Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley almost come hand in hand as a wine travel experience. People ask if you’ve “done Napa and Sonoma,” and they roll off the tongue as though they are one in the same, but they’re actually quite different. We visited Napa Valley first, and then went touring in Sonoma Valley. We were shocked at some of the differences. I believe our shock came from simply being misinformed, and setting false expectations for Sonoma, based on our experience of Napa. If I had read an article like the one I hope to provide you with now, I believe I would have experienced a better appreciation for Sonoma at the time.
Let me first clarify that when I say Napa and Sonoma are different, I don’t mean that either one is better or worse; different means different, and that’s it. Some might say that Napa is superior to Sonoma. Few might argue that Sonoma is more personable or friendly than Napa. My stance remains that they are both great in their own right, and they each have much to offer.
There are some things Napa and Sonoma have in common. They both represent well known growing regions in California. They share the Mayacamas mountain range running between them, and both have excellently warm weather, breathtaking views, and are blanketed in wine grapes! They each have a main highway that runs through them, leading tourists and wine experts alike down a trail of near endless exploring from one wine estate to the next. Wineries offer tours and tastings, and have vast, stunning estates for their guests to enjoy.
There are many things that are different about Napa and Sonoma Counties. On our visit, we were educated about how the Mayacamas Mountains, standing between Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, actually block some of the cool current winds that come off of the San Francisco Bay area from reaching Napa Valley. This keeps Napa’s climate slightly hotter than that of Sonoma’s. With more of the cooling winds able to reach Sonoma Valley’s vineyards, the grapes are subject to a bit of a cooler climate, which in turn affects their development. You may be thinking that’s a bit ridiculous, and how much of a difference could a slight breeze really make from that far away? Well, in the world of wine, it’s a big difference. Believe it or not, grapes can actually change in taste from one owner’s plot to the next door neighbours, even within the same small region.
All of this means that certain grapes will not grow as well in Sonoma as in Napa, and vice versa! It can also mean that the same grape will taste different if it’s grown in Sonoma rather than Napa. The winemakers in each region have been at it long enough to have figured out the exact climates and micro-climates of their particular vineyards, and they seem to be doing a fabulous job! Remember, neither is better or worse; it’s a matter of preference to your tastes, whether you like warmer or cooler climate styles of each grape varietal. Enough about all of that for now. To sum up, the wines from Sonoma Valley are going to taste different than the wines from Napa Valley.
Another difference I wish I had been prepared for was the type of experience we were going to have in SOME Sonoma wineries. After coming from Napa wineries, I had some expectations in my mind regarding curb appeal, staff dress, staff language and overall etiquette on the grounds. I must make this clear; one winery we visited, which will remain un-named, certainly does not represent all Sonoma Valley wineries, but it was found among them. The place was difficult to find, and we had to drive down a long, windy dirt lane. When we pulled up, we weren’t even sure we had arrived at the right spot. Upon going in, we discovered some of the staff to be dressed in dirty, very casual clothes. One of the men had his socks pulled up to his knees inside of his sport sandals, underneath poorly fitted denim shorts. There were dogs running around though the tasting area. Once I heard the word “butthole” come out of one of the staff’s mouths during a tasting, I knew this particular winery wasn’t within my preference.
We finished the tasting, and made the most of it, but I wouldn’t recommend that particular place to just anyone. If you desire a very casual environment where you can bring your dog into the tasting area, and you’re looking for more of an affordable, weekend cook-out style of wine than the expensive, 100 point stuff, the wineries you’re looking for are not found in Napa Valley. I do believe there IS a place for every type of winery in the market though, and Sonoma definitely has more diversity in its estates. If I had known what I was getting into, I could have come with the right mindset, and enjoyed it for what it was – it may not have been my preference for language and dress, but it was a casual and relaxing environment, where anyone would be warmly welcomed.
I will note that we also visited some very high-class, professional, gorgeous estates in Sonoma Valley, which exceeded our expectations and delivered a five star experience, at a more affordable price than the Napa Valley wineries. For example, B.R.Cohn, and St. Francis were both exceptional tours that I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone! Domaine Carneros sits in between the Napa and Sonoma Valleys at the south end, and has exceptional reviews; we didn’t get the chance to visit it ourselves, but it is well known and reputable. If you enjoy sparkling wine, I would take a chance on saying it’s the place to be.
The price differences compared to Napa Valley are something you’ll notice right away once you get into Sonoma Valley wineries. Don’t let the comparatively lower price of a Sonoma bottle fool you into thinking it’s not as good as one from Napa. Price per acre of land in Sonoma and Napa Counties in general is very high, and can range up into the millions; however, Sonoma price per acre does tend to be a bit less than in Napa. Hence, Sonoma wineries don’t need to charge as much. They also don’t have quite as much prestige behind their name as their neighbour, which is all the better for us consumers! We get amazing quality wine, and I would argue that it’s just as amazing as Napa Valley wine, but at a lower price point. Some of our favourite wines are from Sonoma; they do an exceptional job at making the grapes they grow into amazing, award winning wines that score very highly with countless sommeliers.
“Pretentious” is a word used by some to describe Napa Valley. A dictionary would tell you that this means Napa is attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed” (dictionary.com). I wouldn’t go so far as to say Napa doesn’t actually possess its importance, talent, or culture; Napa Valley vintners have invested in their prime location for grape growing, developed stunning estates, acquired a vast knowledge, and have developed an expertise. They produce a quality product. However, in the grand scheme of history, European countries have been producing wine for centuries, and Napa was only put on the map in the 70’s; it’s a baby still, yet it’s competing with the Grandparent wines of the world, and breaking all of their rules on top of it.
Napa Valley wine IS expensive, and is highly raved over by certain wine-lovers, simply because of its name, before they even know what is inside the bottle. Some would argue that it doesn’t warrant its price, but I won’t discuss that here. Napa wine is often very full bodied and bold, and has specific taste profiles. If that profile isn’t someone’s taste, they’re not going to think Napa’s is the greatest wine in the world. It would be a fair guess that most of Europe would hold that viewpoint! Sonoma produces a quality product as well, but has a more approachable atmosphere for a wider range of people.
The best way I can suggest you determine which place you like, is to visit both of them. They’re so close together geographically; it’s quite easy to do on one trip! Go into both experiences with an open mind, and maybe you can enjoy them equally, and soak them in for their own personalities and styles; they both do offer so much style. Either way, you’re going to be served excellent wine, in an exceptional setting, hopefully with the ones you love. Happy wine tasting!