Napa Valley vs. Sonoma Valley
It’s the battle for the best juice. Which Northern California wine region is right for you?
The California sunshine can make any experience more enjoyable. Add a glass of wine, a cheese plate and stunning landscapes and you’ve got yourself a vacation. The two neighboring wine regions just north of San Francisco offer charming vineyards, rolling hills and some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. So, who has the best juice?
As one of the world’s preeminent wine regions, Napa Valley draws more than 3 million visitors annually. Sip and sample from more than 400 wineries best known for their cabernet sauvignons, cabernet blends and chardonnays. The valley floor is 30 miles long and about five miles wide, making transportation a challenge if you plan to indulge rather than spit. (If you’re new to wine tasting, yes, spitting is a thing to ensure the many tastings at the many wineries do not add up.)
Hire a limo or use a ride share service if there isn’t a designated driver in your group. If you do choose to rent a car and drive, spitting is completely acceptable. There’s not real technique, just swirl and savor the wine, then spit with a bit of force. (No one wants a dribble of wine on their chin.)
Tastings range from $10 to $50 and up. It’s completely acceptable to share a tasting, especially if you want to experience higher-end wineries.
First timers to Napa must make a visit to Robert Mondavi. Yes, it’s touristy and commercial, but the basic walking tour or reserved tour will teach you the basics of wine making and tasting. The vineyard is beautiful, so save some time to enjoy a flight and charcuterie board on the patio before you leave.
Bubbles make everything special, and Mumm Napa is where you’ll add some extra sparkle to your vacation. Established in 1970, the winery follows traditional French wine-making techniques to create bottles that will “pop” your socks off. Wines can be enjoyed outside on the patio or in the tasting room. Flights run $25-$35, and reservations are recommended but not required for smaller parties.
The food isn’t half bad either. There are seven restaurants in Napa that are home to the prestigious Michelin stars. The French Laundry in Yountville – just outside of Napa – offers two tasting menus daily. No single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal, and dinner consists of a series of small courses.
Stumble through the rest of your vacation with the 10 Best Winery Tours in Napa.
Sonoma Valley is Napa’s laid-back sister and comparing the two is like apples and oranges. It’s really just your style. Sonoma has a reputation for being more rustic and casual. There are just as many wineries – more than 400 – spread across 60,000 acres.
Cabernet sauvignon leads the reds, but Sonoma’s climate produces more variety. You can find it all: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, zinfandel and more. Like Napa, everything is very spread out, so rent a car or bike and choose two or three wineries to visit that are relatively close. Sonoma Valley Bike Tours offers an off-road tour through the vineyards. Or, there’s always the good spittoon.
Tastings range $15-$18, which is quite a deal for the Sunshine State.
Buena Vista Winery is California’s oldest commercial winery. It was founded on “purple gold” while the rest of the country was searching for the metal in the Northern California hillsides in 1840. The winery specializes in cabernet, zinfandel, chardonnay and pinot noir.
The Iron Horse has been serving libations to the oval office since Reagan. Known for its sparkling wines, tastings are by appointment unless there’s an empty chair at the tasting bar. The Tasting with a View includes your choice of pinot noir, chardonnay or a bubbly flight with views of Mt. St. Helena and the vineyards.
Food and lodging are limited, but visitors can choose from a variety of hotel, bed and breakfast and vacation rental properties. The Sonoma Culinary Trail 3-Day Itinerary is a sample of the best restaurants and bakeries in the region.