When planning a getaway weekend to Northern California’s wine country, you have many decisions to make: where to stay, where to eat, which wineries to visit…
But the very first decision that must be made is which region to visit: Napa Valley or Sonoma County.
The cool thing about this conundrum is that there is no wrong answer. Both regions have so much to offer. It just depends on what you’re looking for.
Let’s start with the Napa Valley. This is America’s most famous wine region, promoted to prominence during the late 20th century primarily by one man: Robert Mondavi.
It was Mondavi who helped transform wine drinking from an occasional luxury into a lifestyle. He introduced educational programs, stressed the idea of pairing wine with food, hosted concerts on his winery property, and so much more.
Over the years, many other wineries followed Mondavi’s lead, positioning wine not merely as an enjoyable beverage, but as part of an “experience.” Today, dozens of wineries throughout Napa Valley offer a menu of wine-tasting experiences, many of which include food pairings.
We could devote dozens of blogs to “Things to Do in Napa Valley,” but today we’ll simply note that there are three basic ways to experience Napa: 1. stay in the city itself; 2. explore Highway 12; 3. traverse the Silverado Trail.
The city of Napa has invested millions to transform its downtown area into an attraction, now home to gourmet markets, restaurants, outdoor art and numerous tasting rooms. If you enjoy walking over driving, just stay in the city of Napa.
If you’d prefer to explore the small towns of the valley in between winery visits, then head north on Highway 12. Each of the communities has its own charm, and there is no shortage of world-class restaurants at which to grab lunch or dinner.
The semi-secret Napa Valley thoroughfare is the Silverado Trail, which roughly parallels Highway 12 but doesn’t go through the various downtown areas. This is the road locals take to get from point A to point B when tourists take over the valley, and there are several wineries one can visit along the trail.
The Silverado Trail would fit in perfectly in Sonoma County, which I think of as providing the more “rural” wine-tasting experience.
A few statistics tell the Sonoma story: There are 60,000 acres devoted to vineyards, more than 425 wineries and 17 American Viticultural Areas. Think about that: Sonoma County is home to 17 areas with distinctive climatic characteristics.
What does that mean for a wine lover? While Napa Valley specializes in a handful of wine varieties, Sonoma County vintners are able to produce numerous varieties, increasing the odds that you’ll find something you’ll love.
And while there is no shortage of world-class wine estates to visit on the Sonoma side, you’re much more likely to encounter tiny tasting rooms often “staffed” by the owner/winemaker.
Whether you prefer the small-city vibe of Napa or the country side of Sonoma, Northern California wine country will not disappoint. Here are a couple of resources to help with your planning: