Our Story, The Short Version!
Sonoma and Napa, Yin and Yang
Although millions of people visit the North Bay Wine Country each year, tourism isn’t the biggest business. Farming and winemaking are the biggest pieces of that cake, while tourism is just the frosting. Because of that, unlike most tourist areas, a substantial full-time community lives in the spread-out smallish cities and towns. So, while the tourists congregate at the wineries and expensive restaurants, the locals stay busy making the wine that travels the world.
One of the qualities that brings so many people to the North Bay is its natural beauty, which is only enhanced by the vineyards, because grape growing, with its trellises carpeting the hills, is an elegant form of agriculture. Another feature that keeps visitors coming back is their knowledge that the wines taste better at the winery, to get the best bottles you need to come by and pick them up yourself. When you add in the remarkable architecture, the wonderful restaurants featuring locally grown foods, and the gracious hotels, it’s easy to understand how this ‘farm country’ became a top tourist destination. Whether a visitor starts out in Napa or Sonoma, they eventually wonder, ‘What’s it like on the other side of the mountains’? One might assume that both sides are quite alike, but they really are not! Here are some similarities and differences between two regions. Sonoma sits on the western side of the Mayacamas mountains, stretching west to the Pacific Ocean. It includes the Sonoma Valley, and five other important growing valleys, Bennett, Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander and Knight’s. It has the Sonoma Creek and Sonoma Highway and the little ‘City of Sonoma’ in the southern part of the County. On the eastern side of the Mayacamas Mountains is the County of Napa, home to the famous Napa Valley, which is bisected by the Napa River, which joins the Napa Creek in the downtown of the City of Napa, which is the County Seat. This habit of using one name numerous times often happens in farming communities, and it can be confusing when the area grows into an important destination, as these two have. As a pair, Sonoma and Napa are unique because their names come from the language of the Native People, a testament to the power of the local tribes. Sonoma’s biggest city, Santa Rosa is the northern most city in California with a Spanish name. To the south are the cities of San Rafael, San Francisco, San Matteo, San Bruno and so on, all the way down the coast to San Diego. That’s because the North Bay was where the Spanish Empire’s advance in the Americas stalled for several reasons. First, they didn’t have enough people to settle the land and supplying them was a challenge. Second, because the area was so prosperous the local tribes were healthy and fierce and had deadly, obsidian-tipped weapons. The Spanish found that it was smarter to get along with them, because trying to dominate these warriors didn’t yield good results. Finally, the Russians had established a community along the Sonoma Coast to supply food for their fur hunting outposts in Alaska, and apparently the local tribes liked the Russians better than the Spanish! Even though Napa is more famous internationally, modern California winemaking began 0utside the historically significant, and surprisingly small town of Sonoma. Along the County’s southeastern edge sits the shallow, almond shaped San Pablo Bay. This broad expanse of water, that borders the southern edges of both counties, connects to the San Francisco Bay on its southern side via a strait. On Sonoma’s western edge the spectacular, winding Pacific Coast Highway, that appears in so many dreamy car commercials, looks out over the cold, beautiful waters of the Pacific Ocean, the source of thick fog banks that flow inland and coat the expansive coastal redwood and pine forests.
To the southwest, Sonoma borders cool, hilly Marin County, a tremendously wealthy, liberal suburb of San Francisco. To the north, Sonoma’s hills and forests meet Mendocino County where the mountains rise, and the forests become wilder still. In the county’s northeast corner Sonoma and Lake County share a short border and then, directly to the east, over the Mayacamas Mountains, is Sonoma’s smaller, more famous cousin, Napa County.
Sonoma is remarkably varied in its climates from the very warm Alexander Valley to the foggy and cool coastal regions along the ocean and the bay. That allows winemakers to produce a wide variety of high-quality wines that in Europe would be found throughout multiple countries. It fits in with a popular local saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just drive ten minutes”. Sonoma also has a long tradition of growing apples and poultry, and many years ago, hops. The tradition of growing grapes started in the late 1800’s with a massive infusion of winemaking immigrants from Northern Italy. They came because the place seemed so much like Piedmont, but without snow. Sonoma’s big city is Santa Rosa, which sits on a wide plain north of the Sonoma Valley and southeast of the Russian River Valley. But even though Santa Rosa is the ‘big’ city, Sonoma’s population is spread all over this county’s mix of farms, forests and suburbs.
