Top Ten Differences Between Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley

NapaSonoma Having lived both in Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, I've developed some opinions and observations about these two very different but neighboring wine country locations. The visitor to the region should be aware of these differences if only to be prepared to appreciate each valley for its uniqueness.

1. Napa Valley is a Wine Disneyland, while Sonoma Valley is a Wine Region
No getting around this. Napa Valley is all wine all the time, while Sonoma Valley is all wine. There's a difference. That primary difference is that the winemaking and grapegrowing work in Napa is done with an eye equally trained on appealing to visitors. Sonoma Valley's winemaking and grapegrowing is done only a wink at tourism.

2. Napa Valley's provision of and commitment to supporting fine dining establishments exceeds Sonoma Valley's by a wide and deep margin
There are some wonderful restaurants in Sonoma Valley. Yet, the sheer commitment to fine dinning in Napa Valley boggles the mind.

3. Navigating traffic in Napa Valley is a chore while navigating it in Sonoma Valley is inconsequential in comparison
Traveling north on Highway 29 in and around St. Helena at the wrong time will make most people lose their appetite and quite possible their temper. Worried about getting up and down the Valley in Sonoma? Why?

4. Sonoma Valley has better backroads than Napa Valley
Bennett Valley Road, Warm Springs Road, Carriger Road, Lovall Valley Road, Moon Mountain Road, Trinity Road, Lawndale Road

5. Sonoma Valley wineries provide a wider selection of wines than Napa Valley wineries
There is not sense in heading to Sonoma Valley to taste Cabernet when Napa Valley is right over the hill. However, in Sonoma Valley you are likely to find a much wider array of varietals to taste than in Napa. Sonoma Valley simply hasn't committed to a single varietal like Napa Valley has.

6. The lodging establishments in Napa Valley are more sophisticated, provide more amenities, and are better placed than in Sonoma Valley
Despite three or four fine hotels and establishments in Sonoma Valley, the lodging establishments in this valley pale in comparison to the choice, diversity and pleasure of those awaiting visitors to Napa Valley.

7. Napa Valley provides a much greater array of activities for visitors than Sonoma Valley.
Although Napa is pretty much all wine all the time, you can find opportunities for soaring over the Valley in a balloon, numerous outstanding spas, golf courses, shopping areas, and more in Napa that simply have no equivalent in number in Sonoma Valley.

8. The shopping/strolling/relaxing experience of the Sonoma Town Plaza is much more pleasant than that of St. Helena or Yountville or Calistoga or Napa.
The large Sonoma Plaza is old school charming in a way Napa Valley's town centers (such as they are) simply can't compare with. One can easily spend three or four hours strolling the Sonoma Plaza, dipping into shops, hanging in the tree-studded plaza, eating, and even hitting the side streets east of the plaza for a look at old, well-kept homes. Nothing like this experience exists in Napa.

9. Sonoma Valley is bucolic, rustic and inviting while Napa Valley is sophisiticated, well-appointed and business-like.
It's about the "feel" of things. Napa is far more sophisticated a feel than in Sonoma. Yet Sonoma provides the visitor with the sense that they are wandering through an authentic and more rustic environment. To each their own.

10. Sonoma Valley is much less expensive to visit than Napa Valley
It just is. I can't nail down the exact difference. But I'd bet a 4 day stay in Napa Valley would cost at least 30% more than a 4 day stay in Sonoma Valley.


41 Responses

  1. Agency CG - August 29, 2011

    Well-defined and eerily familiar. Nice work, Tom.

  2. nick - August 29, 2011

    10. Sonoma Valley is much less expansive to visit than Napa Valley
    expensive?

  3. Tom Wark - August 29, 2011

    Indeed, “Expensive”! Thanks

  4. Clintonstark - August 29, 2011

    Great list, enjoyable Mon am read. Sonoma feels more like a getaway, while Napa feels more like an event. Both good, in different ways. I wonder what you think about AVA Marketing between the two. Sonoma has done well with Russian River Valley. And Napa with Rutherford Dust.

  5. Taylor - August 29, 2011

    Well said and I completely agree!

  6. Marcia M - August 29, 2011

    Apples to oranges? Cabernet vs. Pinot Noir? Both good but different. I think many of the differences add up to your #10. 5-Star lodging and restaurants don’t come inexpensively….

  7. Miquel - August 29, 2011

    Would definitely agree and am usually turned off a great deal by the crowds in Napa during the summer season as it’s such a “must see” for San Francisco tourists.

