10 Reasons To Choose Sonoma Valley Over Napa Valley For Your Wine Vacation

Plaza_ShopsNapa Valley and Sonoma Valley are separated by the Mayacamas Mountain range. They share a claim to the Carneros wine growing region to the south. Both valleys provide visitors with as much wine tourism as could ever be desired. However, what follows are the Top 10 Reasons to Choose Sonoma Valley over Napa Valley for your vacation.

Logistics First: Both Valleys run parallel to each other on a relatively North-South axis and are separated by the Mayacamas Mountain range. You can drive from one to the other in no more than a half hour. Each is roughly 50 minutes north of San Francisco.

1. Sonoma Valley is a Much Better Value than Napa Valley
It’s a matter of supply and demand. Since more people head to Napa Valley than Sonoma Valley, the prices of just about everything in Sonoma Valley are less, be it restaurants, lodging or wine. Bottom line: Your Sonoma Valley vacation will cost you less

2. The Sonoma Plaza Is More Authentic and Relaxing Than Any Napa Valley Central Points
The Sonoma Plaza possesses a rich history and is surrounded by numerous shops, restaurants, historical sites and watering holes. The Plaza itself is a large shade-heavy, grass-covered spot that invites you to lie back, sip wine and nibble while watching the wine country world drift by.

3. Driving Sonoma Valley Feels More like Getting Lost in the Countryside than Napa Valley
It just feels real, Sonoma Valley does. Whether meandering up and down Highway 12 or Arnold Drive, you will much more appreciate the dusty roads, quaint vistas, and relaxed pace.

4. Sonoma Valley’s Restaurant Experiences Are More Relaxed and Have a Feel of Where the Locals Are
Whether dining on the Sonoma Plaza’s Girl and the Fig, Della Santina, or Burgers & Vine or Up Valley at The Glen Ellen Star or Cafe Citti, you’ll feel like you belong, leaving pretension behind, but enjoying great food.

5. You’ll Taste a Greater Variety of Wines in Sonoma Valley
Because no single variety is more coveted over others in Sonoma Valley as Cabernet Sauvignon is in Napa Valley, wineries plant a whole host of different types of grapes, meaning you’ll get a chance to taste everything from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and, yes, Cabernet.

6. Sonoma Valley Has Better Hiking Opportunities Than Napa Valley
Both the Sonoma Regional Park and Jack London Park are beautiful, bucolic retreats where you can put your hiking shoes on and explore untouched wilds, encounter wildlife and come across historic old structures.

7. Sonoma Valley Has Glen Ellen and Napa Valley Does Not
The little old town of Glen Ellen in the middle of Sonoma Valley is small, quaint, unencumbered by tourists, holds some wonderful restaurants and will have you think…this is where I want to live.

8. Traffic is of No Consequence in Sonoma Valley…Unlike in Napa Valley
Chances are you will come to a standstill on Highway 29 in Napa Valley. Chances are you will not encounter any traffic in Sonoma Valley, keeping your blood pressure at a delightful level.

9. You’ll Take Home More Wine From Sonoma Valley
For the price you pay for three Napa Valley wines, you can purchase six Sonoma Valley wines. And these are world-class bottlings.

10. Sonoma Valley is the Real Deal
In the end, Sonoma Valley is simply more authentic than Napa Valley. No one would ever accuse Sonoma Valley of being “The Adult Disneyland”. It will strike you as the Wine Country you imagined and will have you thinking, “I could live here!”

Click here for the ten reasons to choose Napa Valley over Sonoma Valley for your next wine vacation


40 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - May 19, 2014

    There is nothing like Napa for sheer concentration of upscale wine experiences, and I am sure you will provide plenty of detail in your next installment.

    As for me, most often when I am taking visitors to wine country, I take them to Sonoma Town for all the reasons you have listed–and a few more that occur to me.

    –More accessible wine country history both at the Plaza and at places like the historic Buena Vista winery and the carved wine vats at Sebastiani.
    –Better bike trails in Sonoma and up into the Sonoma Valley
    –Real horses in real pastures
    –Easier access from San Francisco
    –Old-fashioned tasting rooms at Kenwood and Larson

  2. Eric Hall - May 19, 2014

    Also, it’s nearer to Beverly Healdsburg!

  3. Rob Lansing - May 19, 2014

    1. Sonoma is only a much better value when you use non-wine growing areas to lower your “value” average. As many studies have shown, take the non-wine related areas ofPetaluma, Rohnert Park and Central Santa Rosa out of the equation, and Sonoma is slightly more expensive when it comes to a “wine country” stay.

    2. While Sonoma Plaza is certainly historic and charming, it’s also about an hours worth of entertainment if you’re not dining in the area. Both St. Helena and Calistoga in Napa are eminently more walkable with more things to see and do in every direction. Once you leave the square in Sonoma, you’re back to strip malls and grocery stores in a heartbeat.

