Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
August 20, 2010
So a friend of mine is on his way to San Francisco from New York and has a couple of days to visit wine country. “Should we go to Napa or Sonoma?” he asked, a question I have heard before.
It is a pleasant dilemma and, regardless of which route you take, you will have a great time visiting, tasting and eating. But there are differences.
Start with the grapes. Napa is famous for producing some of the world’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon. While this is not all that Napa winemakers do, of course, it is what has made Napa, indeed California, one of the most iconic wine destinations on the globe. These Cabernets are rich, powerful, full-bodied and ultimately expressive of the character of both the valley and the vintners who live there.
Sonoma is not as readily associated with a particular grape. The vastness of the county and the topographic and climatologic variations provide opportunities to make a variety of outstanding wines, and Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape. But, having said that, today Sonoma is best known as a sweet spot for Pinot Noir.
The Russian River Valley in particular, a large appellation smack dab in the center of Sonoma County, is the source of seriously sought-after Pinot Noir. Sonoma, located on the coastal side of the Mayacamas Mountains west of Napa, literally sucks fog from the Pacific into the Russian River Valley and can drop the temperatures on hot summer days by as much as 40 degrees. Grapes, especially the finicky Pinot Noir, like this.
So if you like Cabernet, go to Napa; for Pinot Noir, go to Sonoma, right? Well it’s not quite that simple.
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Consider the layout of the two regions. Napa is a well-defined Valley that runs about 25 miles from south to northwest and is flanked by two highways. The heavily used Highway 29 to the east and the romantically named Silverado Trail on the west are connected by a series of “cross” roads that run across the valley floor. All of these roads are lined by wineries. The names you know – Mondavi, Domaine Chandon, Cakebread, Silver Oak – are all here and easy to find. So easy that you can actually stumble across them.
Sonoma, on the other hand, takes a map and a little bit of time. It is such a big and diverse county that you could spend a month and not see everything. There’s the drive up the coast, past Point Reyes, through the bucolic hills dotted by cattle that graze with an ocean view. Turn inland and you’ll climb over heavily treed, rugged mountains into the valleys that drain into the Russian River. In those valleys are the towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg, and the “big town” of Santa Rosa. Finding wineries is easy, there are lots of them, but finding the ones you’re looking for can take some time so you need to plan a bit.
Then there is the vibe. Napa embodies, in fact invented, that romantic notion of what wine tourism is all about. Brilliant wineries with great architecture and fabulous restaurants, all surrounded by vineyards, stretch as far as the eye can see. Hospitality pros have designed unforgettable tasting experiences that not only satiate the senses but inform as well. It is costly but worth every penny. A trip to Napa is a must for anyone who likes wine.
Ah, but the rub is that, as a must, it can get extremely crowded. Especially in the summertime and extra especially on weekends. It can be intimidating to negotiate the crowds of wine enthusiasts and tourists who clog the roads, jam the tasting rooms and book the restaurants and lodging.
Sonoma, on the other hand, has a much more laid-back feel. A trip through the Russian River Valley is a little like driving through farm country. Ranch fences run the length of the roads and rather than estate-sized wineries there are more modest, welcoming and small tasting rooms. Change is in the air, and the town of Healdsburg gets more cosmopolitan by the day, but Sonoma still provides bucolic scenery and great wines for wine country travelers.
So, where to go? If you like Cabernet, want the simplicity, the marquee names and the professional hospitality on your wine journey, then Napa cannot be beat. If, on the on the other hand, you love Pinot, have the time to cruise (preferably top down) and don’t mind searching back roads and country lanes to find your wineries, then Sonoma is for you.
The best idea, however, as I told my friend from New York, is to take an extra day or two and do both. Hit Napa on the way up and drive through Sonoma on the way back.
So little time and so much wine.