For many years, Sonoma County was the kid-brother of wine country. Napa County’s elite wineries, trendy restaurants, and globally-known brand long overshadowed Sonoma’s charms.
But Sonoma County, which stretches across nine cities and three times the land area of Napa County, is stealing visitors thanks to its laidback atmosphere and affordability. In 2016, travellers spent a total of $US1.9 billion in Sonoma County, compared to $US1.3 billion in Napa County, according to an annual economic impact report. The area attracts approximately double the three million visitors who come to Napa County every year.
Comparing the two is like apples and oranges — or Pinot Grigio and Merlot, if you prefer — because they vary so much in size. A wine blogger put it best when he said, “Napa Valley is a wine Disneyland, while Sonoma Valley is a wine region.”
With the harvest season nearly upon us, I visited Sonoma and Napa to figure out which offers the best experience for first-timers in wine country. In both areas, I visited two to three wineries and tried a Chardonnay and a house specialty at each.
Here’s how it went.
Full disclosure: I am not a wine connoisseur. But driving from San Francisco to Napa County on a recent weekday, I felt giddy. It's essentially a boozy amusement park for grown-ups.
There is the city of Napa and the county of Napa, considered the holy grail of wine country. It's home to more than 400 wineries, with many packed side-to-side along State Route 29.
Napa County rose to the top of wine tourism lists in 1976, when a Chardonnay from local winery Chateau Montelena trounced nine other Chardonnays in a blind tasting in Paris.
The wine competition, known as the 1976 Judgment of Paris, changed the way connoisseurs around the world perceived the young Napa County region. It suddenly rivaled top-dog France.
With its rise in the wine industry, Napa County has also become a tourism destination. The region boasts the only three Michelin-starred restaurant in wine country (The French Laundry), golf courses, resorts and spas, and some of the most coveted wine grapes anywhere.
My day started at Cakebread Cellars, a family-run winery known for its Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines. The family is credited with helping put Napa County on the map.
In 1973, before Napa County became a globally-known brand, the Cakebread Family planted its first Sauvignon Blanc grapes on 22 acres of fertile soil that they bought from family friends.
Dennis Cakebread, son of founder Jack and senior vice president of sales and marketing, recalls coming home from UC Berkeley on weekends to help his dad, Jack, and brother, Bruce, prune the vines and bottle the wine, back when the cellar was considered more of a 'hobby.'
'We've worked here our whole lives -- we haven't always been paid, but that's the nature of a family business,' Dennis said.
Cakebread Cellars went on to control 15 vineyards totaling 560 acres across Napa County. It makes about 75,000 cases of wine per year. By comparison, the company that owns Robert Mondavi Winery, located down the street, sells about 10 million cases of wine per year.
The rich history is part of what you pay for when you come to Napa County, where overnight guests spent an average of $401 per day in 2016. But an hour-long tour and tasting of current release wines at Cakebread Cellars is a bargain at $15 per person.
My tour guide, Amie, poured glasses of Sauvignon Blanc as we made our way through the estate. 'Just because you don't like something, doesn't mean it's bad,' she said.
There were four pit stops along the walking tour, and we sampled a current release wine from Cakebread at each location. The 2014 Chardonnary Reserve stood out for me. It offered creamy aromas of golden apple and Asian pear, complemented by notes of crème brulee and vanilla.
We also tried the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, an intensely flavored Cabernet that balances a hint of spice and aromas of ripe boysenberry, blackberry, and dark cherry.
I typically prefer white wines over red, but the bright acidity and punch of berry in this 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon won me over. I liked it even more than the 2014 Chardonnary Reserve.
Before continuing north on State Route 29, I took a detour in Yountville, a scenic village in Napa County that boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in the US.
Source: Visit Napa Valley
Its crown jewel is The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's iconic restaurant. For $310 a head, diners can choose between two prix-fixe menus, which change daily and don't repeat a single ingredient through the meal. The restaurant is located in a stone cottage.
My stomach started to grumble so I headed to Main Street, a charming section of State Route 29 in St. Helena. It's peppered with restaurants, stores, and tasting rooms.
'Everyone asks if they can have the 'Oprah special,'' one employee told me.
I tried an English muffin toasted and topped with raspberry jam -- and I get it, Oprah. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, the muffin fell apart in my mouth like a buttery croissant.
The muffins typically sell out by 11 on weekends. You can order them online for $US40 per dozen.
Driving north on State Route 29, I understood why Napa County is sometimes referred to as a wine-lover's Disneyland. It has its own castle that's also a world-class winery.
In the early 2000s, wealthy winemaker Dario Sattui had a 13th-century Tuscan castle, known as Castello di Amorosa, taken apart and rebuilt in Calistoga, California.
On my tour of the $40 million medieval-style structure, I admired the construction, from the vaulted stone ceilings to the hand-painted frescoes in the gift shop.
A tour and wine tasting costs $US45 per person, and includes a trip to the torture chamber.
In the 'grand barrel room' at the bottle of the castle, we tried the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a wine bursting with aromas of cassis, earth, and mushroom.
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon tasted much more earthy than the Cabernet I tried at Cakebread Cellars. I missed the notes of dark fruit, but I appreciated it for its differences.
My last stop was Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa County. The vineyard stayed open during Prohibition under a federal licence that allowed it to sell sacramental wine to churches.
Beringer is a pioneer in turning tours into 'experiences,' according to Claire Wilkins, senior hospitality sales manager. Part of her job is to make sure programming is relevant for millennial visitors.
As part of this effort, Beringer hosts a summer concert series, offers Mandarin-language tours for international guests, and releases new vintage wines at ticketed dinners on-site.
The winery even recruited photographer Murad Osmann, who's Instagram-famous for taking photos of his wife leading him by the hand, to get similar photos around the Beringer estate.
The Taste of Beringer tour was one of Napa's more expensive indulgences, at $55 a head. Unlike the other tours I joined, this one saved the drinking until the end -- a pro and a con.
I liked that on the other tours, I could make the most of my time by sipping on wine while exploring the grounds. In the last half-hour of the Taste of Beringer tour, we gathered around a table in the historic Rhine House for a lesson in pairing wines and 'seasonal culinary treats.'
Each table setting included three glasses of wine, three small bites, and a booklet on pairing.
I sipped the 2015 Private Reserve Chardonnay Napa Valley and I sipped it again after trying a chilled carrot and ginger soup with a splash of mint. The difference was palpable.
After eating something so complementary to the wine, the Chadonnay unfolded in layers of smoky oak, buttery fig, and tangerine. I could make out precise aromas better than before.
My favourite was the Nightgale Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Napa Valley, a dessert wine that tasted much less sweet after a bite of an orange-and-pear cupcake with vanilla frosting.
I left Beringer with a new confidence in my wine-drinking abilities. Zipping around Napa County for a day had given me a crash-course in wine history, education, and enjoyment.
Sonoma County used to be a lesser-known spot for tourists, but that's quickly changing as wine-lovers visiting the area seek out experiences that are more authentic.
The region features roughly the same number of luxury hotels and wineries as Napa County, spread out over an area three times bigger that includes redwoods and a 55-mile coastline.
In Napa County, you can get away with biking or using a ride-sharing service from one winery to the next. To take advantage of all Sonoma County has to offer, you'll need a car.
My day started in the city of Sonoma, where Mexican colonial-style structures form a charming plaza. In one corner of the downtown square, I spotted three tasting rooms.
I enjoyed brunch at The Girl and the Fig, a farm-to-table eatery known for its award-winning wine list and charcuterie platters. I filled up on a pancetta-and-goat-cheese omelet.
After brunch, I headed to Benziger Family Winery (not to be confused with Beringer). On a tour and tasting that cost $25 a head, a tractor carried us around the property and made pit stops along the way. We covered more ground in a half-hour than I did at any Napa winery.
The winery sits in the crater of an extinct volcano, which gives it a variety of different sun exposures, elevations, and soil types that make it ideal for producing diverse wines.
The winery was founded on the idea of self-sufficiency and a desire to bring sustainable farming practices into the mainstream. In the 1980s and '90s, father-and-son duo Mike and Bruno Benzinger experimented with methods like crop rotation, tillage, and natural composts to maintain soil health. They planted homeopathic teas underground to enrich the land and built flora-filled 'insect sanctuaries' to attract critters that would eat vine-munching pests.
In 2000, Benziger became the first vineyard in the US to be certified biodynamic -- a holistic method of grape production that's goes beyond organic farming.
I'm not sure I could taste the difference in a biodynamic wine, but I wouldn't say no to a second glass of the crisp and silky 2015 Signaterra West Rows Chardonnay.
Sonoma County is known not only for its wine, but its craft brewing industry. In the sweltering heat, I stopped at Russian River Brewing Company to quench my thirst.
I baked under the sun for about a half-hour before getting inside. Once you're let into the brewpub, you get onto a second waitlist for a table.
Pliny the Elder is one of the most sought-after beers in America. The official magazine of the American Homebrewers Association named it the best beer in the country for eight consecutive years until 2017, when Bell's Two Hearted Ale knocked it from the top spot.
You have to like IPAs to appreciate Pliny the Elder. The double IPA is super-dry and hoppy. But it's a surprisingly drinkable beer that was worth the hassle of getting into the brewery.
By mid-afternoon, I was feeling pretty burned out. At last, we arrived at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Wineyards in the city of Sonoma.
For my last experience of the day, I opted for a casual atmosphere. There was no wait for a table for two in the outdoor Vista Terrace, which has panoramic views of the vineyards.
I ordered the Glorious Wine Flight with chocolate pairings for $35. My server set down the glasses on a placemat that said a little about the wines and the sweets that went with them.
I was all about it. The flight featured two sparkling wines (which Gloria Ferrer is best known for), a Chardonnay, and a Pinot Noir. Glasses in hand, I relaxed into vacation-mode.
I tried a Chardonnay at every winery I visited, and the 2015 José S. Ferrer Selection Chardonnay was my least favourite. The taste of boozy-pineapple was overpowering, like drinking the bottom of a Mai Tai cocktail.
Fortunately, the tasting was fully redeemed by the sparkling wines.
I found the cure for the dog days of summer in a glass of 2014 Brut Rosé. It greeted my senses with vibrant aromas of strawberry, cherry, and pomegranate. The texture was full and creamy.
A visit to Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards is a must, even if you don't have time for a tour.
Pros: Wineries are situated along one main drag, which makes zipping between them a breeze. I enjoyed a variety of different experiences, from the walk-and-drink tour of the grounds at Cakebread Cellars to the immersive pairing experience at Beringer Vineyards.
Cons: A day in Napa County doesn't come cheap. My tours and tastings cost more than those in Sonoma County. I also found fewer restaurants where I could eat without spending a lot.
Total cost, excluding food, tax, and tip: $US120 per person
Pros: There's something for everyone in Sonoma County, whether you're a wine snob, outdoor adventurer, craft brewer, or foodie.
Cons: I spent nearly as much time in the car as I did enjoying the wineries. In retrospect, I wish I had made fewer plans and allowed myself to stop at the fruit stands and charming town squares that I passed along the way. I also encountered group sizes and wait times in Sonoma County that matched, if not exceeded, those I found in Napa County.
Total cost, excluding food, tax, and tip: $US60 per person
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