    3. Driving Sonoma feels more like getting lost in the countryside than Napa? Seriously? Highway 101 is one of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area. And all the other highways and byways in Sonoma wine country seem to end up in Santa Rosa, a city of almost 175,000 people; or roughly 45,000 more people than all of Napa County combined. No question that Highway 29 is busy and congested with tourist traffic, but the idyllic Silverado trail, Oakville Cross Road, Rutherford Cross Road, Glass Mountain Road, Howell Mountain Road and more wind through thousands of acres of beautiful countryside, framed by some of the world’s most famous vineyards.

    4. Sonoma’s Restaurant experiences may have a more relaxed, “where the locals are” vibe, but people coming to Wine Country want an experience. They want lavish service, and interesting and unique food pairings. They come to Napa for the fantasy that if they lived here, they would live like this. If people wanted a homey experience, Napa wouldn’t be California’s #1 tourist destination.

    5. Sonoma claims to have greater diversity in wine varietals, yet every varietal named is equally available in Napa…..and they’re easier to try because from just about any wine region in Napa to another is never more than 30 minutes away. Sonoma can be over an hour without traffic.

    6. Sonoma has better hiking? Yes, Jack London park is fun and historical along with being a great hike. However, the New York Times noted Napa Valley as one of the Top 10 places to hike in California (Sonoma wasn’t on the list). Bothe State Park, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Sklyine Park and Alston Park are among the many breathtaking hiking areas to enjoy in Napa….and again never more than about half an hour away from wherever you are.

    7. Sonoma has Glen Ellen and Napa does not. You got me there. Glen Ellen is a hippie throwback town with some interesting restaurants. On the other hand, Sonoma doesn’t have Yountville, a small town with the highest concentration of world class restaurants in the world, yet also some more affordable places that still offer the wine country vibe (Pacific Blues, the bar at Hurley’s etc.).

    8. Traffic is of no consequence in Sonoma Valley unlike Napa Valley? This is the biggest lie Sonoma advocates ever tell. Let’s start with the obvious…..highway 101, the road in for nearly all tourists is easily among the most congested freeways in the Bay Area. The 14 Mile stretch between Novato and Petaluma can take 45 minutes to an hour to navigate at any time of day, any day of the week. On a busy weekend it can take even longer. Once again, that ugly old highway 101 can take another20-30 minutes to just to battle from one end of Santa Rosa to the other. At least the tourist traffic on Hwy 29 is only an issue on weekends, and the view is far more scenic than looking at warehouse complexes, strip malls and car dealers the full length of 101. Throw in awful traffic on Hwy 12 from Sonoma through Boyes Hot Springs and up through Kenwood, as well as the weekend grid lock in downtown Healdsburg, and you’ve got far worse traffic problems in Sonoma than Napa.

    9. You’ll take more wine home from Sonoma than Napa? So what? You’ll take more groceries home from the dollar store than Whole Foods. Besides, your logic is flawed in the fact that Sonoma’s highest production wine is Chardonnay which is always significantly less expensive than Napa’s leader, Cabernet Sauvignon.

    10. The other claim Sonoma advocates always make is that Sonoma is “more real.” That huge multi-million gallon E & J Gallo plant in Healdsburg is “real”?

    Look, Sonoma is wonderful place with some truly fabulous wineries, restaurants and towns. But Sonoma has serious Napa envy. It always seems like it wants to capture what Napa has, yet spends so much energy telling you how laid back they are.

    Frankly, what I tell people that are looking to visit wine country is this. If you are going for the wine experience, then Napa is THE place to go. If you’re coming partly for wine and partly for scenery, then head to Sonoma and enjoy the coast and the redwoods as well. But Sonoma…stop telling everyone how you aren’t Napa, and just be yourself.

    • Patrick - May 20, 2014

      I wonder where the notion comes from that Napa is the state’s No. 1 tourist destination. Maybe in terms of money spent? In terms of sheer numbers of people, I thought it was Venice Beach.

    • Rod Berglund - May 20, 2014

      Geographically challenged you are! There is no Highway 101 in Sonoma Valley and no Gallo “plant”. No Healdsburg and no Santa Rosa either. Sonoma Valley is a small valley flanked by the Maacamas on one side and Sonoma Mountain on the other with Carneros at its southern terminus.

    • Dave Waters - May 20, 2014

      Sorry Rob but you sound just like one the Yuppie wine snobs that would prefer Napa and hence wouldn’t “get” Sonoma. The whole you spend less at the $ store thing. The thing is, you will get great wine, great food for less $$$ with a more laid back atmosphere in Sonoma.
      However you are correct about the traffic around the Plaza and through Boyes Springs. On the other hand it really only takes a few min to get through. It just seems worse because Sonoma Valley is so small from just South of Sonoma to just North of Glen Ellen, which, by the way has The Wolf House and some fine wineries and great food.
      And as stated by others, we are talking about Sonoma Valley vs Napa Valley not Sonoma County vs Napa County. No 101, no Healdsburg, etc…
      Both places are nice. If you want high prices, glam and arrogant wine snobs go to Napa. If you want to chill and explore go to Sonoma.

