Remember Jan from the Brady Bunch? She was the less pretty, less popular younger sister of the sparkling Marcia Brady. While she only melted down once during her four seasons of second class status, (recall the classic “Marcia Marcia Marcia!” episode of season 3), her insecurities were a constant.
We Californians have another, perhaps lesser-known rivalry, right in our front yard – that of the wine producing regions of Sonoma and Napa counties. (Yes, the Napa wine-as-buxom-blonde analogy has been done and overdone, but bear with me here). When it comes to wine production, Napa has historically been like Marcia – sexy and popular. Sonoma has been more like Jan – smart and pretty, but a little insecure. Fortunately, this may be changing.
This rivalry between the sister Northern California wine regions isn’t new, it’s been going on for more than a century. Despite its technically being the first to grow wine grapes, and its wonderful coast-side clime for producing nuanced fruit juice, Sonoma County has never quite accrued the acclaim, sales, or tourist dollars so enjoyed by its neighbor to the east. While Napa cabernets and chardonnays enjoyed worldwide recognition after the (in)famous Paris Wine Tasting in 1976, and reveled in a sales spike thanks to the flush of Silicon Valley cash in the 1990s, many Sonoma wineries were quietly producing delicate pinots and more complex chardonnays to the appreciation of a quieter (albeit loyal) fan base.
However, with the release of the now-overexposed movie “Sideways” in 2004, pinot noir became increasingly hip and desirable The reflected glow of the film not only benefited the lesser known wine region to the south – Santa Barbara County (Cindy Brady, if you will) – but also, pinot-producing Sonoma.
Pinot noir grows well in Sonoma thanks to, among other factors, the cool ocean fog. But so do several other grapes (including zinfandel and syrah). In fact, the climate, geology and weather patterns of both Napa and Sonoma are conducive to the distinct variations of terroir so valued by traditional wine lovers. But the dominant red grape in Napa is cabernet sauvignon, and though the area enjoys plenty of microclimates and soil variations, it has been criticized for producing an increasingly homogenous product. When wine geeks and huffy Frenchmen talk about the unfortunate rise of industrialized (or “indoor”) wines, they’re often referring to the big, oily, fruit bomb productions coming out of the well-marketed, glass-and-wood wineries that dot highway 29 in the Napa Valley.
Of course there are many excellent Napa wines out there, including several outstanding cabernets. But given that Napa wines, on average, have risen significantly in price over the last 10 years (due in large part to said aggressive marketing and that glossy, sexy image), and that there are a lot of mediocre $50 cabs being poured for clots of tourists on any given sunny day, Sonoma wines are just the better value. For now. Of course, as Sonoma vintners produce bigger, bolder reds, they may grow into their sister’s shoes. And if and when those bottle prices skyrocket…well, we’ve still got Cindy.