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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why you should visit Sonoma instead of Napa

Wine enthusiasts have to visit the world-famous Napa Valley for the same reasons, I suppose, that travelers to Hawaii have to go to Oahu first before they discover the other less crowded islands.

Speaking of Crowds

Napa Valley is about 35 miles long and 5 miles wide and has about 400 wineries. Napa sees 4.5 million visitors a year with the bulk coming during July, August, and September. Imagine the crowds on the roads and in the tasting rooms on a Saturday afternoon! Imagine trying to make a left turn onto the main highways in Napa Valley on the weekend--forget it!

Tasting rooms in Sonoma County are much more spread out so you may have to drive a bit farther with the trade-off being fewer people. This is something to keep in mind if, for instance, you wish to start your day at Gloria Ferrer for some bubbly then go to Sbragia for some Cabernet as it's a 1-1/2 hour drive between the two. But then the 25 mile drive between the towns of Napa and Calistoga in Napa Valley will take that long on a busy day.

The Tasting Fees

Napa instituted tasting room fees a couple decades ago as a way to control the "power drinking" groups that hopped up and down Highway 29 through the valley getting drunk for free. Now most wineries everywhere charge a tasting fee. The differences being (1) Napa tasting fees are higher and (2) Napa wineries are less likely to refund the fee if you purchase.

This is a generalization, but figure on $25 to taste in Napa vs. $10 in Sonoma County. Many Sonoma wineries will not charge you for tasting if you purchase wine. But always check on the policies before going as everyone does things a bit differently.

Also, many Sonoma County wineries participate in a Visa Signature program meaning if you have a Visa Signature credit card tasting is free and there are often discounts on wine purchases.

The Wines

Napa Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon and the reputation is well deserved. However, you can find outstanding Cabernet from Alexander Valley with the main difference being they are about half the price of those from Napa. If you really want to spend $90 on a bottle of Cab then go to Napa because you'll find it much easier to do than in Sonoma.

As noted, Napa is about Cabernet. There are somewhat cooler areas that grow other varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot. Sonoma County's unique location on the cool Pacific gives it lots of micro-climates with large growing regions suitable to world-class Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc. In fact you can pretty much say, "I want to taste Pinots today" and go to the Russian River Valley or say, "I want to try Zinfandel today" and spend your time in Dry Creek, and so on. This makes Sonoma County a very unique place in the world.

The Restaurants

If you think Napa Valley is about world-class dining because of famous restaurants like The French Laundry, Bouchon and Aberge du Soleil then maybe you don't know about Cyrus, Dry Creek Kitchen, and Zazu. You'll usually find eating a bit cheaper on the Sonoma side, too.

The Traffic
Highway 29 in Napa Valley

Sometimes there's slow-going in Sonoma, too

The Wineries
Darioush "Winery" in Napa Valley
Image from

Teldeschi Winery in Dry Creek Valley
Corporate-owned? No, a 4th generation winemaking family

The Scenery

Napa  :)

Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County

In Closing

Most people learn by trial-and-error so you'll probably want to "do Napa" once. I understand. But we'll see you in Sonoma County soon.