napa vs. sonoma


A vineyard in the Carneros Napa region.

A decade ago, a television travel documentary showed an aerial shot of two cyclists pedaling north along the ribbon of highway that parallels the Pacific coastline. The voice-over spoke glowingly of the tourists’ delight in visiting Napa Valley. (Napa is inland; the cyclists were in Sonoma.)

Soon after the Napa Valley Wine Train began making its excursion runs north from the town of Napa to St. Helena and back, with gourmet dinners and Napa wine served in its dining car, two masked men jumped on board and announced they were commandeering the train.

Not taking it anywhere, mind you; just serving a little Sonoma County wine. In mid-journey, they jumped off the train before they were captured.

The men were Jim Bundschu, owner of the Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, and his wine maker, Lance Cutler.

I wish they’d taken the train back over there,” says John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Winery, a Napan blessed with a wry sense of humor. (Few wine makers are enamored with the wine train.)

Williams was greatly amused by the antics of the Sonomans in taking over the train to promote wine from “the other wine country,” but many of his brethren were irked by the audacity of the act. One, who asked for anonymity, called it “brazenly absurd,” and added that it was “a typical bush-league move.”


But in Sonoma, a few miles over the hills to the west, they had a good laugh, and hoped more Sonomans would show off their sense of good fun and tweak the uptight, yupscalers from the valley of gold.

Benzinger Vineyards, Glen Ellen, Sonoma.

Napa and Sonoma. They are California’s two leading wine regions, and each has its bragging points.

Taken as a single unit, Napa and Sonoma now offer the nation some of the world’s finest wines from their combined 100,000 acres of prime vineyard land ­- from high atop Howell Mountain with merlot that commands attention to the farthest reaches of the Russian River and its pinot noirs that rival Burgundy.

The petty bickering all comes down to one thing: local pride has kept standards high. It is what has helped make this vast, once-remote pastureland, prune orchard and forested hillside district one of the world’s most interesting wine country regions, and a source of national pride and great wine.

But if you live in either spot, or spend a lot of time in each and pay close attention, you can hear the irritation for “those guys over there” in people’s inflections, tonalities, and emotions.

This is a rivalry, no doubt about it, and one that seems to fester on many levels. And one that’s not going away.

Napa makes cabernet sauvignon of such a high order that prices for the best have risen to the hundreds of dollars, and are in demand by collectors. And they have created a lot of animosity throughout the wine industry, wrinkled the brows of Sonoma cabernet makers, and forced the retail and restaurant trades to reassess their policies of wine marketing.

Sonoma makes such a wide array of great wine, from a diversity of climates, that some wine makers have never met their county cohorts because they work in completely different circles, either varietally or regionally.

The tension between the two regions is evident from the way they speak about each other. Usually, it’s not terribly complimentary.

Napans rarely bring up Sonoma without being prodded. They are the target of the world’s vinous spotlight, so why chat about the less-than-lucky Sonomans, often viewed as a snot-nosed cousin who’s really not related to moi.

Sonoma folk, for the most part are a bit less self-conscious about their achievements. But they do snort a bit about all the attention that goes over the hills to the east. They are, frankly, a bit jealous.


Yet they certainly don’t want the negatives that come with being No. 1. And Napa has its albatrosses, such as being the target of environmental lawsuits from the Sierra Club, and being raked over searing coals in books like “The Far Side of Eden,” in which author James Conaway views many in Napa as egocentric, outrageously wealthy louts, members of what he calls a lucky sperm club, folks who merely want to pillage the land in their greedy quest for greater self-aggrandizement.

Some old-timers in Sonoma love to point out that the two-decade-old Napa Valley Wine Auction, which today is viewed as the most upscale of all bacchanalian parties, started only after Sonoma had announced it would do a charity auction first. Napa folk heard about it and jumped into the fray the same year.

But Sonomans get spittin’ mad when, for instance, a local newspaper columnist points out that one of Sonoma’s most famed restaurant placements, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, is listed on an upscale New York restaurant wine list as being from Napa Valley. And they get just as irate when a San Francisco newspaper does a huge feature story on wine country and Sonoma gets three sentences; the rest is about the Napa winery with the 32,000-square-foot mansion and its four fireplaces, wine caves, limos in front, and the gourmet chef flown in from Paris for a private wine dinner.

Not that they wouldn’t like that sort of publicity. It’s just that Sonoma tends to be a lot more laid back. Oh, it has its wealthy set, its candelabra dinners with tuxedos and foie gras. But more than anything, they’ll tell you that Sonoma is a diverse culture that makes real wine. Wine you can drink and afford.

Not that Napa doesn’t also make sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and chardonnay. It does. But when the wine competitions are complete for another year and a range of wine-making is considered, Sonoma always comes out way ahead. This is simply because Sonoma still makes glorious gew


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