Magazine article Sunset

Wine Country CRUSH

Magazine article Sunset

Wine Country CRUSH

Article excerpt

Sonoma or Napa? Two rivals slug it out over which wine country has the juice.

THE CASE FOR SONOMA The county's 1,576 square miles are a sprawling garden of organic produce, free-range meats, and since 1824, grapes. (George Yount planted Napa's first vines in the 1830s, using Sonoma cuttings.) Napa offers the thrill of tasting wines few can afford and eating trendy food cooked by the employees of celebrity chefs. In Sonoma, you can access countryside, towns, and tasting rooms - sans appointment - to try some of the most distinctive and innovative wines available. True, pockets have trended upscale. Limos? Check. Celebs like Lady Gaga looking to buy? Check. But at heart, this is authentic country open to visitors - casual and wine snob alike.

Western Sonoma County's Rod Smith is a two-time James Beard award winner ior wine writing.

THE CASE FOR NAPA Yes, it's crowded; yes, it's pricey; yes, you'll sit in traffic behind a limousine full of purple-grinning day-tasters from Germany, but there's a perfectly sound reason for that: Napa Valley is the best wine region in the New World. Period. Back when our neighbors to the west were taking the prune market by storm, Napa was uncorking our national appetite for fermented grape juice, giving it a seat at the table alongside the great wines of Europe. Each year about 4 million visitors ply the vineyard-dense valley to sip our Cabernet, dine at our Michelin-starred restaurants, and rest their light heads in our luxury hotels. They come to visit the wine country, and that means two words: Napa Valley.

Napa-bred Heather John was wine editor at Bon Appétit until 2010.

SONOMA vs. NAPA

WINE

* The last time we were challenged to a smackdown was the Judgment of Paris wine tasting of 1976, when Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena beat France's big-gun wineries in a blind tasting that put California wine on the global map. And while our blockbuster reds are indeed legendary (Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Sloan), there's more to Napa than pretty cult Cab. Think peppery Turley Zinfandel, Paloma's rich Merlots, and ethereal Sauvignon Blancs from Randy Mason. Think win, win, win. score: 9

* No, we're not synonymous with a single grape. That's the point. Each of Sonoma's 13 AVAs has its specialties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast), Cabernet (Alexander and Sonoma Valleys). Don't forget Zinfandel, which was practically invented in our Dry Creek Valley. Cult wines? Williams SeIyem's statuesque Pinots, Hanzell's minerally Chardonnay, Vérité's perfect Bordeaux blends, Silver Oak's ... yes, that's right - when the Napa star expanded, it chose the Alexander Valley, score: 8

TASTING ROOMS

* They call Napa "Disneyland for adults." That's because it's a magical place where you can make an appointment with David Arthur to sip wine on the front patio of his vineyard. Or tunnel into Del Dotto Vineyards' 127year-old candelit cave for an intimate barrel tasting. Or go to the Fellini-meets-Vegas fun rooms at Raymond Vineyards to sample Cabernet beneath Baccarat chandeliers. Two glasses in, and you'll swear you've found the Happiest Place on Earth, SCORE: 8

* Our rooms are welcoming, typically uncrowded, and have tastings from free to $20 at most. There are big stops, but they're fun: Kendall-Jackson offers as much for heirloom-tomato geeks as wine snobs; Simi's pizza cafe is reason enough to drop in. Or go outdoors with a hilltop tasting at Copain, or at rustic-chic Medlock Ames, where the action's centered around the picnic table. Wish you were sitting in traffic? Didn't think so. SCORE: 9

INNOVATION

* Napa Valley has always led with innovation, whether it was Robert Mondavi aggressively marketing Napa wines by varietal in the '60s (the standard today for New World wines) or Amigo Bob Cantisano leading the charge in the organic movement in the mid-'8os, to John Shafer creating one of the country's first ioo percent solarpowered wineries. …

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