Napa vs. Sonoma face-off

Sonoma or Napa? Two rivals slug it out over which wine country has the juice

The case for Napa

Written by Heather John

The case for Napa

Yes, it’s crowded; yes, it’s pricey; yes, you’ll sit in traffic behind a limousine full of purple-grinning day-tasters from Germany, but there’s a perfectly sound reason for that: Napa Valley is the best wine region in the New World. Period. Back when our neighbors to the west were taking the prune market by storm, Napa was uncorking our national appetite for fermented grape juice, giving it a seat at the table alongside the great wines of Europe. Each year about 4 million visitors ply the vineyard-dense valley to sip our Cabernet, dine at our Michelin-starred restaurants, and rest their light heads in our luxury hotels. They come to visit the wine country, and that means two words: Napa Valley.

Napa-bred Heather John was wine editor at Bon Appétit until 2010.

Napa: Wine

Written by Heather John

Napa: Wine

The last time we were challenged to a smackdown was the Judgment of Paris wine tasting of 1976, when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena beat France’s big-gun wineries in a blind tasting that put California wine on the global map. And while our blockbuster reds are indeed legendary (Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Sloan), there’s more to Napa than pretty cult Cab. Think peppery Turley Zinfandel, Paloma’s rich Merlots, and ethereal Sauvignon Blancs from Randy Mason. Think win, win, win.

Score: 9

Napa: Tasting rooms

Written by Heather John

Napa: Tasting rooms

They call Napa “Disneyland for adults.” That’s because it’s a magical place where you can make an appointment with David Arthur to sip wine on the front patio of his vineyard. Or tunnel into Del Dotto Vineyards’ 127-year-old candelit cave for an intimate barrel tasting. Or go to the Fellini-meets-Vegas fun rooms at Raymond Vineyards to sample Cabernet beneath Baccarat chandeliers. Two glasses in, and you’ll swear you’ve found the Happiest Place on Earth.

Score: 8

Napa: Innovation

Written by Heather John

Napa: Innovation

Napa Valley has always led with innovation, whether it was Robert Mondavi aggressively marketing Napa wines by varietal in the ’60s (the standard today for New World wines) or Amigo Bob Cantisano leading the charge in the organic movement in the mid-’80s, to John Shafer creating one of the country’s first 100 percent solar-powered wineries. But where Napa’s wattage really glows is with its Girl Power. The valley claims perhaps the highest percentage of women winemakers in the state, with an all-star cast that includes Heidi Barrett, Cathy Corison, Mia Klein, Helen Turley, and Celia Welch.

Score: 8

Napa: Food

Written by Heather John

Napa: Food

If Napa’s Milky Way of Michelin stars (14 to Sonoma’s 7) doesn’t light up your dining dreams, there are more modest ways to absorb vino in the valley. Like the cheeseburger at Gott’s Roadside that wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. called the best on the planet. Or the hungry person’s romp through Oxbow Public Market. But should you have an opportunity to break bread at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, the best restaurant in the country, maybe the world, you do it. No questions asked.

Score: 10

Napa: Stay

Written by Heather John

Napa: Stay

We’ve perfected the art of the luxury hotel, and we’re not about to apologize for it. Resorts like Meadowood, Calistoga Ranch, and the one that started it all, Auberge du Soleil, bristle with wine country opulence. Epic poems have been written on Yelp about the private outdoor showers at the Carneros Inn. Questions have been popped over lunch on the deck at Auberge. Are stays here cheap? Not by a mile. But neither is a trip to Tuscany. And in some ways, our dreamiest sleeps can be more transportive.

Score: 9

Napa: Accessibility

Written by Heather John

Napa: Accessibility

Knock our traffic all you want, but clock some time on Sonoma’s less picturesque U.S. 101, hauling from one backroad to the next, and you’ll pray to Dionysus for corridors as jarringly compact as Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. And, yes, Napa can bruise your bank account, but you don’t always need to pull out the platinum card for a four-star experience. The $25 Taste Napa Card gets you sipping at a dozen downtown Napa tasting rooms all within an easy-to-walk half-mile of one another.

Score: 7

Napa: Play factor

Written by Heather John

Napa: Play factor

We’ve got hiking at Table Rock and biking on the Silverado Trail, not to mention a dream-team roster of super spas that stretches from Carneros up to the famous mud baths of Calistoga. But where Napa really pumps up the play is with our cultural offerings. The fine art collections at Clos Pegase, Ma(i)sonry, and Hess are museum-quality, and the concerts and performances at Napa’s Uptown Theatre and Robert Mondavi Winery are as good as or better than anything you’ll find in San Francisco.

Score: 7

The case for Sonoma

Written by Rod Smith

The case for Sonoma

The county’s 1,576 square miles are a sprawling garden of organic produce, free-range meats, and since 1824, grapes. (George Yount planted Napa’s first vines in the 1830s, using Sonoma cuttings.) Napa offers the thrill of tasting wines few can afford and eating trendy food cooked by the employees of celebrity chefs. In Sonoma, you can access countryside, towns, and tasting rooms—sans appointment—to try some of the most distinctive and innovative wines available. True, pockets have trended upscale. Limos? Check. Celebs like Lady Gaga looking to buy? Check. But at heart, this is authentic country open to visitors—casual and wine snob alike.

Western Sonoma County’s Rod Smith is a two-time James Beard award winner for wine writing.

Sonoma: Wine

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Wine

No, we’re not synonymous with a single grape. That’s the point. Each of Sonoma’s 13 AVAs has its specialties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast), Cabernet (Alexander and Sonoma Valleys). Don’t forget Zinfandel, which was practically invented in our Dry Creek Valley. Cult wines? Williams Selyem’s statuesque Pinots, Hanzell’s minerally Chardonnay, Vérité’s perfect Bordeaux blends, Silver Oak’s ... yes, that’s right—when the Napa star expanded, it chose the Alexander Valley.

