of boccie, which contains one quirk. According to the Armida rules, the game is played to 16 points, not the 13 dictated by the U.S. Bocce Federation. Unfortunately, neither of us is are good enough to score more than one or two points per round, which meant that a game to 16 could conceivably last as long as the Punic Wars.

Fortunately, we were in no danger of getting thirsty. Armida makes some of my favorite wines. Its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are always fabulous. And the Pinot Gris, followed by a lengthy game of boccie, can render you relaxed enough to face a whole hillside of Carthaginians.

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