Wine Ink column: Sonoma or Napa? A sublime choice |

Wine Ink column: Sonoma or Napa? A sublime choice

Pacific Coast, Sonoma County, California.
Special to the Daily | iStockphoto


2014 Cuvaison Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc

While Cuvaison’s address is Napa, it is a part of the Carneros Appellation, which, appropriately for this story, is the only appellation to straddle both Napa and Sonoma counties. Known best for producing balanced and approachable pinot noir and chardonnay in their Napa Green certified sustainable, solar powered vineyards, they also produced a great Savvy.

Clean, crisp and exceptionally bright on the nose, this wine is a bouquet in a bottle. Ripe fruits dominate, including apples, limes and a hint of kiwi. Well balanced, even at a designated 13.5% ABV, this is a wine built for summer, sipping.

A couple of weeks ago in this space, we talked about taking a wine trip to the Southern Hemisphere. If you aren’t going to make it there this spring, you can still plan a wine trip to California.

The question I’m regularly asked is: “Should we go to Napa or Sonoma?” It is a pleasant dilemma, and, regardless of which route you take, it is inevitable that you will have a great time visiting, tasting and eating. But there are differences.


Start with the grapes. Napa is famous for producing some of the world’s greatest cabernet sauvignon. While this is not all they do, of course, it is what has made Napa — indeed, California — one of the most iconic wine destinations on the globe. These cabernets are rich, powerful, full-bodied and ultimately expressive of the character of both the valley and the vintners who live there.

Sonoma is not as readily associated with a particular grape. The vastness of the county and the topographic and climatologic variations provide opportunities to make a variety of outstanding wines, and chardonnay is the most widely planted grape. But, having said that, today Sonoma is perhaps best known as a sweet spot for pinot noir.

The Russian River Valley, in particular, a large appellation smack dab in the center of Sonoma, is the source of seriously sought-after pinot noir. Sonoma, on the coastal side of the Mayacamas Mountains west of Napa, literally sucks fog from the Pacific into the Russian River Valley and can drop the temperatures on hot summer days by as much as 40 degrees. Grapes, especially the finicky pinot noir, like this.

So if you like cabernet, go to Napa; pinot noir, go to Sonoma, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple.


Consider the layout of the two regions. Napa is a well-defined valley that runs about 25 miles from south to northwest and is flanked by two highways. The heavily used state Highway 29 to the west and the romantically named Silverado Trail on the east are connected by a series of crossroads that run across the valley floor. All of these roads are lined by wineries. The names you know — Mondavi, Domaine Chandon, Cakebread, Silver Oak — are all here and easy to find. So easy that you can actually stumble across them.

Sonoma, on the other hand, takes a map and a little bit of time. It is such a big and diverse county that you could spend a month and not see everything. Drive up the dramatic coast and through bucolic hills dotted by cattle that live life with an ocean view. Continue up and over the heavily treed, rugged mountains into the valleys that drain down into the Russian River and into the towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg. Finding wineries is easy — there are lots of them — but finding the ones you’re looking for can take some time, so you need to plan a bit.


Then there is the vibe. Napa embodies, in fact it invented, that romantic notion of what wine tourism is all about. Brilliant wineries with great architecture and fabulous restaurants — all surrounded by vineyards. Hospitality pros have designed unforgettable tasting experiences that not only satiate the senses but inform, as well. It is costly, but worth every penny. A trip to Napa is a must for anyone who likes wine.

Ah, but the rub is that it can get extremely crowded, especially in the summertime and extra especially on weekends. It can be intimidating to negotiate the crowds of wine enthusiasts and tourists who clog the roads, jam the tasting rooms and book the restaurants and lodging.

Sonoma, on the other hand, is more laid-back. A trip through the Russian River Valley is like driving through farm country. Ranch fences run the length of the roads, and rather than estate-sized wineries, there are modest and welcoming tasting rooms. However, change is in the air, and the wine town of Healdsburg gets more cosmopolitan by the day.

So, where to go? If you like cabernet, want the simplicity, the marquee names and the professional hospitality on your wine journey, then Napa cannot be beat. If, on the other hand, you have a passion for pinot, have the time to cruise (preferably top down) and don’t mind searching along back roads and country lanes to find your wineries, then Sonoma is for you.

The best idea, however, is to take an extra day or two and do both. Hit Napa on the way up, and drive through Sonoma on the way back.

So little time and so much wine.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at

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