  8. Charlie Olken - August 29, 2011

    Nicely done, Tom.
    Here are a couple of things that explain how I view the differences–
    –When I have out of towm visitors, I take them to the Napa Valley. The wine is better. The wineries are better organized to care for and feed them (info, not food). And the food, while wonderful in Sonoma town, is not on a par with Napa. Put simply, Napa is a better place for the first time visitor.
    –When my adult daughter and her S. O. decided to buy a weekend home in wine country, I suggested that they look in Sonoma town. They have a place there and love it. It is about life, not eye-candy, and unless one is super-rich or married to someone who works at a Napa winery, Sonoma is definitely the place for people.
    My wife and I will wander up to Sonoma this weekend and brunch at either Girl and the Fig or EDK and be very happy. Napa’s good restaurants are wonderful, but very few are as casual and comfortable as G & TF, EDK or Harvest Moon.
    You and I have perhaps ignored the more welcoming aspects of Napa City, which is Napa Valley at the margins and has restaurants like Ubuntu and Neela that would fit in anywhere. I have lately become a very big fan of Napa City and find that it adds a more human dimension to Napa County and the Napa Valley.

  9. Charlie Tolbert - August 30, 2011

    Lance Cutler nailed it many years ago when he said, “Napa is to New York as Sonoma is to New Orleans.” Different, of course, but definitely got to have both.

  10. D.Mil - August 30, 2011

    Forget Napa and Sonoma Valleys and head to West Sonoma County. Healdsburg is the best not to mention it is at the confluence of three AVAs.

  11. miscellany - August 31, 2011

    Accurate.
    Too, after the ever so occasional required errand I need conduct over to Napa Valley I get back to Sonoma as fast as possible and hit the shower so as to wash off the vulgarity.

  12. wiremule - August 31, 2011

    Napa, as a human environment is pretty weird. All those trust funders. Seriously, they’ve got to be pretty doped up to take themselves as seriously as they do. It feels like psychiatry row. Creepy. You know what I’d do? I’d take all the garbage laying around in the streets in the Lower East side and dump it in the middle of Napa Valley. Tons and tons of it. Put the fear of god in ‘em, if that’s possible.
    A bunch of vapid posers.
    While I’m at it, if I ever hear Jumping Jack Flash again it’ll be too soon, similar to my emotion toward Cabernet.

  13. Tom Wark - August 31, 2011

    Winemule,
    There are lots and lots of folks who have come to Napa winemaking by virtue of the “mommy-and-daddy-gave-me-lots-of-money” route. However, there are MANY folks who are here because they LOVE wine, because some of the best winemakers in the world are here and they want to learn from them and they don’t have gobs of money. There are LOTS of these folks.

  14. Tom Wark - August 31, 2011

    I just want to be clear, I don’t associate myself with Miscellany’s “vulgarity” comment.

  15. Ricardo - August 31, 2011

    Great post Tom, though I would disagree re: the cost. Being semi, sort of, in the Wine Business and a frequent traveler to both Napa and Sonoma, and, (yet another qualifier) having stayed in both Sonoma town and Napa town recently, there is little difference in the cost- in fact, there are a few places in Napa town that are less expensive, and, on the whole, the dinners were the same. Having said that, once you go north out of Napa to Yountville, St. Helena, Rutherford, etc., yes, it is very likely at your 30% more. Also, once you venture out of Sonoma town and up toward Healdsburg, you experience somewhat the same phenomenon. But I have to say, as a visitor to both Napa and Sonoma, I love them both. And while the friendly rivalry is OK, when it breaks down into name calling, it’s a bit ridiculous – yet I see this from the locals all the time. Why can’t we all just be friends!

  16. lori - August 31, 2011

    This is great. I grew up in Sonoma Valley and have lived in Napa Valley for a third of my life now, so I’m pretty familiar with both. The one point I strongly disagree with is the traffic part. Highway 12 can be a nightmare at busy times of the day and weekends.

  17. Mark - August 31, 2011

    Tom,
    thanks for your comments to winemule and Miscellany. If you’re in the food and/or wine business and looking for experience to put on your resume, Napa is the place. While I agree that it can be challenging at times, navigating with all the visitors, the pluses almost always outweigh the minuses. I work at a winery, my wife is in the food business. We own a small house is a nice, peaceful residential part of Napa. We aren’t rich, we love what we do, a we work very hard to afford the lifestyle we enjoy. I’m sick of the crap about everyone in Napa being a trust fund a-hole.

  18. Sharon - August 31, 2011

    Mendocino County!

  19. Chris Donatiello - August 31, 2011

    I would extend your comments to all of Sonoma County’s AVAs, and not limit it to Sonoma Valley.
    for my circle of friends (and this will tell you a lot about me) I liken Napa to hanging poolside at a swank Miami beach hotel, while Sonoma is more like my favorite Irish bar.

