Napa vs. Sonoma: Which Wine Country Is Right for You?
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Napa and Sonoma are collectively known as California wine country, but while they’re side by side — separated by a mountain range — they’re far from interchangeable. TPG Contributor (and wine-lover) Katie Hammel, a frequent visitor to both, explains their differences and offers advice on what to do and where to stay, eat and drink in both destinations. Cheers!
The Basics of Napa and Sonoma
While Napa can refer to both a county (Napa County) and city (Napa) within that county, Napa Valley is the designated American Viticultural Area, or AVA. This AVA, which contains 16 sub-AVAs and more than 400 wineries, is what we talk about when we talk about Napa Valley.
The iconic Napa Valley is visited by more than 4.5 million people per year, and represents the glitz and glam of the US wine scene; it’s what Bordeaux is to France and what Tuscany is to Italy. Though it covers nearly 800 square miles, most wineries are clustered in the 35 miles between the city of Napa in the south and the town of Calistoga in the north.
Sonoma is the name of a county (Sonoma County), a city (Sonoma) and an AVA (Sonoma Valley), but that AVA is just one of the 16 AVAs that dot Sonoma County’s sprawling 1,600-plus square miles. Sonoma has roughly the same number of wineries as Napa Valley, but they’re spread over twice the land, which makes it feel less crowded — almost undiscovered in parts — when compared to its neighbor. According to people old enough to know, Sonoma County is what Napa Valley was like 30 years ago, before the international fame and the tour buses and traffic that came with it.
At both the north and south ends of each area, getting from Napa to Sonoma takes less than 30 minutes, but at other points, traveling between the two regions can eat up hours of your precious tasting time. If you have limited time, don’t get too ambitious; pick one region or the other rather than crisscrossing northern California.
How to choose between the two, you ask? Well, here are a few things to consider.
Napa’s cabernets and chardonnays shot to international fame after the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris (portrayed in the movie Bottle Shock) in which California wines were judged to be (gasp!) better than their French counterparts. Now some of the most respected wineries in the world are found in Napa, and that cachet comes with a cost. Expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $25 on average for a tasting of 4-6 wines, and know that some places charge much more, especially if the wines are paired with small bites.
When wine tasting in Napa, it’s easy to start on one end of the valley and taste your way to the other along Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail; the two roads run north-south parallel to one another and are chockablock with tasting room after tasting room — many of which will be very busy.
Napa is where big-money vintners such as Mondavi and Chandon come to play, building monuments to excess (see: the medieval castle at Castello di Amorosa or the Persian columns at Darioush) — but that doesn’t mean you can’t find more approachable wineries, as well. Some that offer excellent wine without pretension or an exorbitant tasting fee are Whitehall Lane, Merryvale Vineyards, Jericho Canyon Vineyard, Hill Family Wines, Davis Estates and Heitz Cellars; the latter may be the only winery in Napa to offer free tastings. If you do want to splash out, book a private tasting inside an ancient wine cask at Merryvale, spend an hour or two inside the sprawling wine caves at Del Dotto or go for a private tasting under an olive tree among the vines at Silverado Vineyards.
Sonoma’s wineries, on the other hand, are more spread out and tend to be more laid-back and intimate, with fewer crowds and lower tasting fees the farther you get from main roads. Collectively, they also offer a wider variety of wines; whereas Napa concentrates on cabs and classic Bordeaux varietals, Sonoma vintners make everything from pinot to zinfandel and charbono to gewurztraminer.
Close to the town of Kenwood, off Highway 12, try Kunde Winery (which offers guided hikes that end in mountain-top tastings) or Landmark Vineyards (where you can picnic and play a game of bocce). South of town, even closer to San Francisco (off Highway 121), sister properties Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and Cline Cellars both offer free tastings.
If you want to head a bit farther off the beaten path, venture west to the Russian River AVA and the town of Forestville to sip sparkling wines at Iron Horse’s mountain-top winery or relax with a game of cornhole at the outdoor tasting area at Russian River Vineyards (which also has an on-site restaurant). Sonoma is more spread out than Napa, so pick one area — such as the Russian River, the Sonoma Valley or the Alexander Valley — and stick to it to minimize driving.
