Many forward-thinking wine producers—and the missionaries who preceded them in planting grapes—created a name for the Napa Valley more than 150 years ago. And Sonoma is running a close second in terms of getting the word out to restaurant operators and consumers about its wines.
The Napa Valley now includes about 480 wine producers, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Association, while Sonoma County has 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.
“California is so diverse in style and climate,” says Dusty Frierson, wine director of the Purple Parrot Café in Hattiesburg, MS. The Purple Parrot carries nearly 300 wines from Napa and Sonoma priced from $60 to $1,500 for Napa wines and $34 to $215 for those from Sonoma.
Increased consumer awareness
The bulk of the Purple Parrot’s Napa wines are made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The wines it carries from Sonoma are generally produced from the classic duo of chardonnay and pinot noir. Frierson thinks that California’s incredible complexity of wine-producing styles is one reason that so many of its wines appeal to a lot of customers.
California wine appellations also carry a comfort factor for many consumers, he notes. Part of this is that there tends to be less vintage variation in wines from some California regions, compared with many Old World wine-growing areas, Frierson believes.
When it comes to Napa and Sonoma wines, it also helps that “the brands are well known, and the AVAs have done a good job in promoting quality over the years,” says Tylor Field, III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits at Morton’s the Steakhouse and the Oceanaire Seafood Room.
Part of Landry’s, Morton’s operates 71 locations and Oceanaire Seafood Rooms has 11. Field carries approximately 150 wines from Napa and Sonoma, priced from $39 to $3,000.
The chain markets its wines by varietal, “but you always know the region in the description,” Field says. The most popular varietal remains cabernet sauvignon, followed by red blends and other red and white varietals; Sonoma’s Russian River chardonnays and pinot noirs are attractive to guests as well.
The U.S. consumer is also coming to a solid understanding of the best types of wines that both regions can produce, Field says. “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.”
But Frierson has found that a handful of lesser-known, but solidly acknowledged international grape varietals are gaining in interest among his client base. These include petite sirah, viognier and carignan.
Sonoma steps it up
Sonoma is starting to take on the Napa Valley in terms of the breath of wines that it produces and also the value that it offers operators. “Sonoma Country has so much more excitement surrounding its AVAs,” notes Frierson.
Field notes that if Mortons’ guests are primarily focused on a high-priced region, and if a wine escalates too much in price, “they will move to another AVA.” Many consumers are also recognizing the flavor profile and stylistic differences in wine production between the two regions, he adds.
A handful of restaurants located in the Sonoma Valley have started to specialize in promoting the diversity of the region’s wines. For instance, the 49-room Timber Cove Inn, based on the Pacific Coast in Jenner, CA, features an entirely Sonoma-focused wine list.
The hotel’s restaurant Alexander’s offers 80 wines by the bottle, priced from $25 to $140. Most are examples of pinot noir and chardonnay, says Jason W. Gibson, the property’s food and beverage manager.
The locally grown, Sonoma Coast-produced wines, which tend to be cooler climate than those produced inland, represent some of the region’s top values, Gibson says. He also thinks these wines are less manipulated by winemakers.
Timber Cove’s wine list is now structured by varietal, but Gibson says it 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. ·
Sonoma Fast Facts
Major AVAs: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley
Growing conditions: A wide variety of microclimates, many with much cooler temperatures than Napa, moderated by water and coastal exposure
Popular varietals: Pinot noir, chardonnay
Major vineyards and wineries: Benzinger, Bonterra, Gloria Ferrer, Fetzer, Ravenswood, Sebastiani
Napa Fast Facts
Major AVAs: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Stags Leap, Calistoga
Growing conditions: Long growing season with sunny days and cool evenings, enormous diversity of microclimates within the region
Popular varietals: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and other reds
Major vineyards and wineries: Beringer Vineyards, Domaine Chandon, Hess, Robert Mondavi, Sterling, Stag’s Leap, Silverado