  20. Mary - August 31, 2011

    I have been to Napa but not Sonoma. Now I have lots of reasons to go to both!

  21. Tom - August 31, 2011

    It’s kinda like Ginger (Napa) or Maryann (Sonoma)

  22. Teresa - August 31, 2011

    Question? When you speak of Sonoma Valley, which is technically an AVA, I think you must be referring to the Hwy 12 stretch, encompassing Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Boise Hot Springs, portions of Santa Rosa, and town of Sonoma, yes? Which is limiting in appellations, as you know how spread out we are in Sonoma COUNTY wine country. So if that be the case, then I disagree with your #7. Everything you name; Ballooning, wonderful spas, golf, shopping….this area is loaded with it! Did you forget about Sonoma Mission Inn, Kenwood Inn and Spa, Hyatt Vineyard Creek Spa, to name a few? Golf courses? There up and down the valley. Balloons are everywhere, every morning, esp. this time of year. And we have fab shopping in Sonoma, and downtown Santa Rosa. Okay, Napa probably has us beat there.
    And where are the cutoffs geographically to Napa Valley? Do you include all those AVA’s that encompass Hwy 29?…e.g. St. Helena, Rutherford, Calistoga, etc. ? And all the aligned wineries/areas along Silvarado Trail? If so, a fair comparison would be to include Sonoma’s Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valley for starters. Many more… http://www.sonomawinegrape.org/growing-regions
    So, I’m am a little confused. What was your geographic criteria in making these top ten comparisons?
    Thank-you for your response.

  23. Tom Wark - August 31, 2011

    Teresa:
    Indeed I was talking about the specific Sonoma Valley area/AVA and not all of Sonoma County. I equate Sonoma Valley with Napa Valley. Napa has no equivalent of “Sonoma County”, which as a wine growing region is immensely more diverse and larger than Napa Valley.
    It’s funny, though that more often than not if you refer to “Sonoma Valley”, people think of ALL of Sonoma County’s wine country, when in fact I am only, and properly, referring to a specific region located in Southern Sonoma County.
    In the end, I think Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley are perfect for comparison. They are similar geographically. Of course if you wanted to compare the DRV, RRV and AV areas to Napa Valley, then you could and it would be interesting to do so. However, the RRV AVA alone is so massive and disjointed it really makes little sense. But then you could say the same about the Napa Valley AVA.

  24. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1238266928 - August 31, 2011

    Why choose when you do both:):)
    Whichever you choose but be sure to get our recently launched iPhone & Android App to find wineries and wine tasting passes http://econcierges.com
    Plenty of deals in both Napa & Sonoma:):)

  25. Dyann Espinosa - August 31, 2011

    Having been a Sonoma Valley resident for 5 years, I believe Sonoma Valley has an inferiority complex. Napa Valley, on the other hand, does not waste time making jokes about, or putting down Sonoma Valley.
    It doesn’t matter when you are just doing your thing and focused on YOUR growth and success. Sonoma Valley needs to just “be itself” and create a more coherent identity–as most people now think Sonoma means Healdsburg, Russian River, Alexander Valley, etc..
    Napa is not the “big, bad wolf” anymore, it’s West Sonoma. People can go back and forth to Napa and Sonoma Valleys, easily, but the distance between Sonoma Valley and the rest of Sonoma means people choose one area or the other.
    Sonoma Valley should quit looking over its shoulder and proudly celebrate the diversity and the abundance of the land, the agriculture and the people–and work together to showcase it. (IMHO)

  26. Tom Wark - August 31, 2011

    Dyann:
    Perfectly Stated!!
    However, tell me more about your thoughts on how “West Sonoma” is the Big Bad Wolf now.

  27. Brian - August 31, 2011

    I haven’t lived or worked in Sonoma, but having lived and worked in Napa, I feel like there are more opportunities here than in Sonoma. There are a lot of large wineries in Napa, and while Sonoma gets their visitors, Napa is on another level. The opportunities apply not just to wineries but hospitality in general. Napa has numerous large hotels and fine dining restaurants. It’s easy to find work here if you have a background in that field.

  28. Amelia Ceja - August 31, 2011

    I echo Dyann Espinosa — both Napa and Sonoma Valleys are charming and offer different yet wonderful wine/food/culture experiences to locals and visitors alike!

  29. Deborah-Eve - August 31, 2011

    Fantastic topic and loads of great advice! As an expat I was amazed to see the world Ubuntu and quickly looked up that restaurant. Thanks for the tip Charlie–it looks fabulous and I’m putting it on my list of restaurants to try.

