Napa and Sonoma both offer great wines, great food, and incredible experiences, but because there’s so much to do in each county that visitors usually focus on one or the other. Which is the best option for you? Here's a guide for how to choose.
Napa: If name recognition is important, you’ll probably want to head to Napa, where you’ll find Robert Mondavi Winery, Berringer Vineyards, Sutter Home Family Vineyards, Inglenook, and more. The region also has outstanding boutique wineries such as Stags’ Leap Winery and Grgich Hills Estate. Tasting rooms are typically more elaborate and crowded than in Sonoma -- and tastings subsequently more expensive.
Sonoma: Its labels may not be as recognizable to casual drinkers, but Sonoma has an impressive line-up, too. You can sample wines from Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, Rodney Strong Vineyards, and Gloria Ferrer Winery. Sonoma’s tasting rooms are often more intimate and tastings less expensive. You can even taste for free at some establishments, like Korbel Champagne Cellars.
Napa: Only nine restaurants in the United States boast coveted Michelin three-star ratings. Two of them are in Napa: The French Laundry ($295) and the Restaurant at Meadowood resort ($225 for a 10-course tasting menu). Napa also has a slew of one-star restaurants including Auberge du Soleil, Bouchon, Redd, Etoile, SolBar, Terra, and La Toque. That’s not to mention the outstanding restaurants that have flown under the Michelin radar or the dining experiences at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena.
Sonoma: Farm-to-table and sustainability are the buzzwords here. Check out ZaZu Kitchen + Farm’s amazing bacon and salumi -- not a typo! -- or the wine and food pairing at St. Francis Winery & Vineyard ($50), voted the “#1 restaurant in America” by OpenTable. Other great restaurants include Cyrus, The Girl & The Fig, The Fremont Diner, and Spoonbar.
Things to Do
Napa: Activities in Napa skew cultural. Don’t miss The Hess Collection Contemporary Art Museum, located at The Hess Collection Winery and Vineyards, or di Rosa, a collection of 2,000 works of art by more than 800 artists. For live entertainment, head to the Uptown Theatre in downtown Napa or the Napa Valley Opera House. The Oxbow Public Market also has live music as well as cooking demonstrations, wine and beer tastings, and a farmers market.
Sonoma: Outdoor enthusiasts have plenty of recreational activities in Sonoma. Hike at Jack London State Historic Park and Armstrong Redwoods State Park, raft the Russian River, or zipline through the redwoods with Sonoma Canopy Tours. The less adventurous can stroll along the Doran Beach in Bodega Bay or revisit their childhood at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, aka “the Snoopy museum.”
Napa: Room rates in Napa can be a bit shocking. During peak season, expect to pay at least $850 per night at Meadowood, $925 per night at Calistoga Ranch, and $975 per night at Auberge du Soleil -- and that’s just for starters. You don’t have to look hard to find rooms topping $4,000 per night. More reasonable options exist with a careful search, though, such as $280 rooms at Silverado Resort and Spa or $315 ones at Vino Bello Resort.
Sonoma: In general, Sonoma is more modest. You’ll still find high-end luxury at The Farmhouse Inn ($800) and Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa ($635), but you can also book upscale experiences for much less at Kenwood Inn and Spa ($420), H2 Hotel ($415), and Vintner’s Inn ($325). Budget travelers have the option of staying at economical chains or campgrounds and RV parks.
Napa: If it’s your first time to California wine country and you want to visit familiar wineries, opt for Napa. Just be prepared to pay for the experience and deal with the crowds. Napa is also a good choice for romance -- you can tour an art gallery, take an early morning balloon ride over the vineyards, or unwind with a couples massage.
Sonoma: If you want to discover new wines or visit a winery where the owner or winemaker (instead of a hired hand) might be pouring tastes, head to Sonoma. The region is also a great option travelers concerned about the environment -- Sonoma has committed to become the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region by 2019.