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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

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.

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