The Wine Vacation: Napa vs Sonoma

NapaSonomaA holiday in Northern California’s wine country usually means heading to Napa Valley, Sonoma County or a little of both. In realty and for most people, it means choosing between one or the other. Choosing between Napa and Sonoma isn’t required necessarily by geography, but the vast majority of folks do choose one region and stay put.

Having lived in both spots and having spent a good deal of time exploring and working in the wine realm in both areas, I offer this comparison for those trying to determine where to center their next Wine Country Holiday

The Wines
The Wines of Napa Valley are far more famous than the wines of Sonoma. Napa Valley wine early on became associated with “the best of American winemaking”. It remains a fact that Napa Valley and its wineries are central to the American wine consciousness and are in no danger of being dethroned from that spot. Sonoma’s wines are in second place in terms of recognition. However, Sonoma is home to a number of wineries that are extremely well known, not the least of which are Kendall-Jackson, Clos du Bois, Simi, Chateau St. Jean and others.
The Bottom Line: In Napa, you are in the belly of the wine beast. In Sonoma, you will recognize many of the wineries, but won’t feel like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

The Variety of Wines
Napa is Cabernet Country and the visitor can expect to be bombarded by this wine from every direction. The Sonomasignmost sought after, highly praised, most famous and highest quality Cabernet Sauvignon will great the visitor to Napa Valley. The Cabernet from Napa Valley ranks among the best in world. However, it’s hard to find more than that. Sonoma provides perhaps the greatest diversity of wines of any California wine region, in part because of the diversity of climate and soil and geography that makes up this larger region. A visit to nearly any winery in Sonoma is as likely to yield an introduction to Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Syrah as it is an introduction to Merlot, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc and Rose.
Bottom Line: If you are most concerned with drinking great Cabernet, head to Napa Valley. If you desire a diversity of wines and surprise, stick with Sonoma.

The Geography of Getting Around
A great pleasure that comes with visiting a wine region is meandering your way along the region’s roads, enjoying the scenery and making discoveries. One doesn’t want to get lost, but one doesn’t also want to stay on the same old path. Napa Valley provides essentially two paths with a few offshoots. The visitor to Napa Valley will spend most of their times on Silverado Trail on the east side of the long narrowish valley and on Highway 20 on the western side of the valley. You’ll find cross roads connecting these two roads, and a few roads that take you up into the surrounding mountains.  In Sonoma, you are far more likely to get lost, but only if you aren’t paying attention. The geography of Sonoma County is as diverse as its wines. Valley floors. Hillsides. Meandering roads through foothills. Empty roads leading to the Pacific Ocean. Windy backroads. And a number of “wine roads”.
Bottom Line: Napa Valley is far easier to traverse with a more one dimensional geography leading to more purposeful driving. Sonoma yeilds more surprises, more landscapes. Both deliver up wineries.

The Welcome
I may offend my friend in Napa when I say this, but I think it is true: The Sonoma wine experience is more welcoming than the Napa wine experience. There is, in my experience, a much greater expectation among wineries in Napa that you will buy their wine if you visit their winery. Part of this is due to the fact that a far greater number of Napa wineries are open “by appointment only” than in Sonoma where you are most often free to simply drive right up and taste. Additionally, the cost of tasting wine in Napa is higher than in Sonoma. While most Sonoma wineries do charge a tasting fee today, in Napa you are likely at some point to encounter fees ranging from $20 to $50 and even higher. Finally, it’s true that Napa wineries give off a greater air of seriousness than Sonoma wineries. This isn’t a bad thing. For visitors that are quite serious about wine, it’s probably a good thing. In Sonoma, they take their wines seriously, but are far more likely to welcome visitors into the winery with a more casual air.
Bottom Line: Sonoma wineries will have a more casual, less pressure filled atmosphere, while Napa is likely to meet the expectations of those who believe wine is a really serious business.

NapasignConvenience and Opportunity
It’s hard to deny that Napa Valley provides the wine tourist with far more opportunity to experience the totality of their region in a convenient way than does Sonoma County. Because Sonoma if vastly larger than Napa, it will be very difficult to experience all of the region in a single trip, than if you are visiting Napa Valley. The fact is, in Napa you can tour the entire valley and its hillsides in a single day, easily getting a lay of the land, including its mountains, the valley floor and its towns. This could not be accomplished in Sonoma where you really must choose between spending a day exploring the County’s Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, West Sonoma Coast, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and more.
Bottom Line: Napa Valley provides a more convenient opportunity to experience the entire wine region in a shorter amount of time.

Civilizations
Because Sonona County is so much larger, you will find more towns, villages, cities and communities in the region than in Napa. In Napa Valley, you will make your home base in the town of Napa, Saint Helena, Yountville or Calistoga. In Sonoma County you might make your home base in the large city of Santa Rosa, the towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg, Petaluma or Rohnert Park, or the villages of Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Graton, or Occidental. Restaurant wise there are of course more restaurants and fine dining establishments in Sonoma County. It’s larger. However, Napa possesses a higher concentration of famed eating establishments. Neither offers dining experiences pronouncedly better than the other. But in Napa Valley, they are far easier to get to because they are more concentrated in a smaller area.
Bottom Line: Sport Dining in Napa is far easier than in Sonoma, but a little research, a few recommendations from the locals and a larger gas tank will get you to a wonderful and memorable dining experience in Sonoma County.

Cost
Whether you desire to visit tasting rooms, experience the fine dining opportunities, stay in a well appointed room, you will spend more in Napa. This is not to say that Napa has more opportunities to taste, dine and rest nor that Sonoma is cheap. It’s just that Napa is somewhat more expensive to experience.
Bottom Line: Napa costs more than Sonoma.


CONCLUSIONS

Both Napa and Sonoma wine countries provide the opportunity for an immersive wine holiday. These are two regions each dominated by and dependant upon wine and their reputation and each will provide the visitor with a wine country holiday likely to be unforgettable. But they differ in style, attitude, and feel. And they differ in ways that will satisfy different kinds of visitors.

There is a “glitz” to Napa Valley that is undeniable and that is really uncommon in Sonoma. There is a casualness in Sonoma that is harder to come by in Napa. There is a sense upon arriving in Napa that you’ve entered through the gates into a wonderland, while in Sonoma there is a sense that you’ve entered into another country.

It’s hard to take exception to the common recommendation that if you’ve never taken a Wine Country vacation, Napa is probably a better choice. It’s simply a more convenient and concentrated experience than Sonoma County. On the other hand, you will hear many experienced hands admit that upon visiting both regions, they happily return to Sonoma more often for its great diversity of wines and regions.


19 Responses

  1. El Jefe - August 21, 2012

    On the other hand, if you are looking for something not so urban, and you would like to do more than visit wineries – like hiking, fishing, camping, skiing – consider the Sierra Foothills. And if you are looking for both a concentrated and diverse experience, a walk down Main Street in Murphys will give easy access to most of the over two dozen small family wineries in the area.

  2. Mari Kane - August 21, 2012

    Tom, you say ” Napa Valley is far easier to traverse with a more one dimensional geography leading to more purposeful driving.” How can that driving be more purposeful if you are stuck in traffic on Hwy 29? Napa has only two north-south thoroughfares: Hwy 29 and the Silverado Trail. If you are on Hwy 29 you can be stuck waiting for the 50 cars ahead of you to pass through the traffic light. In Sonoma, you have Hwy 101, River Road, Guerneville Rd, Westside and Eastside Roads, Dry Creek Road, etc, and the only one with traffic congestion is 101 at rush hour. When you said “easier” you probably meant limited.
    Otherwise, your post is right on.
    See you at WBC13!
    -Mari

  3. JHammer - August 22, 2012

    Suggestions for lodging?

  4. Tom Wark - August 22, 2012

    JHammer:
    I have those. But in what town?

  5. John Skupny - August 22, 2012

    In my opinion, comparing experiences between these two great regions only limits one’s imagination or simply creates vinous stereotypes that really don’t serve either side well. A few years ago, a group of friends from both sides hunkered down to come up with an appropriate slogan for each other, to wit:
    “Napa means auto parts – Sonoma means wine”
    conversely,
    “Sonoma County – gateway to Anderson Valley”

  6. Nick C - August 22, 2012

    Hi Tom, my girlfriend and I are spending three nights in EITHER Napa or Sonoma county (first time visitors), and are struggling with our place to stay. From your post, it sounds like Sonoma could be the way to go for our style. However, we’re not sure which town to stay in. It sounds like you end up driving all over the place anyway, but do you have strong recommendations for location, and also place?

