How to Find the Best Wines from Napa and Sonoma Valley

From rich Napa Cabs to unforgettable Sonoma Coast Pinots, and seemingly everything in between, the country’s two most famous wine regions offer something for everyone.

Sunrise over a vineyard on the Silverado Trail, Napa Valley, California
Photo: YinYang / Getty Images

For many people, Napa Valley and Sonoma County are more or less synonymous with American wine. It makes sense: The American wine industry as we know it would simply not exist without Napa Valley's pioneers having led the way, and Sonoma County has become such a force in the world of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that any serious discussion about the best of both has to include its many and varied sub-AVAs.

While fantastic wine is produced across the country, from Oregon to Texas, California's two most famous regions reside, understandably, on a different echelon of popular perception.

Both Napa Valley and Sonoma County, like other great wine producing regions around the world, contain proverbial multitudes within their borders. Setting aside their lofty reputations, however, the question has to be asked: What makes Napa and Sonoma so special?

Napa Valley: America's Wine Ambassador

About an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco, Napa Valley is a long, narrow region approximately 30 miles from north to south and a mere five miles wide. To the west are the Mayacamas Mountains and to the east, the Vaca Range. There are 16 nested AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within Napa Valley, and each one boasts its own unique amalgam of micro-climate, soil, underlying geology, altitude, and more. Interestingly, Napa Valley grows hotter as you move further north, despite the fact that the opposite is typically expected in the Northern Hemisphere. This is because of the moderating influence of the San Pablo Bay to the south, and the heat-trapping qualities of the valley up north as you get closer to Calistoga.

Add to that the natural differences from one vineyard site to another — the direction it faces, the angle of its aspect toward or away from the morning and afternoon sun, its location on a mountain, a hillside, or in the valley floor — and the result is a wildly complex set of natural circumstances that affect the vines planted in each individual location and the wines that are crafted from their fruit.

This is why discussing Napa as if it were a monolith — as if it were a single style of wine, with just the names on the labels differing — has always been inaccurate. But more on that later.

Sonoma County: Astounding Geological and Climatic Diversity

Sonoma County, west and northwest of Napa Valley, is more influenced by the Pacific Ocean. As a result, many of its constituent AVAs benefit from somewhat cooler temperatures, which allows it to be home to some of the most exciting Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the country. In its far southeast, the Carneros AVA benefits from proximity to the San Pablo Bay, much like the Carneros AVA in Napa. Northwest of there, the Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross - Seaview AVAs get their cooling influences primarily from the ocean. All of these different geological and climatological phenomena leave their mark on the final wine just as dramatically as any other aspect of the grape-growing and winemaking process. And just like Napa Valley, there is no one "Sonoma Style," even among the same grape varieties…and often even among the same producers.

There is an old wine cliché that goes something like this: When it comes to the top vineyard sites, the job of the winemaker is to coax the best and most accurate expression of that land to the fore, to give the grapes and their fermented juice the best chance to achieve their truest expression of themselves, and of the land into which their roots are sunk…and then to get out of the way and not leave too much of a mark personally.

The producers who do that, in both Napa and Sonoma, have the ability to make some of the most exciting wines in the world.

What to Look for With Napa Valley Wines

Napa Valley is home to a wide range of excellent grape varieties and wines, including Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Even the much (and unjustifiably!) maligned Merlot from Napa Valley has the potential for greatness. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to taste Sullivan Merlot, one of the region's most accomplished producers of the variety, alongside some of the greats of the Right Bank of Bordeaux. And while they were all of course very different from one another, the quality of the Sullivan — and I've found this to be the case across several vintages — was every bit as high. The moral: If you haven't had Napa Merlot in a while, give it another chance…you're likely to be won over in ways you never expected. (I also recommend the Merlots of Mayacamas, Mira, and La Jota.)

Perhaps more than any other region in the United States, Napa is inextricably tied to one variety more than any other: Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, the words are often smooshed together when spoken into a single moniker: "Napacab." While Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is often spoken of as some sort of singular style — always ripe and fruit-forward, always more well-suited to drinking in the short term, always expensive and high in alcohol — that isn't necessarily the case at all. Sure, generous fruit tends to play a significant role in these wines: It's California, after all, not the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and the heat and sunshine can be smelled and tasted in many of the best of them. But the final wines are also influenced by the mineral composition and geological origins of the soils, by the character of the vintage itself, by the clones and rootstocks, and more. From Coombsville and Oak Knoll to Yountville, Oakville, and beyond, there is no single Napa Valley.

Despite Napa Valley's deep historical importance, there are still constantly new and seemingly magical places being discovered to plant grapes. Promontory is a great example: It was founded in 2008 by Bill Harlan, the man behind Harlan Estate and BOND, and yet—because the land in which its vines are planted is so different from that of his eponymous estate vineyard and the sites that have made BOND so important—the wine itself has a highly distinct character that sets it apart.

Compare the wines from this distinct mountain site to, for example, those from the legendary To Kalon Vineyard, on the valley floor in the Oakville AVA, and the wines are markedly different. TOR, for example — which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year — produces a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from that vineyard that is worlds apart from the Cabs of Promontory, just as TOR's wines from other Napa Valley vineyards — Melanson, Tierra Roja, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, and others — are unique unto themselves. And in Coombsville AVA, wines from Favia and Faust are introducing consumers to one of the most exciting up-and-coming appellations in Napa.

For Napa Valley, its diversity is ultimately its strength.

What to Look for With Sonoma County Wines

Sonoma produces plenty of top-notch Cabernet and Chardonnay — Jordan has introduced several generations of wine lovers to the beauty of Sonoma Cab and Chard from its perch in the Alexander Valley AVA. Vérité hits home runs year after year with its three flagship bottlings, including the Cab Franc-based Le Désir, Cab Sauvignon-based La Joie, and the Merlot-based La Muse. ZInfandel also sings in Sonoma, but it's Pinot Noir that seems to get a lot of the attention these days.

This notoriously challenging grape variety doesn't love temperatures that are too hot, and its flavors turn weedy and overly herbal when it's grown in too cold a climate. Its thin skins resist over-extracting, and its higher acidity and more moderate tannins require a deft touch during crush and fermentation.

Still, the natural benefits that Sonoma confers on its Pinot Noir vineyards are almost too varied to cover in their entirety. Take the Russian River Valley, for example, home to some of the most sought-after Pinots in the region. There, fog rolls in along the river, blanketing the vines and keeping them cool into the mid-morning, until it burns off. The result is a longer growing season with more even ripening, and even though it may just be a couple of hours of fog cover many days, that adds up quickly over the course of an entire growing season, leaving a distinct fingerprint on the wines. Producers like Benovia, Gary Farrell, Emeritus, Three Sticks, Williams Selyem, Dutton Goldfield, duMOL, Lynmar, and Kosta Brown take delicious advantage of this in Russian River Valley (and elsewhere), whereas in the Sonoma Coast AVA, producers like Kutch, Peay, and Flowers leverage the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, the winds, and the incredibly varied terroir to craft wines of outstanding nuance and elegance. Then there's Syrah: Ramey, for example, produces terrific ones from Sonoma, particularly the Rodgers Creek Vineyard bottling from the Petaluma Gap.

In Sonoma, as in Napa, the sheer range of terroirs and micro-climates are what make wines from this region so special. And, of course, the people who grow the grapes and make the wines…because neither would happen on its own. (Okay, the grapes would grow, but not in nice rows, with their canopies of leaves carefully managed and their uptake of water assiduously monitored, but you get the idea.)

In the end, the passion, knowledge, and vision of the people responsible for growing the grapes and making the wines in Napa Valley and Sonoma County take the natural advantages of each and transform them into reds and whites that collectors around the world clamor for, and that casual drinkers savor every chance they get. The rewards for everyone are tremendous.

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