  30. Sultan of Swirl - September 4, 2011

    what no one is touching on so far is point #1… isn’t the whole point of the whole “no weddings in Napa because we’re saving the agricultural heritage of our bucolic paradise” is that they didn’t want to become the “Disneyland” of the wine industry?!? Indeed, there are far fewer fake castles/buildings with no right angles/flintstones architectural eyesores in Sonoma because Napa IS the Disneyland of the wine industry, so embrace it and start taking in some wedding money!
    Aside from that, indeed, if I have people from out of town looking for an “experience”, I take them to Napa. If they want a no-frills actual WINE experience (ie, could care less about the shopping and fine dining), I take them to Sonoma. 1/3 of the price for high quality product, more variety, less baby-boomers in Hawaiian shirts using words they can’t define spilling their product on your shoes, etc.

  31. Deb Lapmardo - September 5, 2011

    As a wine retailer and frequent ad hoc travel planner, I tell folks that Napa feels so “corporate” now. Big, conglomerate-owned wineries with employees who don’t seem to have much passion for the wine. Sonoma has many more family-owned wineries, and I agree that Healdsburg is as good as it gets. So sad, tho, that two of my Sonoma favorites, Seghesio and Landmark, have been sold to corporations…

  32. Tannin Bruce - September 6, 2011

    I would guess from your list that you live in Sonoma now Tom. Though you do a good job trying to give both sides their due there seems to be an underlying bias or more underlying promotion towards Sonoma that leads me to believe this. I would say this is more a pro and con list than a Top 10. Just your first point of Napa is a wine Disneyland where Sonoma is a wine region somewhat gives a slap to Napa’s face in the fact you are portraying it as a fake wine region instead of the place it is, which is a legitimate wine region that consistently makes some of the best wines in the world. Though Napa has its faults for going the more corporate route that doesnt de-legitimize it as a wine region and automatically make Sonoma more real. Oh and on traffic may be an issue in Napa, you will spend the same amount of time in the car because of how spread out everything is in Sonoma compared to the compactness of Napa. Overall though, well written article and you did touch on some good differences.

    • Gina bernson - August 6, 2014

      I have not been to either. We are planning a trip in October. However my interpretation of the “Disney ” comparison was that they are excellent at what they do. If you know anything about Disney they are first class in presentation and customer service. Just saying

  33. Mike - September 9, 2011

    I agree with most, but have you driven on 101 around Santa Rosa? It makes Hwy 29 look like the Autobahn

  34. Paul Moe - September 11, 2011

    NAPA is for auto parts. Drink Sonoma County wines.
    Napa is a four letter word. Drink Sonoma County wines.

  35. Tom Wark - September 11, 2011

    Paul,
    What are your thoughts on Napa versus Sonoma?

  36. Marianette Kauahikaua - May 13, 2012

    Great information for our trip planning this summer. Mahalo everyone.

  37. Joshua Chernin - July 9, 2014

    I am a life-long Sonoma County resident, but have been to Napa many times. Napa is definitely known to us as a wine “Disneyland”. Why anybody would go there when you can go somewhere “real” is beyond me. Last time we went wine tasting near Healdsburg I brought the kids and we had a picnic. There were other families with children there as well, including one that had driven from Oakland for the day. Was as picturesque as it could get. Fields of grapes and olive trees. Just the sound of the wind, along with the birds. Sonoma County is a real place with a diverse economy and creative people. Napa is a fake place that pretty much completely relies on tourism.

  38. Tom Wark - July 9, 2014

    Joshua,

    I too love Sonoma. But I think you are misrepresenting Napa. I could send you to numerous places in Napa Valley that are authentically beautiful, calm, welcome children and will please you. Finally, without the tourism attracted by its wineries, I’d think half the wineries in Sonoma would close up shop immediately. Each Valley has its virtues and drawbacks.

  39. John Perry - August 30, 2014

    Napa Valley is 90% of Napa County. Sonoma Valley is a fraction of Sonoma County. There is much wine to be drank and Hotels/spas and Towns out side Sonoma Valley

  40. Patricia - September 19, 2014

    Well said!
    My partner and I are spending a week in San Francisco at the end of September. Michael hasn’t been to either valley, I have. We have both lived in Denver for many many years, in an effort to differentiate the vibe betwixt the two; I posed the analogy “Napa is to Sonoma as Vail is to Aspen”. Each wonderful, each different. Or better yet, both wonderfully different! Really enjoyed getting your perspective. Thanks.


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