Students of California wine eventually try to size up the similarities and differences between Napa and Sonoma.
As wine-growing areas, they're similar in age, dating to the mid-1800s. Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma was founded in 1857 and is considered the state's oldest commercial winery, but Napa Valley, with Inglenook, Charles Krug, Beringer and later Beaulieu, eventually had more famous names.
In terms of general climate, both Napa and Sonoma are part of California's North Coast, which is tempered by weather patterns that form off the Pacific Ocean. When it rains hard in Sonoma, it rains hard in Napa. When it's hot in Sonoma, it's hot in Napa. Within their individual microclimates, however, diverse areas and dramatic differences exist in soil type, exposure, rainfall and terroir. Consequently, their wine styles and character differ, sometimes significantly.
Grape acreage is close, with both counties having close to 35,000 acres in vines. Napa holds an edge in Cabernet plantings and the quality of its Cabernet wines. Sonoma holds a thin edge in Chardonnay and Zinfandel. It's a toss-up with Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Both counties have well-established appellations within. In Napa, there's Rutherford, Oakville, the Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Atlas Peak. Sonoma has Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Mountain and Green Valley. Both counties are tied together at the south end by Carneros.
In terms of image, prestige and international reputation, though, Napa holds a considerable advantage. Napa has always been more promotional; some might consider it overkill if you've ever attended the super-hyped up Napa Valley Wine Auction. How many times have you heard people say Jordan or Chateau St. Jean is in Napa, when in fact they're both in Sonoma? Even Bay Area media can't get it straight most of the time.
Napa Valley may be more unified because it is essentially one valley, centered around St. Helena. You can drive from one end of the valley to the other in 45 minutes. Its vintners are more united in their common causepromote Napa.
Sonoma is spread out. It prides itself on its laid-back country atmosphere. You could spend a full day driving to each of its key winegrowing districts. Its vintners are not united the way Napa's are, but are more inwardly focused on their own venues. Napa may also have more big wine money and fancy showcase wineries than Sonoma, but the dollar figures invested in wine are probably close. I don't think wine growers in Napa are any more creative or imaginative than in Sonoma, nor are the wines any better. Far from it.
Still there's one real telling difference between the two. Sonoma has a real chip on its shoulder about Napa and has for a long time. Sonoma Country grape growers don't just boast about their wines winning the most medals at wine competitions, they brag about winning more medals than Napa. When they hold their wine auctions, they poke fun at their competition, with seemingly good-natured "You're not in Napa anymore" slogans. Still, there's an uneasy feeling that somehow Sonoma feels insecure about its standing in the world's wine community. If Napa fears a threat from Sonoma's wines, it's a silent, unspoken fear.
One huge difference between the two counties mentally is that Sonoma, for all its excellent wines and unique appellations, seems to view Napa Valley as its prime competition and has its sights set on "beating" Napa.
Napa doesn't look at it the same way. Vintners in Napa Valley admire and respect Sonoma's wines, but they don't view Sonoma as their chief rival. Napa considers the world's great wine estates and wine regions as the competition. While Sonoma's goal often seems tied to making better wines than Napa, Napa vintners seem inspired to make better wines than in Bordeaux or Burgundy. In that respect, perhaps Napa vintners are a more competitive lot. If you buy into the theory that you're defined by how you view your competition, then that might do more to explain how and why Napa is different than Sonoma than all the grapes, soils, microclimates and wines combined.
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