Tips on Planning Your First Trip to Napa and Sonoma

Oh heeeey, summertime! I bet you were just as excited as I was when the season officially arrived. I love summer. It’s my favourite out of the four seasons. It is THE season for us winos, isn’t it? You don’t even need an excuse to drink. Hey, the sun’s out and it’s warm. Let’s have drinks on the patio!

Before summer came along, I visited the Okanagan and then Napa and Sonoma two weekends after. I loved both trips. I was completely in my element, tasting wines all day and thoroughly enjoying discussions with those who shared the passion and the history behind the winery and the regions.

Napa and Sonoma Valleys are neighbouring AVAs and although they’re right beside each other, their microclimates produce different wines. Indeed, you’ll find big bold Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa, while in Sonoma the Cabs there are softer.

I have three tips and insight you may want to consider if you plan on visiting.

Don’t try to see it all

There was a lot I could’ve done if I had more time, but I was only at each region for one day. It can be overwhelming. There’s lots to cover both geographically and  in wineries if you want to do it all (or a lot).

Sonoma-county-map

Map of Sonoma County & AVAs

Based on my travel experience (and I’ve done my fair share; it’s another passion of mine), the best thing to do is to pick a small area, slow down and enjoy.

Sonoma wineries and tasting rooms.

Impossible to go to all these tasting rooms, even if you are there for a few days.

Don’t confuse the county with the AVA

The WSET book doesn’t explain this very well, so I’ll make it clear here. County is the political and administrative division within a state. There’s Napa county ad there’s Sonoma county. But there’s also Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley AVA which lie within the respective counties along with other AVAs.

Napa is nice, but so is Sonoma for a fraction of the price.

You have to visit Napa though, especially if you love high quality Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is king there. But because everyone knows about Napa, everyone goes there. It’s simply supply and demand.

Robert Mondavi

At the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley. California’s wine was put on the map by this man.

Napa was more chic whereas I’d call Sonoma rustic. Way back in the day, tasting rooms in Napa used to be free, then they charged a small fee. Now, expect to pay at least $20 per person. There are also two tiered tastings offered. In Sonoma, tastings were $5-$10 per person and some were even free.

Are you headed to Napa and/or Sonoma? If you have any questions, please leave me a comment.

Don’t be tricked by the wine label

The bf and I felt like enjoying a big red this past weekend as we were settling in to a quiet Friday night at home. So we pulled this bottle from our always dwindling, yet constantly restocked wine rack…

Calfornia Cabernet Sauvignon… a Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Sonoma Valley. Upon sniffing, I detected the typical Cab Sav notes: green pepper, black cherry and with further sniffing I smelled vanilla. Then I taste it.

Huh?

It was dry. I definitely tasted the black cherry, along with ripe black fruit, but what I was craving, which were the strong tannins, the full body, and hopefully the long finish (typically what you would get with a good Cab Sauv)… nada. Instead the body felt more like med to high and the tannins medium. The finish was medium, too.

How can this be? I looked at the label closely. Oh shit, it says vintner’s blend, which means other grapes have been used to make this wine. I suspect Merlot grapes and maybe even Zinfandel was thrown in the mix. Merlot is often blended with Cab Sauvs to soften the wine, which explains the medium tannins and body. And really thinking about it, the vanilla and slight hint of jammyness could’ve come from Zinfandel. Who knows though, unless you ask Ravens Wood.

If other grapes are used, why aren’t they on the label? Well, it’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and they did mention it’s the vintner’s blend. The highlighting of the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal is a marketing tactic. People buy what they recognize.

In the US, in order to have a grape varietal appear on the label, at least 75% of the wine in the bottle was made with it. The other 25% can be any varietal and indicating them is not required.

Oregon, though, dictates a higher percentage be used in order for it to be labelled a Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc wine. 90% is the magic number. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is an exception at a minimum of 75%. I have no idea why that’s the case.

Now, if you think you are finally getting the hang of it and starting to be able to distinguish the characteristics of certain varietals and come across a new world wine that isn’t what you expected, this could be why.

Ravens Wood retails for $17.99 at the BC Liquor Store. If you’re reading this from the US, go ahead gasp and laugh! Prices are ridiculous here in Canada, particularly in British Columbia.

Have you been tricked by a wine label?