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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences

On a road called Oakville Grade at the top of the Mayacamas Mountains, a white stripe divides Napa Valley from Sonoma. It's as plain and neat as New York segueing into New Jersey inside the Holland Tunnel. • But Wine Country regulars hardly need a line in the road to differentiate Napa and Sonoma. Despite their proximity, these two California grape-growing regions offer those who visit—and those who drink their wines—vastly different experiences.
But how does one tell them apart without a label? The usual shorthand is to equate Napa with Bordeaux and Sonoma with Burgundy. In a vinous sense, that's not far off the mark. Napa's best wines are made from Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes (along with the occasional smattering of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, just like in the Medoc). Sonoma is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the grapes of Burgundy's Côte d'Or.
But Sonoma's 200 wineries, stretching from the Mayacamas to the Pacific Ocean, also produce world-class Syrah, Zinfandel and, yes, Cabernet. And for those who regard Napa as homogenous, consider that the narrow valley and its foothills are home to a near-Burgundian 14 appellations and 30 different soil types, as well as almost twice as many producers as Sonoma.
Like Bordeaux, which entertains by dressing up for lavish functions, Napa has the more elegant and evolved social scene. Like Burgundy, dining and entertaining in Sonoma is usually informal. "You basically go to visit your friends in Burgundy," says Ed Sbragia, who makes wine for Napa's oldest continually producing property, Beringer, but lived for years in Healdsburg, over the mountains. "That's what Sonoma is like. You go see your friends."
Douglas Keane, the chef and part owner of Healdsburg's hottest restaurant, Cyrus, offers a different take on Napa. "Napa's more established, more of a scene. And it's got more wine history."
All agree that no other wine region does tourism as well as Napa. "The ability to host visitors here is very, very important to building customer loyalty and our reputation," says Bill Phelps, chairman of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. "I can't tell you how many times someone has told me that their visit to the winery was the founding basis for their relationship with our wines."
But Napa also invented and perfected wine tourism en masse, which can be a mixed blessing. Buses disgorge dozens of power tasters, who often overrun the hospitality rooms and gift shops, scattering solo visitors in their wake. The winemakers—even the grapes—can seem far removed from the process.
Not so in Sonoma. Sure, tourist-destination wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis and Kenwood cater to groups, but at most properties a visit involves calling ahead for an appointment. Upon arrival, you might be met by a winemaker or family member. "Sonoma takes a little more effort," says Grant Sharp, whose father-in-law, David Mars, created and owns Healdsburg's Les Mars Hôtel. "But it's more special. More of a unique experience than a commercial assembly line."
"There are still so many wineries here that are down-to-earth, and aren't just glossy and sterile-looking," adds Carolyn Martinelli, who founded Sonoma's Martinelli Vineyards with her husband, Lee, in 1987. "There's real people."
Sound harsh? That's Sonoma's other side, an inferiority complex rooted in the historic success of its older brother. Napa has been making standout wines since the 1940s and 1950s, when producers such as Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards and Louis Martini were at their height. Through the years, the vast majority of America's superstar wineries, from Mondavi and Montelena to Colgin, Bryant and Harlan, have based themselves off Highway 29.
Even the difference in wine styles serves to help Napa, which makes muscular, crowd-pleasing (and higher-scoring) wines, as opposed to Sonoma's lithe, elegant beauties. "If I lived in Sonoma and kept hearing people say, 'Napa,'" says Beringer's Laurie Hook, "I might get a little peeved after a while."
Lately, Sonomans have started to do something about it. Pinot Noirs such as Marcassin and Flowers have started attaining a cult-like status of their own. And though Sonoma remains predominantly rural, Napa lovers who visit Healdsburg call it the sincerest form of flattery. Its gourmet shops and boutiques set around a town square make it feel like a particularly tony neighborhood in Seattle, or a wealthy European village. "The Hotel Healdsburg completely changed the place," says wine photographer Andy Katz, who moved to Sonoma three years ago. "People were upset by it because it was modern and expensive, but it opened up the area. I like walking in Healdsburg now. It's urbane, but friendly." And despite the expensive stores and high-concept restaurants, Katz says, "I don't get an elitist feel at all."
If you're just visiting, or do your wine touring by pulling corks, you don't have to choose. You can fill a wall of your cellar with prime Napa Cabernets—and another with a range of Sonoma's best. You can spend half your vacation time in Napa, sunning poolside at Meadowood, eating at Redd and sipping Howell Mountain Merlot inside Beringer's private tasting room, and the other half in Sonoma savoring gourmet pizzas at Bovolo, then retreating to the pebbled courtyard of your Gaige House suite before tasting appointments on the coast.
When you're finished, you can come to the same conclusion as the smartest of the locals, who've given up trying to discern which lifestyle better suits their needs: we're lucky to have them both.
Benchmark Wineries—Sonoma
Martinelli Vineyards: All in the Family
Like the Martinis and the Mondavis, the Sebastianis and the Gallos, the Martinellis took an Italian wine-drinking heritage and constructed a family business that has spanned generations. The difference is, they did it not in the dim, distant past, but in the 1980s.
This shows how young a wine-producing region Sonoma really is. As late as 1975, when cars already were beginning to fill up Napa's Highway 29 heading for the Robert Mondavi Winery and other nascent tasting rooms, teenagers Lee Martinelli Jr. and his sister, Julie, sat in the parking lot of an old red barn on River Road selling apples to whoever wandered by.
Lee Martinelli Sr. had hundreds of acres of orchards, inherited from his grandfather. "We kept them in as long as we could, but prices went way down," he says. That got him thinking about the future.
