What Would We Do Without Napa?

It’s often said that Sonoma County winemakers have a chip on their shoulder named "Napa Valley". I don’t know if the chip actually exists, if there really is any significant rivalry between the two, or if one region is better than the other. But I do know this. The purported chip/rivalry/competition is perfect fodder for writers who are looking for a lead for their story about Sonoma County.

I think I’ve read this lead at least 1000 times:

"While the Napa Valley receives most
of the attention for producing California’s fine wines,
many believe that Sonoma County, located west of Napa, is
California’s significant other."

There is a certain apologetic quality to this kind of lead in to a story about Sonoma County’s winemaking attributes: "It’s not Napa we are talking about today, but I swear the wines of Sonoma Country are really really good!"

I’m not real sure what Sonoma County would do if it didn’t have Napa Valley as its foil. Perhaps it would stand up on its own two feet and declare, as it should, that it possesses the most diverse set of climates and terroirs of any County in California; or that as counties go, it possesses the most diverse set of unique growing regions for visitors to explore; or that it produces a wider variety of extraordinarily high quality examples of different varietals than any other County in California.

Let’s face it, if you had a friend asking for recommendations on where to spend a week in wine country, would you really suggest Napa Valley over Sonoma County? Would you really? Are these good friends, or just acquaintances.

There is no possibility that in my lifetime or that of my children that Sonoma will eclipse Napa Valley in wine making prestige either among frequent wine drinkers or, certainly, among infrequent wine drinkers. None. The die has been cast on that score. And news stories like the one referenced above will continue to make sure this is the case.

But I think this is OK. As Sonoma’s wine roads slowly become more crowded, they are still a world away from Highway 29 in terms of gridlock, frustration and expense. They’ll always provide that undiscovered backroad that leads to revelation and authenticity that Napa simply can’t match. They’ll always be more likely to lead to wine discoveries that are real discoveries, rather than simple exclamations of relief that the line at the tasting bar isn’t nearly as crowded as the last one you were at.

11 Responses

  1. Trevor - June 25, 2008

    Tom–have you seen the huge billboard alongside east-bound highway 37 near Sears Point? It says something along the lines of: “Sonoma County, the real wine country”.
    Being a Napa native, I was a bit shocked when I first read it–certainly sounds like a chip on the shoulder to me…

  2. Wineguy - June 25, 2008

    Pssst… Don’t tell anyone, but Santa Barbara has them both beat. With no chips on any shoulders.

  3. Tish - June 25, 2008

    Why would you say “There is no possibility that in my lifetime or that of my children that Sonoma will eclipse Napa Valley in wine making prestige either among frequent wine drinkers or, certainly, among infrequent wine drinkers. None.”
    What if a blind 1976-Paris-like tasting of 10 wines finds 5 Sonoma wines besting 5 Napa Valley wines?
    What is a celebrity chef comes out and says “I just can’t stomach the alcohol in Napa Valley Cabernets, no matter how many 95-point scores Wine Spec gives to them”?
    And with Pinot Noir continuing to attract more attention with each vintage, aren’t both Santa Barbara and Sonoma poised to be the region(s) of choice?
    My basic point is: things change faster in wine these days than ever. Case in point: New Zealand, barely a Cloudy-Bay blip on the global wine radar before 1990, is revered for Sauv Blanc. Screwtops, once thought to have cooties, are now cool. Heck, what if Obama wines in November and toasts the new era of HOPE with a glass of Sonoma Zin? And do not discount the simple fact that Napa Valley has for years swum in waters that smell of elitism; with wine becoming more of a populist beverage with each passing vintage, could that set up Napa for a tumble?
    As wine information continues to thrive on the Internet, change is more possible than ever. Keep your glass half full and stay tuned!

  4. SlurpD - June 25, 2008

    I wish everyone would stop talking about Sonoma County so I can have it to myself, my kin and a few close friends! The small town, family feel of Healdsburg, for example, has been eroding to arrogance, elitism and chicness. While there are many positive attributes to this evolution, I long for the simpler times of independent ownership and steward-ship that has long since begun to vaporize before my very eyes. So it goes….

  5. Alfonso - June 25, 2008

    I thought the headline was, What Would We Do Without Naps?
    I guess I need one.

  6. Arthur - June 25, 2008

    Wineguy: an old Polish saying goes: “a third party can always benefit from/take advantage of a fight between two others”
    I often get the sense that many people forget that there are vineyardds south of San Jose.
    The Central Coast has as much acreage of vines as Sonoma & Napa put together.
    The variety is greater there too.

  7. Arthur - June 25, 2008

    Corrcetion: my comment was intended for Trevor.

  8. Phyll - June 25, 2008

    Pshaw. If Bacchus today offered me either Napa or Sonoma (with all the vines and the winemakers) all to myself, I’d pick Sonoma in less than a heartbeat.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - June 26, 2008

    Tish is right on: you of all people should know never to say never. Besides, if things were as certain in the wine world as you seem to think, why bother rising from bed each day???
    In any event, I’d vote for Russian River wines over many in Fornicalia, but I have to agree with the Santa Barbara sentiment, too.

  10. Carl Kosko - June 30, 2008

    I think I am going to have to agree with Alfonso! While you all are considering the wines on the west coast, the wines on the east coast are starting to gain in popularity. Specific to Pennsylvania, check out wineries like J. Maki or Va La, or Penn Woods. All creating a great “buzz” locally. We bring our bed and breakfast guest on these tours three or four times a year. Our area is becoming respected in the wine world. I am looking forward to the future of wine making in PA.

  11. Patrick Cook - July 3, 2008

    Santa Cruz Mountains has them all beat, and also has the world’s best wine – Ridge

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