Bottom line on wineries: If you want to taste and buy some of the best-known wines in the world, go to Napa; if you’re more interested in a low-cost, low-key day of casual sipping, head to Sonoma. In both Napa and Sonoma, visit during the week and skip the summer and harvest high seasons if you want to avoid the largest crowds. To save money, share tastings or look for 2-for-1 coupons through apps like Winery Finder.
Food in Napa
Napa is synonymous with fine dining, and there are incredible restaurants in every town, including seven Michelin-starred restaurants (to Sonoma’s three). In downtown Napa, pack your picnic or have a snack at Oxbow Market, a covered market hall where you can pick up olive oil, herbs, cheese and freshly baked bread, or nosh on oysters at Hog Island or a burger from Gott’s Roadside.
The town of Yountville packs the biggest culinary punch in the valley. Take your pick from Food Network star Michael Chiarello’s refined Italian dishes at Bottega; Richard Reddington’s fancy fusion at Redd or his more casual rustic-Italian Redd Wood; or French country cuisine at Bistro Jeanty.
You can’t go wrong with one of Thomas Keller’s four options in town. Go for casual French at Bouchon Bistro or pastries and light bites at Bouchon Bakery. Try the family-style comfort food at Ad Hoc or its outdoor outpost of fried chicken, Addendum (lunch only; Thursday-Sunday). And if you’re lucky enough to snag a reservation – sorry, but you probably aren’t — go for the ultimate splurge at the French Laundry.
It’s not all celeb chefs in Napa though; for something more casual, try Rutherford Grill in Rutherford or Farmstead in St. Helena. Both offer elevated pub food and allow guests to bring their own wine for a low (or no) corkage fee.
Food in Sonoma
While not as well known for its culinary masters, Sonoma has its own dining gems. The Shed is the town of Healdsburg’s answer to Napa’s Oxbow Market, while the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville gives Yountville’s best restaurants a run for their money.
You can dine at a winery at Corks at the Russian River Vineyards, or go for seasonal farm-fresh fare at the Girl and the Fig in the city of Sonoma. In Healdsburg you’ll find everything from Detroit-style sausages and beer at the Wurst to smoked quail and craft cocktails at Spoonbar. If you’re heading into Sonoma in the morning, hit the brakes at the Fremont Diner, which serves the best chicken and waffles in Northern California.
Bottom line on food: If you want to dine at the altars of celebrity chefs, make reservations in Napa; if you prefer an emphasis on simple, seasonal ingredients, take a seat at the table in Sonoma.
Flying to Napa or Sonoma
The largest number of flights to either area come into San Francisco (SFO), which is served by American, Alaska, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United and Virgin America, among others, and is about 90 minutes’ drive from the southern ends of both Napa or Sonoma. Conversely, Oakland (OAK) is only about an hour’s drive from either area (depending on traffic), and is served by Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit.
If you’re focusing on Napa, know that Sacramento (SMF) is about one hour’s driving time from downtown Napa and is served by American, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United; the airport is more than two hours’ drive from Sonoma. If you’ll be spending the bulk of your time in Sonoma, the small airport at Santa Rosa (STS) — served by Alaska Airlines with direct flights from Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; San Diego; and Seattle — is only 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Healdsburg.
Bottom line on airports: If you can possibly opt for the smaller airports — SMF and STS — you’ll have overall easier drive times, but if you have to choose a larger airport, try for OAK because of its shorter drive time to either area.
Points Hotel Options
Located along the Napa River, next to Oxbow Market, the Westin Verasa Napa has a fitness center, heated saltwater pool and spa, La Toque restaurant and BANK Cafe and Bar. Room rates start at around $200 per night or 20,000 SPG points. The Andaz Napa, on 1st Street in the heart of downtown Napa, offers loft-like rooms with free Wi-Fi, walk-in showers and soaking tubs for two. Rates start at $250 or 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night (it’s also a Visa Signature hotel — see below).
There are also three Best Western options in Napa Valley: in Calistoga, there’s the Stevenson Manor ($150 or 28,000 Best Western Rewards points/night), and in Napa choose from the Premier Ivy ($120 or 28,000 Best Western Rewards points/night), or the Best Western Plus Inn at the Vines ($140 or 24,000 Best Western Rewards points/night).
