A recent article by Melia Robinson of the Business Insider compares Sonoma and Napa counties and concludes that Napa, while more expensive, offers the better Wine Country experience.
As part of her research, Robinson did a jaunt up to Northern California, spending one day in Napa Valley and the other in Sonoma County. She endeavored to find out why tourist dollars have risen more swiftly in Sonoma County than Napa Valley (according to a recent economic impact report, travelers spent $1.9 billion in Sonoma County, compared with $1.3 billion in Napa County in 2016) and compared the experiences by factoring in tastings and price to determine the winner of the tourist competition. In both areas, Robinson visited two to three wineries where she tried a chardonnay and a house specialty. In the end, she enjoyed Sonoma County’s relaxed vibe and flexibility (compared to the Disneyland-feel of Napa Valley), but maintained that “Napa remains king.”
While interesting, Robinson’s article fails to acknowledge an important compass in Wine Country travel – your palate.
I read a lot of stories comparing Sonoma County and Napa Valley, but frankly this type of rivalry completely misses the point. As more and more visitors to Wine Country come here with far more than a passing interest in wine, we are now seeing a paradigm shift in Wine Country vacations toward “Palate Travel.” The driving force behind this shift are sophisticated Millennials, who roughly range in age between 21 and 31. They know their likes and dislikes and are intent on pointing their palate in the right direction. (A 2015 national survey by Dr. Liz Thach of Sonoma State University found 30 percent of Millennials said they had traveled to wineries to taste wine, compared to 18 percent of Gen-Xers and 17 percent of Boomers).
As co-author of the Explorer’s Guide to Napa & Sonoma, I have witnessed the trend of this savvy new traveler who lets taste set the course.
Pinot noir fanatics want to explore the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, both in Sonoma County, and the Carneros, a sprawling region at the base of both Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
Cabernet-lovers, meanwhile, want to venture into to Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, and Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District, Oakville and Rutherford.
Palate travelers do not let geography set their course – taste always trumps county lines.
But if you want to argue logistics, here’s a point you can’t ignore. It’s easy for travelers to roam through Napa Valley and Sonoma County within minutes or even nanoseconds. My best example of the later, of course, is Pride Mountain Vineyards. Perched 2,100 feet atop the Mayacamas Mountains, this winery’s crush pad runs along the county line so tourists can stand with one foot in Napa Valley and one foot in Sonoma County. Yet another example is the Carneros region, which has Napa Valley and Sonoma County portions side by side. A longer stretch, but certainly feasible, is the distance between Napa Valley’s Calistoga and Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, a mere 29 miles.
With all this in mind, I challenge you, Ms. Robinson, to acknowledge the paradigm shift brought on by the Palate Traveler, the ultimate Millennial disruptor. Palate Travelers would never opt for Napa Valley over Sonoma County or vice versa. They roam throughout Wine Country, drinking it in region by region.