Every year, millions of tourists head to Napa Valley to take in the sun and quaff wine at the source, so to speak. Friends often ask me for recommendations on their trip and my answer is simple: I’d go to Sonoma County instead.
When I first started to go wine tasting, you could drive from winery to winery, picking almost at random. You’d go into a barn, or a shack, or just taste on a picnic table out front. While tasting, chances are you’d be talking to the winemaker or at least someone who had worked there for a decade. It’d be a lingering tasting, alternating between joking and learning from your host. You’d make friends with another couple that came in. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the host to open up something special just for fun. After a while, they’d give you a recommendation on where to head next. There’s little better relaxation available than sipping wine in the warm sun looking out over vineyards.
Unfortunately, that experience is largely gone from Napa. There are still places where you can do that (I suggest giving Spring Mountain a try), but by and large the barn has been replaced by million dollar tasting rooms, where you elbow your way to the bar, often so you can hear a memorized script.
Luckily, Sonoma still has plenty of places that offer that relaxed and special feeling. Maybe there aren’t many tastings in barns anymore, but it’s still a casual experience. You will rarely be jockeying for space or feel like you are being rushed along to finish your glass. Quite a few folks will simply sit and chat, and that special bottle still often appears from nowhere.
The other enormous advantage is that Sonoma has variety. This may be cheating a bit, as Sonoma County is simply much larger than Napa with more varied climates, but that’s kind of the point. Here’s where I’d head:
For Pinot Noir Lovers
If you’re into Pinot Noir, head first to Russian River. The valley itself produces spicy and bold Pinots, but most of the wineries there also source grapes from nearby Sonoma Coast, which produces a more tart, light and bright Pinot Noir than most people are used to getting from California. They’ll also often have Anderson Valley and Oregon fruit as well, which means even more styles to sample.
Recommended Stops: Visit Siduri for the best value. Visit Lynmar for great wine, great gardens and views. Visit Littorai for amazing wine and an education in biodynamic winemaking.
Want bolder, bigger wine? North of Russian River is Dry Creek Valley. It’s most famous for its Zinfandel, and for good reason. Dry Creek Zin is spicy and juicy, and can be one of the best combinations of both big fruit and complexity out there. But Dry Creek’s climate also does a number of other wines well—Rhone and Italian varietals seem to do especially well here.
Recommended Stops: Visit Bella for caves, a wonderful picnic spot and my favorite Zinfandel (their Lily Hill Estate Zin). Visit Ridge because their Zinfandel is just that good. Seghesio has a number of great Italian wines. including their Omaggio, which goes wonderfully well with my rib recipe. Hit up Unti for the best Italian varietals in Northern California and Frick for some great, affordable Rhone varietals.
Something for everyone
None of those hit the spot for you? That’s alright. There’s more Zin in Rockpile, Chardonnay and more in Chalk Hill, some nice Cabernet in Alexander Valley and just about anything you could want in Sonoma Valley proper.
Have I convinced you yet to abandon your trip to Napa and head on over to Sonoma? Well, the good news is you don’t really have to choose: Sonoma is right next door to Napa. You might just have to extend your trip.
Alan Greene is co-owner of Tipsy, a wine and spirits shop in Brooklyn. Tipsy hosts 3 or more free tasting events every week. Visit us at the corner of Myrtle and Classon or online at www.shoptipsy.com.