To the east of Sonoma, on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains, the Napa Valley dominates the county’s grape production. On the east side of the valley the ancient volcanic ridge of the Vaca Mountains forms a steep, rocky wall. Branching off of the main valley are various canyons and hillsides where growers have planted vineyards. A large part of the Napa Valley is an Agricultural Preserve, where building is very restricted, so much of the population lives at the base of the valley in the city of Napa. The valley stretches thirty miles from the San Pablo Bay to just north of Calistoga, varying from about five miles wide down to a single mile across at the town of Saint Helena. The valley is sparsely populated and dotted with wineries, farmhouses, mansions, hotels, spas, great restaurants and a few small towns. Even though it sounds like a pastoral paradise, it was the feisty Napa wineries that excelled at the iconic blind wine tasting in 1976, aptly named the Judgment of Paris. They were pitted against the best of the French labels and took the two top spots. Some of the grapes in Chateau Montelena’s victorious Chardonnay blend were driven over the mountains from the Russian River Valley, by the vineyard’s owner in an underpowered VW truck. Let’s look at the topography. Both Napa and Sonoma are longer than they are wide. While both counties border the bay in the south, only Sonoma has an ocean coast which keeps it significantly cooler, a climate that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay prefer. Napa’s warmth advantage explains its concentration on the pricey and heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon grape, although for many years Zinfandel was the grape of choice. From the cooler areas close to the water like Petaluma and Los Carneros, to the warmer regions inland like Alexander Valley and Calistoga, the temperature can easily vary by thirty degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for an amazing variety of grapes.
Some of the Differences
In Sonoma people think of themselves as farmers. In Napa, sometimes they think of themselves as movie stars, and sometimes they are. Napa is famous internationally due to their great wines and their even greater marketing. Sonoma is also well known, and for tourism they are more popular among people from the Bay Area. Napa gets more visitors from outside California because their wineries are more famous, and they are conveniently located near each other. The main tourism season runs from May to November, essentially from when the vines leaf out to when the grapes are finished coming in. From December to April, the tourist traffic is more equally split between the two counties because both locals and the collectors tend to be more knowledgeable. What do they know that you might want to? The wines in both places are excellent. What is different is the preferred varieties they grow and the cost. Sonoma is often more reasonable because the land costs less and they grow a wider variety of grapes. Napa wines are more expensive because the land is more expensive. They also specialize in more expensive grapes, namely the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon being the most widely planted. They also have the advantage of the internationally famous ‘Napa’ brand name that they have worked hard to promote. Marketing matters! Does Napa’s fame make the folks from Sonoma crazy? A little bit! Traditionally there has only been limited contact between the counties, inhibited by the mass of the Mayacamas Mountains rising between them. Even today, Sonoma is more connected to Marin County in the south and Mendocino County in the north. Napa is connected to Solano County to the east and Lake County to the north. Napa is one third the size of Sonoma and it primarily grows premium wine grapes. Sonoma grows more grapes than Napa, but it also produces plenty of apples, cherries, nuts, dairy, cattle, goats, sheep, poultry, honey and herbs. So, Sonoma’s identity is less tied to making wine. In Napa, they make and pour wine and everything else, such as the great restaurants, theaters, hotels and spas, support the wine industry. That produces two different cultures. Napa is fancier, Sonoma is relaxed. Napa is stylish, Sonoma is folksy. Napa has more famous labels while Sonoma has the history. Napa has glamorous architecture while Sonoma is cozy and intimate. The Napa Valley is a broad sunny expanse that outshines its neighbors. Sonoma shares its borders with trendy Marin and the gorgeous Pacific coastline. People from Sonoma get to San Francisco via the often photographed Golden Gate Bridge, while from Napa the Bay Bridge is a more convenient route. In Napa the attractions are close together while in Sonoma they are spread out and tucked away in secluded enclaves. I’ve often described the relationship this way. Sonoma is like the older sister. She’s a good-looking girl that works hard, who is skilled in the kitchen and the garden. And Napa is her golden-haired little brother, and every time he walks in the room everyone makes a fuss and it drives her crazy. But the funny thing is, he adores his older sister, and people from Napa often have the nicest things to say about Sonoma. While in Sonoma they call Napa the ‘dark side’, and they joke, “Ah Napa, it’s a good place for auto parts”. So, maybe it’s better that there is a mountain range between them. That way they can act like two people standing with their backs to each other, looking in opposite directions.