The Maya considered chocolate sacred.
It can still be a religious experience.
Leave it to a scientist in California, home of heart-healthy merlot and medical marijuana, to discover that chocolate is good for you.
Chocolate, says Carl Keen, a professor in the department of nutrition at UC-Davis, is rich in flavonoids, the same components that have made green tea and red wine famous as health-enhancing beverages.
With Northern California's dual fondness for the good life and healthy living, the region may be the perfect proving ground for advances in chocolate making, not to mention a hot spot for a chocolate lover's tour.
Not that the state is the first to recognize the sensory or salubrious attributes of the cacao bean. The bean was sacred to the Maya and the Aztecs, who ground and mixed it with water to make a beverage (sometimes flavored with pepper) offered to the gods. The conquering Cortés took the "food of the gods" (that's what Theobroma, the scientific name of the cacao tree, means) to Spain in 1528. There, mixed with sugar, vanilla, and spices, it became a prized delicacy.
Chocolate spread throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and was first manufactured in America in 1765. San Francisco saw its first two chocolate factories opened in the late 1800s by sons of European merchants, the Italian Domingo Ghirardelli and the Frenchman Etienne Guittard. Guittard Chocolate Company, the oldest family-run chocolatier in the United States, is now in Burlingame, south of San Francisco, and supplies chocolate to See's Candies, a much-loved candy maker that has been crafting filled chocolates in the West since 1921.
But it's Scharffen Berger, the first new chocolate company to open its doors in the United States in the last 50 years, that has been grabbing headlines and sweet praise. If you ask pastry chefs, this upstart is producing some of the best chocolate in America.
John Scharffenberger, a former California winemaker (Scharffenberger Cellars, Lonetree Winery), and his business partner, Robert Steinberg, are doing for chocolate what California vintners have done for wine—elevating it to premium status. Scharffenberger decided that most American chocolate was junk food—too much sugar, too little chocolate taste. So he and Steinberg set out to make a world-class product that could compete with European brands. They seem to be attaining that goal.
Professional bakers across the country use Sharffen Berger in their desserts. Some, like pastry chef Eric Shelton at San Francisco's Aqua restaurant and Craig Stoll, chef-owner of the city's Delfina, give a nod to the brand allure by mentioning the Scharffen Berger name on their menus. Shelton offers a warm chocolate cake, while Stoll's dessert lineup includes a cake made with the chocolatier's bittersweet flavor.
In 2000, the National Association of Specialty Trade Foods voted Scharffen Berger's Nibby Bar (it contains bits of husked and hand-roasted cocoa beans called "nibs") Confection of the Year.
Berkeley is the home of this fast-rising star, which operates out of a refurbished 1906 vintage brick warehouse, where small batches of select, high-flavor cacao beans arrive from Venezuela, Ghana, Madagascar, Trinidad, and Papua New Guinea. They're sorted by hand, roasted, hulled, ground, mashed into a paste, and "conched"—heated, tumbled, and mixed to create a liquid chocolate that is then tempered into solid form. Watch this fascinating process in action by calling ahead for a private or group tour.
Scharffen Berger, as the new kid on the chocolate block, may command the spotlight, but Califor-nia has plenty of venerable chocolates worthy of sampling. In San Francisco, a chocolate pilgrimage might include a stop at any of more than a half dozen See's Candies, as well as at Ghirardelli Square, home of the chocolate maker. The crowds can be dense, but the restored buildings are beautiful.
While you're in the city, don't miss XOX Truffles Inc., where Jean-Marc Gorce makes 27 flavors of bite-size truffles so scrumptious he was declared one of the 10 best chocolatiers in America by Chocolatier Magazine. Gorce, a former chef at San Francisco's Fringale, also makes a low-fat truffle, using soy milk instead of cream.
Joseph Schmidt Confections, in the festive Castro district, is the Michelangelo of chocolate, with astounding sculptures of flower gardens, the San Francisco skyline, and African masks. A couple of blocks away from Joseph Schmidt is RoCocoa's Faerie Queene Chocolates, where owner Jeoffrey Douglas says, "The ordinary makes me sad," and proves it by serving 75 flavors of handmade fudge, from piña colada to rose.
For the truly extraordinary, stop at the city's Ferry Plaza farmers' market on Saturdays and find hip chocolatier Michael Recchiuti selling his unforgettable creations at Recchiuti Confections. His arresting chocolates may be based on the product of quality purveyors—Guittard or Scharffen Berger—but they soar with his signature ingredients, everything from traditional caramel, coffee, and hazelnuts to lavender buds, bergamot oil, and tarragon. You'll find more than sweetness in Recchiuti's chocolates, whose character varies as much as that of fine coffees or wines.
Chocolate is the revered theme at plenty of destinations outside San Francisco, too.
At the Monterey Bay Chocolate Factory in Seaside, put on a pair of plastic gloves and browse the serve-yourself chocolate bar, where you can choose from 85 different kinds of candies.
Peter Rabbit's Chocolate Factory in Santa Rosa makes its candies from Guittard chocolate. Ask owner Peter Lardner to show you the 5-foot-high mold he uses to make a life-size chocolate Santa Claus.
On the square in Sonoma, stroll into Uniquely California where owner Susan Allen will direct you to an amazing array of California-made chocolate products, including Chocoholic's Body Frosting, a low-fat concoction complete with brush and gently suggestive instructions.
In Napa, at Anette's Chocolate Factory, you'll find truffles, eggs, toffees, creams, and fudge, as well as gift packs including chocolate sauces laced with cabernet, port wine, or amaretto. For teetotalers, there's Belgian dark chocolate sauce. You can sample any of the sauces at the store's homemade ice cream parlor.
At the serene Oak Knoll Inn in Napa Valley, Barbara Passino is an unapologetic chocolate lover who says her first solid food in life was a chocolate brownie. She serves her guests delicious chocolate breakfasts—chocolate tacos, chocolate toast pillows with grilled sausage, chocolate-strawberry dumplings with lavender ice cream, or chocolate tamales with mango sorbet.
Finally, even the famed Pennsylvania native, Hershey's, has an outpost in the new "chocolate state." Stop by Hershey's gift shop of in Oakdale, Calif., near Yosemite, and stock up on your favorite classic chocolates. The Hershey's Kisses and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups made there are time-tested standbys—for most chocolate lovers.
Anette's Chocolate Factory, (707) 252-4228, www.anettes.com .
Faerie Queene Chocolates, (415) 252-5814, www.faeriequeene.com .
Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, (415) 474-1414, www.ghirardelli.com .
Guittard Chocolate Company, (800) 468-2462, www.guittard.com .
Hershey's, (209) 848-8126, www.hersheys.com .
Joseph Schmidt Confections, (800) 861-8682, www.jschmidtconfections.com .
Monterey Bay Chocolates, (831) 899-7963, www.montereybaychocolates.com .
Oak Knoll Inn, (707) 255-2200, www.oakknollinn.com .
Peter Rabbit's Chocolate Factory, (800) 472-2639.
Recchiuti Confections, (415) 826-2868, www.recchiuticonfections.com. 
Scharffen Berger, (510) 981-4066, www.scharffenberger.com .
See's Candies, (800) 915-7337, www.sees.com/home.cfm .
Uniquely California, (888) 227-5367, www.uniquelycalifornia.com .
XOX Truffles Inc., (415) 421-4814, www.xoxtruffles.com