Napa vs Sonoma: Which Wine Country is More Your Style?


April 2, 2015 Blog » Wine Tips & Tricks » Napa vs Sonoma: Which Wine Country is More Your Style?

Which is better: Napa or Sonoma? Truthfully, one is not better than the other, but they are both very different. A better thing to know is which region–Sonoma or Napa–is more your style. This article points out the key differences between Sonoma and Napa from the wines they do best to what each region is like to visit.

“Napa Valley is a Wine Disneyland, while Sonoma Valley is a Wine Region.”

–Tom C. Wark, Fermentation: The Daily Blog

Napa vs Sonoma

The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are the second most visited attraction in California behind, you guessed it, Disneyland. If Mr. Wark’s saying is true, then the world of wine really can be a playful or serious pursuit for adults. Since Napa and Sonoma are America’s main wine attractions, tourists have two different ways to experience the happiest beverage on earth.

You can hit the high road to Napa in a limo while the scenery glimmers with Michelin stars and 95+-point ratings. Or, you can drive slow down a dirt road in Sonoma to a casual outdoor patio with inexpensive (and sometimes free) tastings. Your call.

Which is More Affordable?

Napa average cost per person/day: $460
Sonoma average cost per person/day: $292

Price is probably the most obvious comparison point between Napa vs Sonoma. To put it simply, Napa is usually more expensive than Sonoma. Of course, you can easily part with a small fortune staying in 5-star hotels, eating incredible multi-course meals, and spending all-day tasting in the winemaker’s private cellars in Sonoma, too. On that very same note, it’s entirely possible to pedal a rented bike to small family wineries, grab lunch at a roadside diner (like one of Robert Parker’s favorites: Gott’s Roadside), and pitch a tent under the California stars in Napa.

A trip to Napa or Sonoma is what you make of it.


Visiting Napa Valley

Limos and High Rollers: the Vegas of Wine Country

napa-valley-in-a-nutshell

Napa is the name of a town, and it’s also the name of the region, the Napa Valley. This world-famous wine region also includes many sub-regions (AVAs) to explore. People come from all over the world to sip the savory Cabernet Sauvignon, rich and buttery Chardonnay, and fruit-forward Merlot.

  • Napa Wineries

  • Wineries: 390 physical wineries produce over 1,000 brands of wine
  • Stats: 43,000 acres and 16 sub-AVAs
  • Most Popular AVAs: Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap
  • Best Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot
  • Flagship Wineries: Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Stag’s Leap, Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills, Clos du Val, Screaming Eagle, Duckhorn, Rombauer, V. Sattui, Merryvale, Cakebread
  • Average Wine Tasting Cost: $15-50
  • What to Expect: Call ahead to see if you need to make a tasting appointment, and be aware that each tasting will cost money. A few places waive the tasting fee if you buy a bottle.
  • Getting There

  • Transportation: Drinking and driving is a definite no-no, so hire a limo for the day, choose a designated driver, take the Napa Valley Wine Train, or float up in a hot air balloon over the valley.
  • Top Wine Routes: Highway 29 (The main route) and The Silverado Trail (prestige wineries)
  • Traffic: It can be heavy and slow-moving with all the tourists, so be patient–very patient.
  • Best Time to Visit: Go in May to avoid the summer crowds or in September through October for delightful weather amidst the backdrop of the crush while sneaking a taste of ripe cabernet grapes.
  • Staying There

  • Average cost per day: $460 (including lodging)
  • Luxury Hotels: Auberge de Soleil, The Poetry Inn, Milliken Creek Inn & Spa
  • Top Food: French Laundry, Oxbow, Bouchon

 

Quite possibly the best thing I have ever done in Napa was play winemaker for a day and blend my own Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at the Conn Creek Blending Seminar (~$95) . During this two-hour session, my boyfriend and I tasted Cabs from every AVA in Napa and mixed our own blends. You learn a lot. You drink a lot. Plus, you get to take home the bottle of wine you made.
Katie Eigel


Visiting Sonoma Valley

More Wine & More Country

sonoma-valley-in-a-nutshell

Similarly to Napa, Sonoma is the name of a town, name of the region, and it’s an AVA. Napa might win on being more expensive, but Sonoma is certainly more expansive, spread out, and laid-back. (People often say Sonoma is “less commercialized” than Napa.) It’s almost double the size of Napa, and grows far more grapes than Napa in a variety of conditions. People come from all over the world to sip Sonoma’s creamy and zesty Chardonnay, cool climate Pinot Noir, juicy Zinfandel, impressive Red Blends, and refreshing Sparkling Wine.

  • Sonoma Wineries

  • Wineries: 450 wineries ranging from small wineries to big, top producers
  • Stats: 70,000 acres and 13 sub-AVAs
  • Most Popular AVAs: Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley
  • Best Wines: Chardonnay (unoaked), Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Red Blends, Sparkling Wine
  • Flagship Wineries: Ridge, St. Francis, B.R. Cohn, Cline, Ravenswood, Gundlach-Bundschu, Gloria Ferrer, Paul Hobbs, Kendall-Jackson, Korbel, Seghesio, Jordan, Francis Coppola
  • Average Wine Tasting Cost: $15-25
  • What to Expect: Call ahead to see if you need to make an appointment, but some smaller wineries may not charge you. Usually they’ll waive the tasting fee if you buy a bottle.
  • Getting There

  • Transportation: Since everything is very spread out, rent a bike in the town of Sonoma to focus on the wineries there or rent a car and choose 2-3 wineries to visit that are relatively close. (Be sure to spit when tasting if you are driving.)
  • Top Wine Routes: Sonoma Valley (reds and sparkling wines), Dry Creek (Zinfandels, etc.), Russian River Valley (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Alexander Valley (elegant Merlots and Cabs)
  • Traffic: Not quite as bad as Napa, but you’ll certainly run into it, especially on the highways and if there’s an event at the Sonoma Raceway.
  • Best Time to Visit: Go in May to avoid the summer crowds or in September through October for delightful weather amidst the backdrop of the crush while sneaking a taste of ripe cabernet grapes.
  • Staying There

  • Average cost per day: $292 (with lodging)
  • Luxury Hotels: The Healdsburg Hotel, The Kenwood Spa, Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
  • Top Food: Farmhouse Inn, Madrona Manor, Mateo’s, Terra

So, Is It Napa or Sonoma?

It’s both, at least we like to think so.

  • It’s Napa when you and your S.O. (significant other) want to treat yourself to the best of the best.
  • It’s Sonoma when you and your significant other want the whole peaceful valley to yourselves.
  • It’s Napa when you and your friends want to rent a limo and cruise the Silverado Highway.
  • It’s Sonoma when you and your friends want less crowds at the tasting bar and less competition on the bocce courts.

If you are asking us once and for all, we at Wine Folly recommend you stick to your wine style. Choose either Napa or Sonoma the same way you choose your wines:

  • If you buy pricier wines, then go to Napa.
  • If you mainly drink Cabernet Sauvignon, buttery Chardonnay, and Merlot, then go to Napa.
  • If you buy more reasonably priced wines, then go to Sonoma.
  • If you mainly drink Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Sparkling Wines, Red Blends, and Unoaked zesty Chardonnays, then go to Sonoma.

As your wine tastes change, so will your preference for Sonoma or Napa. The only recommendation that we insist on is that you visit BOTH valleys at some point. Even though Sonoma is a neighbor to Napa, it’s a whole new world, although that world can be a small one, after all.


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By Katie Eigel
Katie is a self-proclaimed #WineGeekInTraining who spends her days writing for various wine publications. Follow her sips and tips on @eieigel