  7. Tom Wark - August 22, 2012

    Nick,
    In Sonoma County I would recommend you position yourself either in the town of Healdsburg in the north or the town of Sonoma in the South. Lot’s to do in both towns. In Sonoma, you can also slip into Napa if you want. Both towns are fun to hang out in and you could easily spend three days close to them visiting wineries and not having to venture too far.
    Please enjoy!
    Tom….

  8. Nancy Hawks Miller - August 22, 2012

    Hi, Tom. Excellent, even-handed coverage on what can be a very touchy, political topic!

  9. Tom Wark - August 22, 2012

    Nancy,
    Thanks….I think it’s an issue that many travelers ponder. Hope I treated both regions right.
    Tom…

  10. Valley Dude - August 22, 2012

    John,
    I’ll add one: “American Canyon – gateway to Napa Valley”.

  11. Nick C - August 22, 2012

    Thanks Tom!
    Do you know anything about the Carneros Inn? It seems in between Napa/Sonoma, so I imagine it is a drive to other places. Just thought I’d ask!
    Nick

  12. Donn - August 22, 2012

    The greeting: I bet the majority in Napa are employees who only work the tasting room. Sonoma probably offers tasting room elbow-rubbing with employees and family who work at various cellar rat fermentation dirt farmer phone answerer emergency driver pest shoo-awayer compared to Napa.
    Having been in Napa a lot, I usually suggest to people to do the Silverado when they speak of going to wine country.

  13. Tom Wark - August 22, 2012

    Nick,
    Carneros Inn is a beautiful property. It puts you not only near the Carneros wineries, but in close proximity to the town of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley but also southern Napa Valley and the restaurants of the town of Napa and Yountville. It’s a great location.

  14. Heather J - August 22, 2012

    Why take sides in the Napa / Sonoma debate when you can have the best of both worlds visiting producers with established roots (estate vineyards as tangible investment / commitment) in both regions… like Fisher Vineyards, Pride or Phelps / Freestone!

  15. Tom Wark - August 22, 2012

    Hi Heather.
    It’s not really a matter of “taking sides”. Both regions offer remarkable experiences. But, they are different and offer different remarkable experiences.

  16. Martin Slavin - August 23, 2012

    Excellent post, and one that I agree with. I work in St. Helena, and I find we get a lot of visitors that come to Napa for convenience who probably would be happier with wine from Sonoma. Living in Marin County, when my wife and I go to wine country, it is usually to Sonoma. One factor that you did not mention about Sonoma dining is that the food in their restaurants pairs better with the local wines. In Napa, unless you are eating steak, Napa cabs are not a great match. I remember eating in one of Napa’s most famous eateries and listening to our neighbors ordering a big Napa cab to go with a grilled Halibut dish. Come on!

  17. thedrunkencyclist - August 23, 2012

    Tom, for what it’s worth, I think you did a fine job delineating the differences between the two. We now spend most of our time escaping the in-laws–I mean visiting wine country in Sonoma after going to Napa only for years. Napa is certainly ‘easier’ conceptually, while Sonoma takes a bit more forethought. Well done analysis.

  18. Napa vs Sonoma: Politics, Not Wine - Fermentation - November 7, 2012

    […] enjoyed exploring over the years on FERMENTATION. Mostly I’ve compared the two counties for the benefit of travelers and in the context of wine production. However, yesterday’s election and all the talk of […]

  19. Carlos - February 16, 2014

    I will be visiting the area and I am glad I found this article. Now I know for sure I am better off going to Sonoma based on the well-written details from Tom. Also, I’d like to thank the majority of the comments posted by others, even when they don’t agree. I am not a wine drinker and just wanted to visit for the scenery and the local restaurants. Again, thank you Tom for taking the time to write this article. I am sure many visitors will benefit from it. Best regards.


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