In the city of Sonoma, there’s a Best Western, the Sonoma Valley Inn, that offers a pool, fitness center, free Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast, with rooms starting at $150 or 24,000 Best Western Rewards points per night. In the workaday city of Santa Rosa, choose from the Hyatt Vineyard Creek ($212 or 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night) or the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country ($149 or 40,000 Hilton HHonors points per night).
If you’d rather stay within walking distance of off-site activities, Marriott’s Lodge at Sonoma is a short walk (or free shuttle) to the town’s main plaza; there’s an onsite spa, pool, restaurant and well-stocked bar, and room rates start at $229 per night or 45,000 Marriott Rewards points.
Amex FHR and Visa Signature Hotels in Napa and Sonoma
Cardholders of the Amex Platinum and its Business version can book through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (Amex FHR) travel portal to receive perks like room upgrades, hotel credits and late check-out.
By booking through the online booking portal for Visa Signature Hotels, Visa Signature cardholders (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card and Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve) can earn perks at listed properties.
Here’s where you’ll find these properties in both areas:
Napa’s hotels tend to be on the more expensive side (see a pattern here?). Rooms at the ultra-lux Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, a country-club style resort complete with a croquet field and a three-Michelin-star restaurant, start at $600 per night. The resort is listed with both Amex FHR (guests receive a $100 spa credit) and Visa Signature Hotels.
Southwest of downtown Napa off Highway 12, The Carneros Inn — home to three restaurants, a full-service spa and a summertime outdoor movie series — is listed with Amex FHR and starts at $800 per night. Also, as you’ll see above (in Points Hotel Options), the Andaz Napa is a Visa Signature hotel.
In Younvtille, the eco-friendly Bardessono is a zen oasis in the middle of town, as well as a Visa Signature hotel with rates starting at $750 per night. For something a bit more removed, the Calistoga Ranch is tucked away on 157 acres above the valley. All rooms at this Visa Signature hotel have private outdoor showers, there’s an on-site spa, fitness center and restaurant, and rates start at $785 per night.
For the ultimate in Sonoma romance, head to Kenwood and check into the Mediterranean-style Kenwood Inn and Spa, a Visa Signature hotel with rates starting at $425 per night. There’s an on-site pool, spa and restaurant plus complimentary afternoon wine tasting, sparkling wine breakfast and evening port.
Three miles north of the Sonoma Plaza, opt for the AAA Four Diamond Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa — another Visa Signature hotel — which is home to an award-winning spa, Michelin-starred restaurant and a championship golf course. Room rates start at about $300 per night. (Note that the Chase Fairmont Visa Signature card also earns you two free nights at any Fairmont property after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of card membership.)
Bottom line on hotels: Luxury-lovers will find slightly more options in Napa, but both regions have incredible places — often with decent redemptions — to lay your head.
Popular wine-free activities include hot-air balloon rides over the valley, hiking in Booth-Napa State Park, paddling the Napa River, soaking in Calistoga’s hot springs or wiggling into a mud bath at the rustic Golden Haven Spa (for a more upscale spa experience, try Meadowood). For more foodie fun, learn to blend your own wine at Conn Creek Vineyards, or a take a cooking class (with wine, of course) at Whitehall Lane.
Sonoma County offers a wider range of outdoor adventures. Rent a kayak and explore the gentle waters of the Russian River, check out the coast at Bodega Bay or Jenner, hike through ancient trees at Armstrong Redwoods National Park or explore the famous novelist’s old stomping grounds in Jack London State Park, zipline on a canopy tour, see African animals at Safari West, relax by the pool at Francis Ford Coppola Winery or go horseback riding through the vines at Chalk Hill.
If you’re thirsty for something other than wine, you can also do a self-guided brewery crawl or visit some of the area’s new distilleries, such as Sonoma Country Distilling Co., which offers tours and tastings on weekends.
Bottom line on activities: While you could make wine the focus of a fabulous trip to either area, Napa is ideal for those who want a wine trip, with options for other activities, whereas Sonoma is perfect for those who want to enjoy all that Northern California offers, with a side of wine.