    • Terry - May 21, 2014

      You are confusing the town of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley with Sonoma County. The 101 fwy doesn’t go thru Sonoma Valley, and your other rebuttals all referenced places outside Sonoma Valley. Both Napa & Sonoma valleys are beautiful, just very different experiences. I hope you’ll come check it out sometime.

    • Casey - May 21, 2014

      Rob, read the heading at the top of this article. you should note that we are comparing Sonoma valley to Napa Valley. Not Sonoma County vs Napa county. There is no highway 101 in sonoma valley, nor is there any strip mall. Sonoma has prohibited the chain mall/chain stores like Target and Wall-Mart from turning out all of the wonderful locally owned businesses. I would encourage you to rethink your arguments based solely on Sonoma valley which includes solely the towns of Sonoma, Schellville, Glen Ellen and Kenwood.

  4. Tom Wark - May 19, 2014


    Sonoma (VALLEY)!!!


  5. John Skupny - May 19, 2014

    Sonoma County – Gateway to Anderson Valley!

    • Scott Vin - May 19, 2014

      American Canyon/Vallejo – Gateway to Napa Valley!

      • cheapwinecurious.com - May 20, 2014


  6. Richard - May 19, 2014

    Tom, you are SUCH a trouble maker. Look forward to the Napa 10!

  7. Joe Gargiulo - May 19, 2014

    Lansing is right: I always reach for a cool-climate “Napa Coast Pinot” when I want a domestic rendition of a Premier Cru. … But seriously, “Napa envy?” … While some wine industry insiders from areas outside of Napa are prone to comparing heat summation numbers to those in Oakville, others chose Sonoma COUNTY as a residence over the four-letter county to the east for a variety of reasons not the least of which are cultural diversity and accessibility to other places such as Marin and SF. … I like Napa County, but I love Sonoma County.

    • Rob Lansing - May 20, 2014

      Sonoma County might be the better place to live, but the article was about vacationing in wine country, not residing in it. My comments were strictly made based on the authors premise of vacationing in wine country.

      And your cool climate Napa Coast Pinot comment would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that a large portion of the Carneros region is located in Napa and certainly DOES produce some of the highest quality, cool climate Pinot Noir this side of Burgundy, as does the Sonoma piece of Carneros.

  8. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Asterisk Wines - May 20, 2014

    […] From Tom Wark, “10 Reasons To Choose Sonoma Valley Over Napa Valley For Your Wine Vacation.” […]

  9. Bill Haydon - May 20, 2014

    Napa: where the soils are too fertile, the climate too warm and the prices too high.

    The egotism and hubris, however, are sublime.

  10. 10 Reasons to Choose Napa Valley over Sonoma Valley for a Wine Vacation - Fermentation - May 20, 2014

    […] Click here to read the case for choosing Sonoma Valley over Napa Valley […]

    • cheapwinecurious.com - May 20, 2014

      There is no Napa envy, we are just different in Sonoma – but alas – one could say we have a superiority complex – so be it. Napa is world class and gets more PR – but the Sonoma Valley is chic, private, family friendly and idyllic (btw – we also have awesome authentic Mexican food.) Differentiation is what keeps the tourist coming and all of us living the good life. Rivalries aside, we ALL have amazing wines and food.

  11. Steve Howe - May 20, 2014

    I am often asked by people which one they should go to, Napa or Sonoma. It’s always a difficult question to answer because different people are looking for different experiences. I love both.

    Sonoma always seems more laid back than Napa and overall is more affordable both to taste and to purchase wine. Napa has both small and large grand estates. Both produce great wines.

    It’s always best to make time to visit both!

    • cheapwinecurious.com - May 20, 2014

      Very diplomatic and well said!

  12. Cheryl - May 20, 2014

    My husband and I absolutely love Sonoma and the small town of Glen Ellen. We have stayed in Napa ever time we have been there and decided to change if up last year so we stayed in Glen Ellen. We are already planning the next trip and will be staying there again. There are some wonderful wineries in Sonoma. I love both Napa and Sonoma, but really prefer Sonoma. Some of my favorite wines are from there .

  13. Amy Lieberfarb - May 21, 2014

    Great job openings up the conversation Tom…Chin Chin #SonomaChat

  14. Stu Jablansky - May 22, 2014

    “Napa sells AUTO PARTS… SONOMA makes Wine!”

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  20. Miki Finnin - June 6, 2014

    Tom, Well said!! We have been to both Sonoma and Napa and loved then both for petty much exactly the same reasons that you mentioned. Sonoma is so laid back and relaxing where Napa reminds me of the “best of the best” type atmosphere..(oh, the food!!!) I’m sure this blog will be insightful to many. I plan on passing along to our readers too! Nice work! Miki

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