Comparing America’s Epic Wine Countries- Napa and Sonoma

Napa and Sonoma Valley AVA’s are the two most well-known American wine regions in the world. They were forces that shaped California wine and allowed other US wine regions to follow in their footsteps. California was one of the first New World wine regions to break barriers in the industry on an international level. 

Napa and Sonoma Valley wines won international competitions, lead in developing new wine technologies, built renowned wine education facilities, and lead the path for other American wineries to export overseas. Napa and Sonoma were also leaders when it came to wine tourism, attracting millions of people from all over the world every year.

Napa Valley AVA

Napa Valley is at the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, about 30 miles from the coast. Napa is a lot smaller than most people realize. At only 35 miles by 5 miles, this county has an incredible 50,000 acres of vines. This region has rich soils and a climate that allows copious growing degree days, little threat of frost, and ample time for the grapes to ripen before its time to harvest.

History of Napa

Wild grapes have a long history in the Napa Valley. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that pioneers planted the first Vitis Vinifera grapes. Napa Valley’s first commercial winery was opened by Charles Krug in 1861. Over the next 30 years, nearly 150 wineries sprouted up, including the flagship wineries Beringer and Inglenook.

Unfortunately, the Phyloxxera epidemic hit shortly after this boom, wiping out nearly 80% of the current vineyards. Come the 1920s Prohibition Era, there were even more vineyards and wineries that became abandoned. Those who were able to continue to operate through this time were making sacrificial red wine for churches.

Many of the previous wineries chose to reopen after Prohibition ended. Napa Valley Vintners was started around this time, which is now 550 wineries strong.  It wasn’t until the famous Paris Tasting of 1976 that really put Napa Valley on the map, winning top honors over French wine. This allowed Napa Valley to have demand for wine overseas and build their local winery tourism and brand.

 

Sonoma Valley AVA

Sonoma is often recognized as the birthplace of California wine, with some vines still growing after nearly 200 years! This county has over 60,000 acres of vines, also in the San Francisco Bay area, directly west and bordering Napa Valley. Sonoma has a rich history and thrived even after the devastating effects of a Phylloxera epidemic and the effects of Prohibition.

History of Sonoma

Russian colonists were the first to plant grapes in Sonoma Valley in 1812. The Sonoma Mission planted several thousand vines in 1823, in which cuttings were later transported and planted throughout California. Keep in mind that California was not yet a state until 1850.

Buena Vista Winery was formed in 1857. However, just like with Napa Valley, the Phyloxxera epidemic hit Sonoma County hard. Although they did not have as many vineyards or established wineries, it was quite devastating.

They made a quick recovery, however, with nearly 300 wineries and over 20,000 acres of vines by the 1920s. The acreage of vineyards actually increased in Sonoma County due to Prohibition allowing you to make wine at home, encouraging people to plant small vineyards on their properties. However, the number of established wineries decreased because they could not legally sell their wine to consumers, who were making homemade wine. By the end of Prohibition, less than 50 Sonoma County wineries were left.

One of the things that helped all of California get back into wine production was the effects of WWII. With laws restricting the importing of French wine, there was more demand for local wine, encouraging more vines to be planted.

The 1970s saw the second boom of wineries pop up throughout California as wine consumption grew nationwide. The Paris Tasting of 1976 that highlighted Napa Valley wines also put Sonoma County on the international wine map, essentially piggy-backing on this accomplishment. Although Sonoma’s quality of wine speaks for itself.

Sub-Appellations of  Napa

Napa Valley was the first designated region, or appellation, in the United States. Within the Napa Valley AVA, there are 16 sub-AVAs. Sub-regions are given distinction when a certain area within a region has its own micro-climate, soil, and geography that makes it different than the rest of the region.

LOS CARNEROS AVA
Climate: Cool, with marine winds from the San Pablo Bay. High temperatures rarely exceed 80º
Common varietals: Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Chardonnay

COOMBSVILLE AVA
Climate: Temperate climate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir

WILD HORSE VALLEY AVA
Climate: Moderate to cool
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay

MOUNT VEEDER AVA
Climate: Moderate to cool
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay

OAK KNOLL DISTRICT OF NAPA VALLEY
Climate: Moderate to cool
Principal varieties: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling

YOUNTVILLE AVA
Climate: Moderate to cool
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

STAGS LEAP DISTRICT
Climate: Moderately
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Chardonnay
and Sauvignon Blanc

ATLAS PEAK AVA
Climate: Cool-mountain climate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay

OAKVILLE AVA
Climate: Moderate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc

RUTHERFORD AVA
Climate: Moderate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel

ST. HELENA AVA
Climate: Warm
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Viognier

SPRING MOUNTAIN DISTRICT
Climate: Cool
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel

CHILES VALLEY DISTRICT
Climate: Moderate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc

HOWELL MOUNTAIN AVA
Climate: Warm and dry
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Viognier

DIAMOND MOUNTAIN DISTRICT
Climate: Moderate
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc

CALISTOGA AVA
Climate: Warm
Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah

Sub-Appellations of  Sonoma

Today Sonoma County has 17 AVAs and over 60 grape varietals planted.

