Napa vs Sonoma Wine Countries: A World Apart

CulturaldiffrenceNapa Valley and Sonoma County are neighbors, separated largely by a mountain. From southern Napa Valley, from its mid point in Saint Helena and from Calistoga, you can get to the major cities in Sonoma County in half an hour or less. And yet, they remain worlds apart culturally.

This point was driven home once again when I attended the Wine Spectator's Napa Valley "Big Bottle" Party at Tra Vigna in Saint Helena last Wedenesday. This annual affair, which is duplicated in Sonoma County in Healdsburg the day before, comes just ahead of the Napa Valley Auction. I've been to this party five or six times, but it has been a while since I attended in Napa Valley and I was quite happy to get the invitation. But if you want to experience the difference between the Napa and Sonoma wine cultures, just attend both parties.

In Sonoma, like in Napa, everyone brings a magnum of wine or larger to the party. It is a relaxing and casual affair that has the feel of a family get-together. Jeans and tropical shirts and simple summer dresses are the chosen attire. It's chummy. And there is a lot of laughing and talking, eating and drinking. The Wine Spectator folks throw a lovely party.

The Napa version is somewhat different.

It's glitzy. It's shiny. There are well dressed folks in sport jackets and women show off their latest in fine couture with expensive heels. Celebrities (real ones) attend. There is a decidedly "who's that" air to the affair. The food is certainly great. The wine is spectacular. But in attitude and demeanor it is something altogether different than in Sonoma.

I'm not sure how coveted the invitation is for the Sonoma affair. It probably is. But I can tell you that the arrival of the Wine Spectator invitation to the Napa Valley "Big Bottle Party" is a highly coveted thing, bringing joy to many when it arrives in their mailbox. There is an air of "I'm one of the special people" for those who get the invite (though clearly, based on my own invitation to the event, the folks at the Wine Spectator don't always invite just special people).

The cultural difference between Napa and Sonoma isn't lost on anyone who works in the wine industry in the North Bay. It's a palpable difference. For many years, in fact, Sonoma County advertised itself as "The Real Wine Country", clearly playing to the perceived "nose-in-the-air" stereotype that Napa possesses.

But it's not all perception. The fact is, Napa has been extraordinarily successful in branding the region and its wines as the best of the best and the results of that effort are significant. If you look at the average price of a bottle of Napa wine, it's far more than the average Sonoma wine. If you look at tourism numbers for the two county's far more people head to Napa to taste wine. It is more expensive to stay in Napa and more expensive to dine in Napa. The Napa Valley Auction brings in millions more annually than the equivilant in Sonoma. The fact is,  "Napa Valley" is one of the great American brands up there with Apple, General Motors and Coca Cola.

Yet despite the fact that I live here, I can say with all honesty, I much prefer Sonoma County, or at least most parts of it. The difference in cultures that you see between the Napa and Sonoma big bottle parties flow over into the general quality and character of life between the two regions. Sonoma is, to my mind, simpler in look and feel. More comfortable in terms of its quality of life. Sonoma's vistas, to my mind, are more beautiful and more varied. And clearly the economy in Sonoma County is far more diverse than Napa. True, Sonoma County is much larger than Napa Valley. But Sonoma County is simply more "down home" all the way around.

But more importantly to this subject of the wine cultures, there is much more of a feeling of wine and wineries being a status symbol in Napa, just at the invite to the Wine Spectator's "Big Bottle Party" in Napa Valley is a status symbol. The wineries are more glitzy. The labels are moe sophisticated and the marketing attitude of the wineries in Napa is also more sophisticated.

I'm not dissing Napa Valley. There is a call for and a need for and a reason for the "Napa Valley" culture and in many ways it can be a very exciting and alluring place to live and play. But it truly is astounding the difference a mountain (and a party) makes.

7 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - June 2, 2012

    Napa Valley has become so crowded and carnivalized that it’s a relief to drive over the mountain to find the peace and quiet of Sonoma and villages that are still rustic and undeveloped…

  2. Bill - June 2, 2012

    I’m not dissing Napa but… come on, everything before the but is BS. Glad you prefer Sonoma County, some people like Arkansas, good for them.

  3. Lewis Perdue - June 4, 2012

    Big bottle party? Not familiar with that other than John Hinman’s. Napa Valley Auction? That was the Copia stuff, right?

  4. Bill McIver - June 4, 2012

    Yeah, Lew, I’m with you. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one Big Bottle Party and that is John Hinman’s! Napa’s Over the Hill — Napa makes car parts (to quote Sonoman Tommy Smothers) — Napa’s a 4 letter word. Napa is only for the sleazy riche.

  5. harvey posert - June 4, 2012

    what fun! being from almost arkansas and happy here for 40 years, i was waiting at the spectator party when a obviously rich stranger said he wanted to move here from walnut creek, “buy a vineyard and build a winery.” i suggested sonoma and he said, “no way, has to be napa.” how did it happen? tom? fredric? lew? not bill.

  6. Matthiasson Wines - June 4, 2012

    Tom, you have a standing invitation to visit us and experience “the other side of Napa” without having to drive to the other side of the mountain (I think from where you live we’re just on the other side of the highway!). To mark the occasion, I will even pull out my Birkenstocks. You can also catch us selling peaches and other stone fruit at the Napa Farmers’ Market on Saturday’s in July/August. Cheers!

  7. Nick - June 5, 2012

    In my experience, nearly every Springfield has its Shelbyville.

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