In the late nineteenth century, Italian-born Giuseppe Martinelli had planted Zinfandel on the steep slope of a Sonoma County knoll called Jackass Hill. When Giuseppe died in 1918, his son, Leno, who'd been born on the property in 1905, tended the vines. It wasn't a business, just a link to his father and the Old World.
Then Lee, Leno's son and a high school teacher, decided to take 25 acres of apples and convert them to more grapes. But which ones? No studies could be done, no consultants could be asked, not in Sonoma in the '70s. In the end, he chose Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer because whites were fashionable then. Lee resigned from his teaching position to farm full-time.
Fortunately, the grapes developed a following among local wineries. In 1987, with the kids through college, Lee and his wife, Carolyn, decided to make and bottle wine. After Leno died in 1992, they added those century-old vines from Jackass Hill, and the adjacent Jackass Vineyard. "If I'm going to farm that damn hill, I'm going to take the fruit," Lee told his cousins. Those Zinfandels were the turning point.
By then, they had Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—and a star winemaker. Carolyn's father, George Charles, had raised sheep on the Sonoma coast, but when killing coyotes became illegal, the industry died with most of the sheep. Beginning in 1980, he planted grapes. One day in 1992 he went to take a look at an adjacent parcel, where he'd heard someone else was planting, and got his car stuck in the mud. "How much do you weigh?" he asked the renowned consultant Helen Turley, and a friendship was born. She sat on the tailgate to help dislodge the car, then struck a deal to make both her wines and Martinelli's.
It didn't take long before this family enterprise became a fashionable cult. Now the Martinellis—Lee and Carolyn, both 67, and their sons, Lee Jr., 41, and George, 37—sit in a conference room inside the big barn and plot the future. (Julie, 44, is away on a business trip to Los Angeles, convening a comprehensive tasting.) With Turley's guidance, the Jackass Zinfandels have earned renown as some of California's—and the world's—best. The Blue Slide Pinot Noirs are coveted by collectors. The Hop Barn Hill Syrahs have lately taken their place among America's best renditions of that variety.
Still, for all the wines' success, the general store down below is still filled with foodstuffs, including fresh cider in season. The winery retains its familial feel; it isn't hard to imagine kids selling apples in the parking lot. "People in the tasting room see us walk by," says Lee, "and they're stunned that Martinelli is really owned and run by Martinellis. They're accustomed to the big wineries of Napa. Sonoma is different. We're what this county is all about."
DuMOL: All the Right Moves
Kerry Murphy of DuMOL sits in the flagstone cellar of Sonoma's exclusive Mayacama Country Club drinking his own 2003 Viognier, his bushy eyebrows dancing. One of 28 vintner members, along with representatives of such wineries as Harlan, Araujo and Silver Oak, he's up from his Bay Area home, ensconced in one of the club's casitas. "We probably have the most magical place in the world," he says of Sonoma. A glimpse at the view over the golf course confirms the sentiment.
Murphy is new Sonoma royalty, a living example of how its wine industry has come of age. The formula consists of scores in the mid-90s, tiny volumes and high prices justified by the flavors in the bottle. "Granted, I'm a bottomless pit of enthusiasm when it comes to our wines," Murphy says. "But I'll put these against any in the world."
In 1987, when he was 45, the Oakland-born Murphy sold eight companies to Goodyear Tire. He retired and started collecting wine. A hundred bottles grew to 4,000, and a passion for Burgundy became the yearning to create his own. DuMOL started in 1996, in partnership with investor Michael Verlander.
The wines that have emerged—as made by Andy Smith, who has worked with Paul Hobbs, Littorai's Ted Lemon and the formidable New Zealand producer Dry River—are known for a purity of fruit rarely seen in the Côte d'Or. "Our wines have a dimension that the wines of Burgundy don't have," Murphy boasts.
He's talking about Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, those Burgundian staples, but also prodigious Syrahs and, lately, Viognier, varieties indigenous to the Rhône Valley. If that combination seems odd, well, it is. Perhaps only in Sonoma, with its varying pockets of terrain and multitude of microclimates, could a boutique producer make world-class Pinot Noir and Rhône varieties, too.
Smith harvests his fruit as early as possible. "We're not trying to push the wines to the finish line," he says. He makes the wines in an industrial park near Santa Rosa that is devoid of tourist amenities. Then Murphy gives them precious, lowercase names like finn and chloe ("I like the way they look on the label," he says) and sends them out to a mailing list full of devotees.
It would all mean nothing if it was just marketing and hype. But DuMOL wines such as the Chardonnay isobel 2005, which will be released this November, have a personality all their own. Made from grapes grown in Green Valley, the isobel has caramel on the nose, a hint of old-world austerity to keep the piercing fruit honest, and a tranquility that's just about impossible to find in a Napa wine. They'll love it at Mayacama.
Flowers Vineyard & Winery: On the Edge
The drive from downtown Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean takes an hour. The road winds along the Russian River, beneath redwoods that blot out all but deeply dappled sunlight. It ends beneath an inevitable blanket of fog on Highway 1.
A mile or so inland and about 1,500 feet up sits some of America's best Pinot Noir, grown in a string of vineyards that hug the coastline. This is a different Sonoma, a world away from the knolls and valleys near Jackass Hill. It sees few visitors and offers few amenities. Lunch is a piece of fish on a bun at one of the tumbledown tourist stops in Bodega Bay, with sea spray in your face. "Some people say their wines get the influence of the Pacific Ocean," says Tom Hinde, who left Kendall-Jackson after 16 years to run Flowers. "But we live in the influence of the Pacific Ocean."
At an unmarked mailbox off a windy mountain road, you'll find Flowers. At their nursery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Walt and Joan Flowers spent the 1980s growing trees that needed two decades from planting to harvest. When they decided to move west and plant grapes, they weren't put off by the investment of several years. It seemed like immediate gratification by comparison.
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