Alexander Valley

Climate: Meditteranean

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier

Bennett Valley AVA

Climate: Mountainous

Common Varietals: Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Franc

Chalk Hill AVA

Climate: Warm

Common Varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot

Dry Creek Valley AVA

Climate: Coastal and continental

Common Varietals: Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc

Fort Ross – Seaview

Climate: Mountainous

Common Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Fountaingrove District

Climate: Maritime

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Petit Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc

Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA

Climate: Cool

Common Varietals: Pinot Noir

Knights Valley AVA

Climate: Moderate

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay

Los Carneros

Climate: Continental

Common Varietals: Pinot Noir, Roussanne, Marsanne, Merlot, and Chardonnay

Moon Mountain District

Climate: Mountainous

Common Varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir

Northern Sonoma AVA

Climate: Moderate

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak

Climate: Mountainous

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec

Rockpile

Climate: Meditteranean and coastal

Common Varietals: Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot

Russian River Valley

Climate: Moderate

Common Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel

Sonoma Coast AVA

Climate: Coastal

Common Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah

Sonoma Valley AVA

Climate: Moderate

Common Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon

Sonoma Mountain

Climate: Mountainous

Common Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Syrah

Flagship Wineries of Napa

Napa Valley’s Flagship wineries have endured wars, Phylloxera epidemics, and Prohibition. They helped put Napa Valley wine on the map and have paved the way to selling on an international market and influenced the wine tourism industry.

Beaulieu Vineyards –Founded in 1900
Beringer – Famous Rhine House completed in 1884
Charles Krug – Founded in 1861 by Charles Krug, now owned by Peter Mondavi
Chateau Montelena – Established in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs
Inglenook – Chateau dates back to 1879
Nichelini – Founded in 1890, still owned by the original family

Flagship Wineries of Sonoma

Sonoma Valley’s flagship wineries endured the same hardships throughout the last century as Napa Valley did. They have greatly influenced wine education programs and wine tourism throughout California. Sonoma is home to California’s oldest wineries.

Gundlach Bundschu- Oldest winery in California with continous operation. Founded in 1857.

Buena Vista- Opened three months before Bundschu but has changed hands.

Sebastiani- Founded in 1904.

Places to Eat in Napa

Napa Valley is known for its exceptional restaurants and cooking schools.

La Toque

The Oxbow

French Laundry

Silverado Cooking School

Places to Eat in Sonoma

Sonoma is known for its farm-to-table cuisine.

The Girl and the Fig

Single Thread Farms

La Salette

Bay View Restaurant and Lounge

Places to Stay

It’s hard to decide which is better, Napa and Sonoma’s famous restaurants, or they’re luxurious accommodations of Bed & Breakfasts and hotels.

Accommodations in Napa

Napa Valley is known for its 5-star hotels, some costing over $2,000 per night.

Calistoga Ranch

Las Alcobas

The Meritage Resort and Spa

Solage

Accommodations in Sonoma

Sonoma is a bit more reasonable in terms of price and many of them have a beautiful Tuscan-style influence.

Vintner’s Inn

Farmhouse Inn

Gaige House

Madrona Manor

Affordability

Napa Valley is notorious for being very expensive and catering toward a more high-end style. Sonoma Valley is much more affordable in many ways. While both places seem to be far out of budget for many people, it doesn’t have to be.

There are economy hotels everywhere, affordable AirBnB’s and campgrounds throughout both counties. Even affordable food like sandwich shops, food shops, and diners have some of the best food in the country.

Pros of Napa

Extremely good food

World-famous wine

Easy to get around. Lots of restaurants, hotels, and tasting rooms within walking distance to each other and in downtown.

Many choices for wine tours and group wine tastings, which can be a more unique experience

Pros of Sonoma

More affordable than Napa

World-famous wine

More varietals than Napa

More affordable tasting fees and wines than Napa

Cons of Napa 

Extremely expensive

Lots of traffic

Nearly all tasting rooms require reservations

Extensive planning is recommended because accommodation, restaurant, and tasting room reservations fill up quickly in peak seasons.

Cons of Sonoma

More spread out than Napa, making it harder to hit up a ton of wineries without transportation

Not as many trip-planning resources as Napa

Less focused than Napa when it comes to varietals

All-in-all both Napa and Sonoma Valley’s are unique and incredible. There is rich history that has helped pave the way for all United States wine. Creating opportunities for California and other states to export wine on a large scale, create high standards of winemaking and education, and create a booming wine tourism industry.