Sonoma and Napa: a Vinous Rivalry worth Exploring

The comparison, and, to be honest, the rivalry between Sonoma and Napa County wines goes back years, to the early twentieth century and beyond, with 175 vineyards in Napa in 1886 and 932 in Sonoma in 1893. One-hundred years later Napa had won out, at least in terms of investment and renown.

Not all oenological success is new, however. Napa’s storied American wine history counts houses like Beaulieu (founded in 1900) and Inglenook (founded in 1872), businesses that faced Prohibition and won. Yet neither can history count out Sonoma, home to  Sebastiani (1904), Korbel (1862), and Simi (1876).

No better way exists of epitomizing that competitive vinous tension between Sonoma and Napa than wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, which lies at the tannic heart of Napa’s well-structured fame, but with Sonoma Cabernet always present, just over the mountains, suggesting that equally great, probably less expensive options exist there for most wine drinkers.

In a 2000 article entitled, “Looking to Sonoma for Cabernets, too,” New York Times wine columnist Frank J. Prial wrote: “As a group, Sonoma cabernets tend to be overlooked -- an indignity, and it needs to go.” His successor at the Times, Eric Asimov, picked the same theme in a 2004 article succinctly called “Napa’s rival for cabernets: Sonoma.” He wrote: “the only place that can begin to rival Napa Valley as a source for cabernet sauvignon is its neighbor to the west and north, Sonoma County.”

When I began looking into Sonoma wine production, this concentrated Cabernet contest was palpable. Many treat it as a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2021, one wine expert’s illuminating article still bemoaned: “Sonoma County Cabernet should not be such a secret.” The recent nature of Sonoma being overlooked in terms of Cab quality is belied by the relatively ancient reports, and I can find no one who disagrees about this decades- (centuries?) old contest. It has even garnered academic attention. Writing in 2014 in the journal Wine Economics & Policy, Anil Hira and Tim Swartz found, “despite the clear Napa price premium over its closest regional competitor, Sonoma, a wide number of long-term studies show that quality ratings put Napa and Sonoma wines as quite close.” Their research sought reasons for Napa’s dominance using industrial location theories combined with empirical and qualitative evidence.

Thousands of other comparisons exist, running from wine country travel advice to wineries explaining their Cabs from both Sonoma and Napa terroirs to consumers: “Separated by the Mayacamas, Napa Valley and [Sonoma’s] Alexander Valley are neighbors but are also very different.” The conclusion: “One isn’t better than the other—and you don’t have to pick a favorite.” However, Napa Cabs of equal quality are typically more expensive . . .

Sonoma County’s vast expanse (roughly double that of Napa, with about 62,000 acres under vine), varied soils, and undulating topography make it diverse, famed for cold-climate Bourgogne varietals and Zinfandel more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet everyone says Cab deserves its place in the top roster, but with a caveat: Reflecting that diversity, Sonoma Cabs are more varied in style than Napa Cabs, which certainly makes them worth sampling to find your favorite.

For superb Sonoma Cabernet production, my review pinpointed a few particular American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and subregions that stand out in current discussions. First is Sonoma Valley, second Alexander Valley, and third Knights Valley. Moon Mountain District AVA and Sonoma Mountain AVA are embedded within Sonoma Valley and included here. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are 18 AVAs in the county. Chalk Hill, for example, looks promising for Cab as well.

Sonoma Valley (click on the links for wines from each region) is the historic epicenter of wine production, with the Mayacamas Mountains to the east and Sonoma Mountains to the west, the latter protecting it from direct Pacific Ocean influence. Moon Mountain lies within the valley, with vineyards at 400 to 2,200 feet above sea level. On the other side of the valley is Sonoma Mountain, named after a peak rising to 2400 feet, with well-drained soils in vineyards facing east or northeast receiving morning sunshine and early afternoon shade. Both Sonoma and Moon Mountain AVAs are distinguished by higher-elevation Cab viticulture: Mountain Cabernet.

Alexander Valley has received a lot of buzz for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines for decades. “An undiscovered and idyllic place to visit, Alexander Valley is proud of its small-town roots, and big-time Cabernet,” says the Sonoma County Vintners association. While historically vineyards here were in the foothills at around 200 feet in elevation, recently excitement has grown about wines made from grapes grown up to 2400 feet, particularly in the area of Pocket Peak, with tannin-rich wines meant for aging, but in a restrained style distinctive from Napa. 

Knights Valley has long been respected for its premium Cabernet wines, with ideal growing conditions and soil for Bordeaux red varietals. Les Pavots Vineyard, for example, planted such grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1989 at relatively high altitudes near the base of Mount Saint Helena. Although hot in the day compared to the rest of Sonoma, Knights Valley has significant Pacific Ocean influence, with no mountains blocking the way.

For a great video on Sonoma County wines and viticulture, visit GuildSomm.com.

Written By: Charlie Leary


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