Napa or Sonoma: Which to Visit?

Perhaps Both

A number of friends and readers have asked me about which California Wine Country is most worth a vacation visit. I’ve gotten this question many times and since it persists year after year and this time struck close to home, I figured I ought to look into it further and write about it.

So, I contacted an internet buddy (what we used to call ‘pen pal’ back in the day) and asked him about it. What follows then, is a conversation between me and Mark Davis, the managing partner of Tango Tours.

Photo Credit: Brocken Inaglory via Tango Tours

Tango Tours

Mark has been running the company since 2014 after 20 years in the travel industry. He was also in the Tango Trading Company which specialized in wines of Argentina. Tango Tours is a luxury travel company that offers exclusive culinary and wine experiences in Argentina, Chile and Napa Valley. Who better to ask than someone whose business is tourism and hospitality.

When I first posed the question of which one to visit in California, Mark pointed out that he loves both then went on to say, “If you have to choose between the two, the decision should be based on your preferences. The two have very distinct features, and you may prefer the qualities of one over the other.”

This interview is aimed at just that—the basic differences between Napa and Sonoma Valley so that you can make an informed decision.

Let’s start with some basic differences. What are they?

“Napa” may refer to the City of Napa or Napa County. “Napa Valley,” however, is the wine grape-growing region, which is an American Viticulture Area (AVA). When we make reference to “Napa Valley,” we mean the Napa Valley AVA, which includes 16 sub-AVAs, and over 400 wineries.

Likewise, “Sonoma” or Sonoma County may refer to the City of Sonoma, Healdsburg or Santa Rosa. Sonoma County includes 17 AVAs, including the Sonoma Valley AVA.

How are the wineries different?

Sonoma and Napa Valley have nearly the same number of wineries. However, the ones in Napa are a lot closer together than those in Sonoma, which are spread out throughout the region.

Napa Valley wineries exude the glitz and glamor of the American wine scene. The names of some Napa wineries even come up when talking about the best wineries in the world. At the famous, “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, two Napa Valley wines were rated the best in their respective categories, beating out their French counterparts.

Wine tastings can be pretty expensive in Napa, with the costs going up if the wines are served with food.

Sonoma Valley wineries, on the other hand, are much more laid-back and relaxed. Also, expect fewer crowds, and the prices to be much lower in Sonoma. The tasting fees tend to decrease as you get farther from the main roads.

And the wines themselves? How are they different?

Napa Valley mainly focuses on the production of different varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Of course Cabs and Chardonnays can be found in Sonoma Valley. But Sonoma Valley, on the other hand, produces everything from Charbono (also known as Douce noir) to Gewürztraminer, and from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel. So, if Cabs and Chardonnays are your thing, you may want to try a Napa Valley wine tour. But if you want a more varied wine tasting experience, head to Sonoma.

What about food?

Napa Valley has the highest per capita concentration of Michelin Starred restaurants of any wine-producing region in the world. Napa Valley focuses more on fine dining, with a large number of restaurants offering refined exotic dishes.

Yountville, a town in Napa, provides the biggest culinary punch of the region. In the city of Napa you can visit Oxbow Market, which is a covered market hall, to pick up some snacks, like freshly baked bread and cheese or herbs and olive oil. Or if you would like to have a picnic at a winery, try the Oakville Grocery or Dean & Deluca for sandwiches and prepared foods.

The culinary scene in Sonoma is quite different. However, it has its own unique standards in terms of food. The Shed in Sonoma Valley is the counterpart of Napa’s Oxbow Market. Sonoma also has a Michelin Starred restaurant in Forestville, which gives Yountville’s finest restaurants some tough competition.

However, while Napa is all about fine dining and celebrity chefs, Sonoma offers a simpler experience having most of the dishes prepared from seasonal ingredients.

Aside from eating and drinking, which are my two favorite pastimes, are there differences in what to see or do?

When it comes to activities, Napa Valley is far ahead of Sonoma. But that doesn’t mean you will find nothing to do in Sonoma other than wine tasting.

In Napa, there is the famous Wine Train that takes you on a ride around some of the County’s wineries and town centers. You can also go for a hot air balloon ride, or paddle in the Napa River.

Also, the Golden Haven Spa offers healing mud baths for visitors. The wine blending lessons at Conn Creek Vineyards, or the cooking classes at Whitehall Lane are also popular with visitors. As is shopping on the main street of St. Helena in Napa.

Sonoma also offers a number of outdoor activities, like navigating the county’s waterways in kayaks, attend cooking parties, zip line or hiking through the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve. You can also spend a day at Safari West seeing African animals.

Despite these attractions, Sonoma is a lot quieter than Napa, which is always buzzing with activities.

If you want your wine tasting experience to be a grand adventure, and you’re ready to spend more, take a trip to Napa Valley.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed time, plan a trip to Sonoma. Also, since it is less expensive, you can spend more days in Sonoma Valley.

Thank you, Mark. You can reach Tango Tours here.

For more information about the differences between the two, you might want to visit Wine Folly.

Image Source: By traveldudes via Tango Tours
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Altaneve Prosecco

A distinctive product deals with marketing challenges

Sparkling Wine in the US has grown twice as fast as the overall wine category over the past five years. Within sparkling wine, the non-champagne segment accounts for over 90% of sales (See earlier post on Booze Business) with prosecco leading the charge.

In fact, in a recent article in Shanken News Daily:

“The Prosecco DOC Consortium recorded a 34% increase in exports to the U.S. market in the first half of 2014, with volume reaching 1.27 million cases.” 

In effect, prosecco has challenged champagne for the top of the sparkling wine domain. In so doing, prosecco has changed the occasions for drinking sparkling wine. While champagne is for celebrations and special occasions, prosecco is for everyday and any time. Further, at $12 to $15 per bottle, prosecco has an advantage for everyday use.

But, just as there are $12 bottles of wine as wells as $20, $30 even $40 still wines, can an upmarket prosecco capture a significant share of that market?

Enter David Noto with Altaneve Prosecco

David Noto
David Noto

It’s quite an interesting story. David’s family has been making wine for 10 generations in Italy and he grew up with a passion for prosecco, particularly the high quality end. So he changed his career from engineering and finance technology and brought this product to market a few years ago.

According to David, “The US market is not deeply familiar with the broad range of prosecco, so we felt it was time to introduce the best.”

In addition, the brand has an interesting story to tell. Altaneve means high snow in Italian and is a reference to the snow capped peaks of the Dolomite Mountains that can be seen from the vineyards in Valdobbiadene where the prosecco is produced. The production facility is the second oldest in the town where the production of prosecco dates back to 200 BC.

In short, Altaneve has it all, provenance, terroir, heritage and high quality. Taste? I’m a huge prosecco fan and, while I’m far from a connoisseur, I think it’s the best tasting prosecco I’ve ever had. It’s versatile (any occasion with or without food), and unlike other

Presecco production area
Presecco production area

prosecco I’ve had, it’s consistent from bottle to bottle.

Altaneve sells for roughly $29.99 a bottle and therein is the problem.

The marketing challenge

I suppose it’s because the prosecco category in the US market is still in its infancy. Or, maybe the current image for the category is that it is generally low in price. As a result, David faces an uphill battle getting the message across that high end prosecco is worth the price. After all, all wine categories segment by price, why not this one?

I can understand the consumer reluctance to trade up. The category is still evolving and they came to it originally for an inexpensive alternative to champagne, so why pay for top shelf. That perception will change gradually over time but for producers like David Noto, accelerating a change in perception will take marketing muscle and lots of money. Altaneve is a startup brand.

The hesitation by the trade (especially bars and restaurants) is baffling to me. The mark up and profitability from Altaneve would make the brand more than worthwhile. Yet, the reluctance to change, to accept a segmentation of the prosecco category, not to mention lack of knowledge, all make it an uphill battle. To me, it defies logic.

Bottle_5I guess the bright side is twofold. First, slowly but surely, better retailers like Sherry Lehmann and important chains like Capital Grille are stocking Altaneve. Then there is David Noto himself. If you’re a follower of this blog, you know I often write about startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. Add David Noto to the list of passionate, smart and committed.

As to the Altaneve product itself, try it and let me know what you think. Unfortunately, it currently is only available in NY, NJ and CT, but also online. I’m betting you’re going to love it.

While you’re at it, check out what Wine Spectator had to say about Altaneve, as well as other info from their Facebook page.

Altaneve products
Altaneve products
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Big Data and Booze — BeverageGrades® Website

Move over wine experts – a new approach to wine information

If you’re the average wine buyer you probably find yourself staring at the shelf to make a selection. Maybe you look at the ratings from Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. Perhaps you select by the attractiveness of the label. Or, you rely on the wine mavens and their recommendations.

Concerning the latter, a number of experiments with wine aficionados and their ratings suggest that they are more subjective than objective. (Check out Chapter One of Think Like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner, their latest book on practical economics.)

I recently came across an article entitled, “Wine tasting is BS. Here’s Why.” The author cites a number of reasons for this judgment including – Wine experts contradict themselves; we taste with our eyes, not our mouths; and, based on a 2008 survey, that concluded with “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”

Introducing BeverageGrades® Website



This is a new venture developed and owned by Kevin Hicks (a former distributor) and Kevin Byrnes (an internet expert). Their website describes them as “the only resource for ‘objective’ wine, beer and spirits ratings and health & nutrition information.” You can find it here.

They claim to have the world’s largest database of wines, spirits and beer. (Although, the information they provide currently is only for wine; the other categories are in development.) I gotta tell you – it’s very cool.

First, they have conducted lab tests for all relevant flavor and aroma compounds as well as – are you ready – nutritional information including calories, sugar, pesticides, preservatives, heavy metals and antioxidants.

What happens is, you enter the criteria, wine type, region, varietal, price range, brands and you get an analysis of the wines that fit the information you entered. The brands that come up detail flavors, aromas, a Beverage Grade rating, and the average price, among other information.

The BeverageGrade system

But wait, that ain’t all

They have a feature they call Copy Cat® which, “Using science and technology, our data helps you find very similar (and often identical) tasting wines for a fraction of the price.” Nice. In the example I tried, a 2008 Jordan Cabernet at $46.98 was a 97% match with a Simi Cabernet at $18.75. They describe the match as “tiny differences detected.” They even provide what their analysis suggests is the “true” price for all wines in the database.

The site should become even more interesting when they turn their attention to beer and spirits. In effect, they have preempted the government and nutritional ratings for alcohol products.

Oh and by the way, their ratings are based on objective criteria.

But wait a minute… Does relying on the information from BeverageGrade mean I won’t be reading such interesting reviews as this?

A nose of melted plastic, burnt toast and deck shoes worn without socks, this one is a true gift. Every sip brings reminisces of sun tanning after a morning of mosquito bites and family conflict. Great for tonight as an accompaniment for anxiety and an uncertain future plus goes remarkably well with the movie Scarface. What are you waiting for? Say hello to your little friend.

Just as well.

Try it and let me know what you think.

Do you have any idea?
Do you have any idea?


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