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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

(continued from page 1)

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.


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