Many forward-thinking producers, and the missionaries who preceded them in planting grapes, created a name for the Napa Valley more than 150 years ago. While it has taken a while for other regions to catch up, Sonoma is definitely running a close second in terms of getting to word out to operators about its wines. By current count the Napa Valley has approximately 480 producers, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Association; and Sonoma County 680 bonded wineries, according to Sonoma County Vintners. A few other emerging California regions are giving these two best-known appellations a run for their money, but it will likely still take some time for them to catch up in the eyes of many key chains and their guests.
“California is so diverse in style and climate,” comments Dusty Frierson, wine director of the Purple Parrot Café in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He adds that California wine appellations also carry a comfort factor for many consumers. Part of this stems, in his opinion, from the fact that there can be much less vintage variation in wines from some California regions in comparison with many Old World wine growing areas.
Frierson carries close to 300 wines from Napa and Sonoma that are priced from $60 to $1,500 for Napa wines and $34 to $215 for those from Sonoma. The bulk of the restaurant’s Napa wines are made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot and those from Sonoma are generally produced from the classic duo of chardonnay and pinot noir. He adds that he believes that the state’s incredible complexity of wine producing styles is one of the reasons that so many of its wines appeal to a lot of customers.
“The brands are well known and the AVAs have done a good job in promoting quality over the years,” notes Tylor Field, III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits at Morton’s the Steakhouse and the Oceanaire Seafood Room, which has 71 Morton’s locations and 11 Oceanaire Seafood Rooms and is part of Landry’s, Inc. Field carries approximately 150 wines from both regions, priced from $39 to $3,000.
He adds that the most popular varietal remains cabernet sauvignon, followed by red blends and other red and white varietals. The chain markets its wines by varietal, “but you always know the region in the description.” He also notes that Sonoma’s Russian River Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs tend to be the most popular, along with Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlot.
However Frierson adds that a handful of lesser-known, but solidly acknowledged international grape varietals, are also gaining in interest among his client base. They include petite sirah, viognier and carignan.
Field added that the U.S. consumer is also coming to a solid understanding of the best types of wines that both regions can produce. “America is definitely seeing that pinot noir and chardonnay should be from Sonoma and Bordeaux varietals from Napa. That is how the AVAs are going: Burgundy versus Bordeaux.” In his chain’s restaurants pinot noirs and American Cabernet Sauvignons “rule the roost.”
The Up-and-Coming Region
Sonoma is starting to take on the Napa Valley in terms of the breath of wines that it produces and the value that it offers operators. “Sonoma Country has so much more excitement surrounding its AVAs,” notes Frierson.
Field notes that if the chain’s guests are primarily focused on a high-priced region and if a wine escalates too much in price, “They will move to another AVA.” He adds that many consumers are also recognizing the flavor profile and stylistic differences in wine production between the two regions.
A handful of restaurants located in the Sonoma Valley have also started to specialize in promoting the diversity of the region’s wines. Some like the 49-room Timber Cove Inn, based in Jenner, directly on the Pacific Coast features an entirely Sonoma-focused wine list. The hotel’s restaurant Alexander’s offers 80 wines by the bottle, priced from $25 to $140. Jason W. Gibson, the property’s food and beverage manager, adds that most are examples of pinot noir and chardonnay.He shares his belief that the locally grown, Sonoma Coast-produced wines—that tend to be cooler climate than those produced inland—represent some of the region’s top values and wines that he thinks are frequently less manipulated by winemakers. He adds that currently his list is structured by varietal but will be transitioning to a regional format in the near future. The hotel also features a variety of wine flights that highlight the Sonoma Coast regions’ various microclimates and wine styles.