Score: 8

Sonoma: Tasting rooms

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Tasting rooms

Our rooms are welcoming, typically uncrowded, and have tastings from free to $20 at most. There are big stops, but they’re fun: Kendall-Jackson offers as much for heirloom-tomato geeks as wine snobs; Simi’s pizza cafe is reason enough to drop in. Or go outdoors with a hilltop tasting at Copain, or at rustic-chic Medlock Ames, where the action’s centered around the picnic table. Wish you were sitting in traffic? Didn’t think so.

Score: 9

Sonoma: Innovation

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Innovation

Sonoma vintners constantly push the envelope, while our friends in Napa dwell comfortably inside it. We’re home to viticultural pioneers, like star organic farmer Phil Coturri and biodynamic producer Benziger. Ditto the natural wine movement—i.e., nothing added or removed to juice the tasting scores. (Try Lioco’s red-fruit-rich Indica Carignan–Grenache blend.) Sonoma Cast Stone dramatically improved concrete egg fermentation vessels, which yield creamy whites and rosés. We could also point to growing grapes in the extreme climate of the coastal ridges—one of the most exciting trends here—but that wouldn’t be fair; Napa doesn’t have any coastal ridges.

Score: 10

Sonoma: Food

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Food

Cyrus and Madrona Manor in Healdsburg have Michelin stars, as does Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. But, arguably, it’s localista hangouts that shine brightest. At Underwood in Graton, you’ll find artists, apple farmers, winemakers, volunteer firefighters, and happy tourists all slurping oysters and munching pommes frites. Each town has at least one terrific place for locally sourced food, from the trend­setting Girl & the Fig, to Boon, Diavola, and on and on.

Score: 8

Sonoma: Stay

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Stay

Sure, you can spend lavishly on that once-in-a-lifetime occasion in Sonoma—Kenwood Inn and Spa’s private villas are pure luxury right down to the custom-made scented candles—but you don’t have to. City types may appreciate Healdsburg’s eco-spare H2hotel, with its living roof and loaner bicycles. Want to spend less than $200 a night? Can do if you head for the country, to places like Guerneville’s Boon Hotel, with its seems-like-they-should-cost-more cottages tucked into the redwoods. Or, what the heck, why not camp in the redwoods and save your dough for wine, or dinner at Cyrus?

Score: 7

Sonoma: Accessibility

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Accessibility

If you want to get away, get way, way away in the far Russian River Valley and upper Sonoma Coast. The county’s larger than Rhode Island, which is how it can take more than 7 million annual visitors without running out of elbow room. That said, stay in Healdsburg and you can go practically car-free, visiting tasting rooms in town or biking the sweet little Dry Creek Valley loop, with stops like Preston for tastings and fresh-baked bread.

Score: 8

Sonoma: Play factor

Written by Rod Smith

Sonoma: Play factor

In Napa, there are “events.” In Sonoma, we party. Check out Gundlach Bundschu’s BBQ-cum-indie-band-celebration, the Huichica Music Festival. Or the rising Sonoma Coast AVA’s West of West, a wine-fueled showcase (Aug 3–5). If you’re feeling outdoorsy, zipline redwood groves with Sonoma Canopy Tours. Or pull a dawn patrol surfing at Salmon Creek Beach, then head up to Fisk Mill Cove lookout for a wine and cheese picnic. It’s all here.

Score: 9

And the winner is...

Photo by David Fenton

And the winner is...

Sonoma!

Here are some of our favorite spots—both new and classic—for your next weekend getaway.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery (pictured). Craving a touch of Napa-style glamour? Buy a Brazilian bikini in Healdsburg and nab a cabine by the giant swimming pool at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery-cum-playground, complete with poolside cafe, restaurant, and tasting room, in Geyserville. $20 pool pass, $125 cabine, $7 tasting fee; franciscoppolawinery.com

Merry Edwards Winery. One of Sonoma’s leading female winemakers, Edwards produces small batches of not-in-stores Pinots and Sauvignon Blancs. The tasting room at her Coopersmith Vineyard, north of Sebastopol, is unpretentious, and the wine speaks for itself. merryedwards.com

Sebastopol Farm Market. There are farmers’ markets everywhere in Sonoma, but Sebastopol’s has live music, organic offerings, plus Yucatecan huevos rancheros to start your tasting day off right. 10–1:30 Sun; sebastopolfarmmarket.org

More great places to visit

More great places to visit

Spoonbar (pictured). Cocktail hour at the H2hotel’s bar is one of the very few good reasons to take a break from wine. Drinks involve herbs and ingredients grown organically on local farms, largely Western-made artisanal spirits, and small-batch bitters and syrups. h2hotel.com/spoonbar

Red Car Wine. This is the kind of tasting room where a lot of thought and care has gone into the casual look, down to the big velvet couches and antique-chic filament lightbulbs. It’s fun, and the wine’s good too, especially the aptly named Heaven on Earth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. $15 tasting fee; redcarwine.com

Ridge Vineyards. Ridge does single-vineyard wines and established its Zinfandel outpost in Healdsburg for the ideal growing conditions. The solar-powered winery and tasting room on Lytton Springs Road are made of straw plus clay from the vineyard land. www.ridgewine.com

Jack London State Historic Park. Tucked among eucalyptus groves in Glen Ellen is the novelist’s writing cottage and home—complete with taxidermied game—and the House of Happy Walls Museum, containing London’s other travel souvenirs. On the California State Park closure list last year, the park is now staffed by the local historical society to keep it open. $10/vehicle, $5/hikeor cycle in, cottage entry $4; jacklondonpark.com

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