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It’s All About Location!

Comparing Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

When most American wine drinkers think Cabernet Sauvignon, they think Napa Valley. As a former Marketing Director of the Napa Valley Vintners trade association, I can testify to what a great job the NVV has done in marketing itself as the epicenter and stylistic expression of American Cabernet Sauvignon.

And what exactly is the stylistic expression that Napa Valley has made famous? The 1st word that comes to mind is big: big fruit, big flavor, big tannins. A typical Napa Cabernet Sauvignon has pronounced aromas of berries, a warming, mouthcoating richness and an end note of throat prickling tannin. It is a style that practically begs for steak.

How are Sonoma Valley Cabernets different? If I had to go with one word again, it would be soft. A typical Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon tends to lead with more red fruit than Napa’s black – think raspberry/cherry rather than blackberry/blueberry. In the mouth, the flavors are rich without being as big and mouthcoating and the tannins tend to be more subtle. Sonoma Mountain, a small appellation nested within Sonoma Valley, in particular produces Cabernet Sauvignon with a lift of acidity that gives an overall palate perception of freshness. These are wines which complement a wider range of dishes than just steak. The Sonoma Mountain Cabernets of Laurel Glen Vineyard are a great pairing with, just off the top of my head: salmon, moussaka, roast chicken, chili, anything with mushrooms, minestrone soup, and (ok, you got me) steak.

How can Cabernets grown within 10 miles of each other taste different? (The driving distance between Far Niente in Oakville and Hamel Family in Glen Ellen is 14 miles. Crows, flying direct, would shave off several miles lost to twists and turns.) Wine style is more directly influenced by climate and soil – i.e. Terroir – than any other single factor (and yes, that includes the winemaker factor!) Here in California’s North Coast, the single greatest influence on wine style is the Pacific Ocean. It’s simple: the closer your vineyard lies to this enormous body of cold water, the cooler the climate will be and the more heavily influenced by wind and fog.

Laurel Glen Vineyard, on the western edge of the Sonoma Valley, sits about 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean and due east of the Petaluma Gap, perhaps the most important geographic feature affecting wine style. The Petaluma Gap is a sizeable break in the mountain range that hugs the coast of Northern California, named for its proximity to the town of Petaluma. The Gap funnels cold air from the Pacific Ocean eastward, bathing the coastal plain that lies between the Coastal range and Sonoma Mountain in wind and fog. The western flank of Sonoma Mountain, facing the Petaluma Gap, is ideal for cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The eastern flank of Sonoma Mountain enjoys Pacific breezes but not much fog, allowing warmer climate grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen.

Oakville, the heart of the Napa Valley, is less than 20 miles east of Laurel Glen Vineyard. But you have to scale the Mayacamas mountains to get there. There are too many mountains separating the Napa Valley from the Petaluma Gap to allow for much influence directly from the Pacific Ocean.  The mild coastal influence enjoyed by Napa’s vineyard comes almost entirely from the San Pablo Bay to the south, a body of water that also rims the Sonoma Valley. Napa Valley opens up to the Bay at its south end, as Sonoma Valley does, but it has no outlet in the north. Only the Vaca mountain range along its eastern flank protects Napa from California’s notoriously hot Central Valley

The relative proximity of Laurel Glen Vineyard to the Pacific Ocean and the fact that the vineyard is planted in rocky, volcanic soils at an elevation of 1,000 feet directly influences the style of our Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Pacific breezes felt on Sonoma Mountain, particularly in the afternoon, keep temperatures from reaching the heights they can further inland, resulting in ripeness levels that never tip into over ripe and never lose that lift of acidity. The rocky, volcanic soils provide excellent drainage, keeping berry size small and concentrated.

Of course, comparing Sonoma Valley Cabernet to Napa Valley Cabernet is a little like comparing mandarin oranges to grapefruit. In terms of sheer size, Napa County is about one sixth the size of Sonoma County. In terms of concentration in wine grapes, however, Sonoma County barely beats out Napa: 60,000 acres planted to vineyard vs. Napa’s 45,000 acres. And in terms of acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa is the heavyweight (aka grapefruit), with over half their vineyard land planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (24,000 acres) vs. a mere 21% in Sonoma (12,700 acres.) That’s Sonoma County, by the way. Sonoma Valley (aka mandarin orange) has only about 1,000 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, about a third of those within the Sonoma Mountain AVA, home to Laurel Glen Vineyard’s 14 acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard.