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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2 comments

  1. FYI, The Shed is not in Sonoma Valley. It’s in Healdsburg. In fact, this article repeatedly makes the mistake of using “Sonoma Valley” to refer to “Sonoma County” or more generally, Sonoma. Sonoma Valley is an AVA in Sonoma County that extends from the town of Sonoma to just north of Kenwood. It is a 30 to 60 minute car ride away from where The Shed is located.

  2. Thanks for the correction. The information came from the tour organizer I interviewed and I’ll look into it further.

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