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Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Dallas
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Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

We did our 6 wine country trip this December. Overall we had a lovely time. We tried to incorporate all of our favorite things but with only 6 nights, we couldn't do it all. First off, we loved mid-December. The weather was exceptional warm during the day and crisp morning and night. A real pleasant surprise. The holiday decorations and lights were an added bonus. We found most areas light on crowds (not including Healdsburg) expect on the weekends and that is to be expected.

On our first visit many years ago we started with just Napa and then with each trip we incorporated more and more of the surrounding areas. Three years ago (trip #4) we had what we considered our "perfect" trip. 1 night in Point Reyes, 3 nights in Healdsburg, 2 nights in St. Helena, 2 nights SF. With Healdsburg being the highlight. This was an anniversary trip so we stayed a little longer than usual. This really gave us a wonderful mix of scenery and activities.

This year we did 2 nights Healdsburg (Vinters Inn, really midway between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg), 3 nights St. Helena (Harvest Inn) and 1 night in SF at the Fairmont.

On this trip we really noticed a difference in Sonoma County. The built up along the freeway has really boomed with strip malls and what appears to be maybe office buildings (right next to the performing arts center), parking in Healdsburg very difficult and restaurant reservations tight. Also, while visiting the new Coppola Winery (great place with lots of movie memoribilla) in the Alexander Valley, there was a very low flying commerial airplane. Traffic was also horrible one the freeway close to the town of Windsor each morning and afternoon. We also had an early morning "wakeup call" from an extremely noisy jet while staying at the Vintners Inn. These are all things that we had never noticed before. We were told by a waitress that they are expanding the Sonoma County airport allowing big jets to land there and we going to a more mass tourism model to bring in more people. Well, I think this is already showing. The area is really losing its appeal.

We then drove over the hill into the upper Napa Valley, what a difference! Calistoga was especially a high light. Very quiet and quaint (what Healdsburg was 20 years ago). St. Helena a little more distinguished with a nice downtown area (even though it is on the main drag) and shops. If you drive around the streets of St. Helena the old Victorian homes are beautiful. While there can be some traffic on the south end of town on the highway it is nothing close to what we encountered in Windsor.

The dining in both areas was equally excellent. We didn't have one bad meal in either area! Definitely top notch!

There was just such a difference between the two areas, so much more than we had ever encountered. It is like commercial industries and strip malls have moved into the agricultural areas of Sonoma County while the upper Napa Valley remains more countryside and quaint.

This will be our last trip staying in the Sonoma County wine country. We will still stay along the coast for a night or two but will then cut straight across through Guernville to Calistoga. It really isn't that long of drive and allow one to spend more time in higher quality areas.

My new recommendation would be land at SFO, cross Golden Gate, take Hwy 1 exit at Mill Valley, drive up the coast, stay 1 night in Bodega Bay or Point Reyes, cut across to Calistoga/St. Helena for 3 nights, then drive south to San Francisco and stay 1 night close to Union Square. This would give you the best of everything. If I had extra nights I would add them either on the coast or maybe a night in Yountville and hit one of their great restaurants.

Just my observations from several trips to each of the areas and now able to do some comparisons. Too bad about Sonoma County, it used to be an unknown backwater, they have over marketed it in my opinion. This mass tourism thing and growing commercial building has ruined the area.

Lassen National...
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1. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Santa Rosa has grown a lot. Did you ever make it to the town of Sonoma?

I don't think it;s over-marketed as much as there is just more people living there. I watched a movie from the 80's about the Dipsea race in Mill Valley & the entire Marin area was practically the boonies with mostly lumbermen & fishermen living there.

Edited: 10:01 am, January 12, 2012
Dallas
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2. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Shoot...How did I fix the spelling of my topic line!

Yes, we have stayed in Sonoma before, it was about 6 years ago however. We liked it but weren't overwhelmed by it. On that particular stay the downtwon area was especially busy and crowded but it was August and their busy season. I actually liked the Kenwood area a little better but nothing is then within walking distance.

