The Wine Vacation: Napa vs Sonoma
A 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 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 most 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.
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.
Convenience 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.
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.
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.
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.