TRAVELING IN STYLE : Side Trips: Legends of the Fall : Home Port

The perfect drink for a crisp autumn evening? Port, of course.

That California makes top-notch ports may come as a surprise, but these intriguing handcrafted wines have had an underground following since they were first made in the '70s. Be careful what you sip, however. Plenty of California wineries make something called port, but it's often an inexpensive, syrupy-sweet version of Cabernet or Zinfandel. The good stuff is produced by perhaps a half-dozen wineries in the painstaking traditional method using historic Portuguese grape varieties.

With the smell of newly harvested grapes still in the air, now is also a great time to sample California ports at the source, in the San Joaquin valley.

--Quady Winery, Madera, near Fresno, (209) 673-8068. Quady makes several ports, including the magnificent Starboard, one of the state's most elegant. The '87 especially is full of citrusy/tawny flavors ($25).

--Ficklin Vineyards, Madera, (209) 674-4598. Although Ficklin makes more-expensive ports, its standard issue ($10) is a knockout, bursting with rich ruby colors and roasted-nut flavors.

--Sonora Winery and Port Works, Sonora, east of Modesto in the Sierra foothills, (209) 532-PORT. Sonora's ultra-smooth, 1991 vintage port, ($18.50), is redolent of everything from baked plums to mocha.

Fashion consultant: Maureen Sajbel

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