Lassen National...
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3. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Ah. I really like Sonoma even though last time I visited there was a heat wave & carrying my dog (Australian Cattle dog!) to the town square to let him get his feet wet, a mailman called out that the pond was for ducks & children. I should have just ignored him. I looked at the green murky water thinking I wouldn't let my son put one toe in that water! Left a bad impression, but there are jerks pretty much everywhere.

Edited: 10:38 am, January 12, 2012
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4. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Thank you for the observations! We really enjoyed our time at The Harvest Inn in St. Helena. Sounds like you had a great time! :)

Napa, CA
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5. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

"I watched a movie from the 80's about the Dipsea race in Mill Valley & the entire Marin area was practically the boonies with mostly lumbermen & fishermen living there."

Do you mean the 1880's? The population of Marin County in 1980 was 222,000. In 2010 it increased to 252,000 and most of this growth was in the Novato area. Marin has been one of the slowest growing counties of any metropolitan area in California.

Napa, CA
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6. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

texaslisa - I think that maybe the choice of the Vintners Inn might not have been the best choice for you. It's right on the freeway at the northern outskirts of Santa Rosa and is very close to the Sonoma County Airport.

The three cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Healdsburg have a population of over 200,000 people. The Hwy 101 corridor is the most populous part of Sonoma County and it has more people than the entire county of Napa. The combined population of the cities of St. Helena, Calistoga, and Angwin in the upper Napa Valley by comparison is just around 15,000 people.

There are other areas of Sonoma County that are much less crowded. The fact is that the wine regions tend to be more spread out in Sonoma and because of that, they tend to receive less traffic than the major wineries of the Napa Valley that are located on Hwy 29.

Your trip report should prove very valuable to visitors planning a trip to the Wine Country and gives a different perspective to the classic Sonoma vs. Napa debate.

Dallas
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7. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

Supercilious-you make a valid point but we have stayed in Healdsburg and just outside of town at a B&B before. We had actually had dinner at John Ash before and really liked the property itself. It is actually a great place and I didn't mind the location off the highway even though I would have preferred a more remote location. We were looking for a little more of a resort stay this time and it did provide that.

It just seems like all of a sudden (over the last 2-3 years) there is an awful lot of "sprawl" that has taken place from Santa Rosa north. And like I stated, where did all of the air traffic come from? I don't think we saw or more importantly heard one plane for our 3 days in the Napa Valley, there is also the annoying helicopter you have and see all day long up and down the Dry Creek and Alexander Valley areas. They must be really cranking up things at their local airport which it looks like will be a horrible mistake. And to think they are looking to bring in big jets now, not the wine tasting environment we are looking for. The waitress was proud of this when she was telling us which tells me the people in the area may be a little out of touch regarding what most wine country visitors are looking for. I just pulled up their local newspaper and there is an article which states exactly what she was telling us is true. It appears the local goverment in Napa is much more concerned with the long term sustainability than Sonoma County.

I guess the important thing for new visitors to understand it that the upper Napa Valley will give you a much more pure experience of what a wine country trip should offer. Also, the drive from Napa into SFO was much easier and less traffic.

Lassen National...
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8. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

ha, ha. No it was 1986. You might be bored watching it if you don't love running. The quality isn't great. But you get a real feel of how quiet the area was.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091677/

Lassen National...
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9. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

It's the through traffic that has made places seem really crazy, not necessarily the population of the town that traffic is traveling by. Hwy 101 and hwy 99 are two examples that I know of.

united states
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10. Re: Sonma County vs. Napa County Observations

An interesting set of observations, texaslisa.

I can't help but notice that your negatives all surround the central corridor of the county-right along the major state highway that goes through the county seat and the urban center. Not sure that it's a fair assessment of the entire county given your focus, but to each their own.

I just wanted to point out that Sonoma County is vast, more than twice the size of Napa Valley, and that there are plenty of areas outside that 101 corridor that are exactly what people want to experience....

Its too bad that you don't feel you can enjoy Sonoma,any longer, but I suspect that Napa's recent resurgence will leave you feeling about the same. Unfortunately "progress" continues and it doesn't always meet the needs/desires of everyone.....