The Difference Between Napa and Sonoma

Sonoma winery road signsCall Small Lot Wine ToursIf you saw this title and thought this article would be a bashing session on Napa, you will be disappointed. I am a Napa native. I love Napa. I don’t believe you have to bash Napa in order to talk about why Sonoma is awesome. That’s like bashing the beach so you can point out how awesome the mountains are. That’s crazy. The beach and the mountains are totally different and yet equally wonderful. That’s what this article will focus on.


Map of Sonoma & Napa CountiesThe first way that Sonoma is different than Napa is that it’s about twice the size of Napa, and that’s only because East Napa has a bunch of land around Lake Berryessa that is hardly accessible. Sonoma starts in the Carneros reagion, goes all the way up to Cloverdale and stretches all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. Within Sonoma County you get mountains, valleys, redwood forest, rivers, and the coast. You can spend 2 hours driving and still be in Sonoma Country. People often make the mistake of thinking they can visit wineries in Sonoma Coast, Dry Creek, and Carneros all in one day. We also see people make a hotel reservation in Santa Rosa with dinner plans in Sonoma Town. They may look close on a map, but they aren’t that close.


Wine bottles from Sonoma & NapaSonoma has more diversity in the grapes they grow. As we mentioned Sonoma is quite large. That means it has very diverse climates and soil types from one end to the other. Carneros, Russian River, and Sonoma Coast are the cooler climates so they are best known for pinot noir and chardonnay. However, one end of Russian River butts up against Dry Creek Valley, so that part of the Russian River area can grow zinfandel or even cabernet. The same goes for Carneros. I personally have always been a big fan of Carneros Merlot. But the Sonoma Coast region pretty much is just pinot noir and chardonnay. If you want a Napa-like cab Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Valley are for you. If you like Zinfandel and fruity cabs, you should spend the day in the dry creek valley. There is truly something for everyone in Sonoma County.


The old Sonoma MissionSonoma has wonderful and important California history. In the town of Sonoma, right on the square, is Mission San Francisco Solano. The last mission built in California. Across the street from the mission are the Mexican Army barracks. Across the street from that is a monument of the Bear Flag Revolt, the small revolt that led to California becoming a state. If you keep going down the street you can visit General Vallejo’s home. For about $5 you can see everything and learn about our history.

old mature wine grape vinesNot only does Sonoma have California history, it is covered with important wine history. Buena Vista is the oldest winery in California established in 1857. Korbel was not far behind, popping up on the scene in 1882 to make champagne. But even more fascinating to me are the old vine vineyards you can see while driving all over Sonoma county. (Napa has them too, but not nearly as many as Sonoma). You can tell an old vine vineyard because the vines are individual bushes with big gnarly trunks and branches. Most of these are zinfandel. Most old vine zinfandel vineyards are actually field blends. Field blends are a mish mash of all types of grapes that are grown together, harvested together, and fermented together. Acorn Winery is a great place to visit and learn about field blends.


Bodega Bay in Sonoma CountySonoma County has a long coastline and Bodega Bay. If you’ve had enough wine for the day and just want to relax at the beach you can go to Doran Beach. If you get hungry you can go to Spud’s Point for the best clam chowder ever. Many guests like to go to Armstrong Woods and see our wonderful redwood trees. Or if it’s summer and you want to float down the river there are many places where you can do that down the Russian River, including downtown Healdsburg.

Sonoma is a wonderful and diverse county and we always recommend that folks who visit Napa also spend a day or two in Sonoma. The experiences are NOT the same, though they are both wonderful and beautiful in their own way and both have the best wines made in California, maybe even the world!

Tips on Tipping while Tasting in Wine Country

TipsI am often asked by my guests if they should tip the winery host when they do a wine tasting. The answer is no longer a simple “no” like it was when I first started in this industry back in the 90’s.

My first tasting room job was at Franciscan Winery in 1998. My hourly wage was about $10 per hour. I made no commission on sales but I did receive bonuses on wine club sign ups. Tasting fees were $5 for the regular tasting and $10 for the reserve. The Mt. Veeder Reserve was about $50 per bottle and Quintessa, which was a part of the Franciscan Family at that time, was about $95 per bottle. The official policy at that time was NO TIPS ACCEPTED. We were told to discourage and refuse tips unless it became more awkward to refuse it than it was to just take it.

My next job was at Sutter Home doing hospitality (dinners and special events and inn keeping). I made about $14 per hour. At Sutter Home not only were we not supposed to accept tips but if one was left anyways we were to turn it over to our manager and they in turn would donate it to charity.

In 2008 I started working at Hartwell Vineyards. Our tasting fee was $25 per person ($45 for a tour). This was quite high at the time. I made $18 per hour plus commission. We officially did not solicit tips but when we received one, unexpectedly, it made our day. My co-worker (there were only 2 of us there), Jona, and I would pool our tips together and go to dinner. We only went to dinner once because tips were far and few between.

One day Jona and I visited Quintessa, which was now no longer a part of Franciscan. The bottle was now about $150 per bottle and tastings were about $75 per person. The guy doing our tour said he made a lot of money in tips. Jona and I looked at each other. Tips? It was strange to us that tips were even mentionable. The guy told us they were allowed to have tips. We also learned that it had become customary to tip at sparkling wine houses because they do table service.

Year by year the standard and expectation of tipping changes. It’s been 6 years since I worked in a tasting room so I asked my friends and colleagues who do tours and tastings for tasting rooms their expectations on tips. I received a lot of feedback. Those who are newer in the industry said they rely on tips to supplement their income. Those who were old school like me said it was not expected or customary. People who are consumers also gave me feedback. They said if they are expected to tip at a restaurant or bar why not at a tasting room? Others said that buying wine and paying the tasting fee should be enough. Then there was the question of how much to tip. Is 20% the standard? And 20% on what? The purchase or the tasting fee? Should wineries include tip lines? If so how would they split the tips up like they do in the restaurant industry? I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people and these are the conclusions I came to regarding tipping at tastings:

* If you do a tasting and receive good service but do not buy wine, you should leave a tip.

* If you receive exceptional service from your winery host and want to make their day, leave a tip.

* Tips are not expected but hugely appreciated.

* There is no standard of how much the tip should be so it’s completely up to you and what you can or cannot afford.

* You should feel no pressure or feel obligated to leave a tip since there is not yet an industry standard.

Look at it this way, tipping in wine country is what the whole concept of tipping is supposed to be, a way of saying “Hey, that was a great experience and I appreciate you.” It’s not like tipping servers who get paid a lower hourly wage because tips are considered the main portion of their salary. It’s kind of like when you go to a foreign country and tipping is not customary but the person serving you knows you are American and so they hope you might tip them. Then when you do you put a huge smile on their face and they tell all their friends. Well tipping in wine country is like that. So go ahead, make their day and leave a tip!