Sonoma Valley, Napa’s Not So Similar Sibling

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!

St. Francis Winery, Sonoma Valley – A Visit to Remember

Exactly one year ago today, we visited St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, and it was incredible.  St. Francis Zinfandel was the wine that introduced us to this particular producer, some years ago, when great friends shared it with us.  We loved it, of course, and shelved the information in the back of our minds.  Those same friends invited us to spend a weekend at their cabin the following summer, and we were to bring wine for a meal.  We browsed the isles at the liquor store, and picked out the St. Francis Zin, not remembering its significance.  When we served it, our friends exclaimed in excitement that this was from their favourite winery, and they had been to visit!  We asked them to tell us the story this time, and determined that if we ever went to California, we were going to St. Francis.

Fast forward two years, and we made our way to California for a wine-tasting adventure.  I made sure to book a tasting at St. Francis well before embarking on the trip, and it’s a good thing I did, because they book up fast!  For a standard tasting, guests can walk in with no appointment and approach the bar.  We wanted the full deal, and I booked our lunch tasting months in advance.  Upon booking, I discovered that St. Francis was the highest rated restaurant in all of the USA that year on opentable.com.  I was impressed!  The price was $72 per person, for a five course meal with wine pairings, seating only 16 people at once to facilitate an intimate and personal setting.  For those not interested in a meal, St. Francis offers several other events at which to experience their winery, such as art festivals, concerts, outdoor movie nights, and even an annual Blessing of the Animals.  Information on the wine, winery visits and the event schedule can be found at www.stfranciswinery.com.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards – Sonoma, CA

www.stfranciswinery.com

For more than four decades, St. Francis Winery has consistently produced luscious, elegant, fruit driven wines that best interpret the richness and distinct varietal characteristics of Sonoma County’s unique, diverse terroir.

We arrived at St. Francis early to enjoy the grounds before our tasting began.  We were greeted by a very friendly face, who in realizing we had a while to wait, offered us a complimentary glass of crisp white Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy in the hot weather as we walked the grounds.  It was perfect.

The grounds are big and beautiful, and surrounded by the vineyard.  There are charming benches to sit and relax, a calming fountain, gardens full of flowers in bloom, streams of lights decorating the spaces, and statuesque art acting as centerpiece to a lush lawn area.  The gift shop is full of practical wine tools, artistic home décor pieces, and cute wine themed souvenirs.  The tasting bar is long and grand, with plenty of room for tasters to make their way through their desired flights.

Once it was time for our booking, we were welcomed into the luxurious tasting room.  Our two hosts explained the wine making process, educated us about the grape varietals, and gave tasting notes for each of the 4 wines that went with our dinner courses, and the 5th wine, specially paired with dessert.  In a traditional pairing situation, the food is the star, and the wine is selected to enhance the meal, but at St. Francis, the chef has done the opposite.  He has designed a well thought out menu to showcase the specific taste profiles of each wine, and very successfully so.  He greeted us after the meal to personally answer our questions.

Upon finishing the tasting, my husband and I began to make our selections for purchase.  As participants in the tasting, we were given an additional 15% off of our purchases, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  St. Francis has a large selection of varietals and blends to choose from, and they kindly allowed us to taste some additional wines that hadn’t been a part of our lunch pairing.  We found their prices to be reasonable, and left with a full case of some of our favourites, and a special gift for our friends who introduced us to St. Francis in the first place.

Our visit to St. Francis was a highlight of our trip, and I would recommend the investment of time and money there; it doesn’t disappoint!