Napa vs. Sonoma.
Soon after the Napa Valley Wine Train began making its excursion runs north from the town of Napa to St. Helena and back, with gourmet dinners and Napa wine served in its dining car, two masked men jumped on board and announced they were commandeering the train.
Not taking it anywhere, mind you; just serving a little Sonoma County wine. In mid-journey, they jumped off the train before they were captured.
The men were Jim Bundschu, owner of the Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, and his wine maker, Lance Cutler.
I wish they'd taken the train back over there," says John Williams, owner of Frog's Leap Winery, a Napan blessed with a wry sense of humor. (Few wine makers are enamored with the wine train.)
Williams was greatly amused by the antics of the Sonomans in taking over the train to promote wine from "the other wine country," but many of his brethren were irked by the audacity of the act. One, who asked for anonymity, called it "brazenly absurd," and added that it was "a typical bush-league move."
OVER THE HILLS
But in Sonoma, a few miles over the hills to the west, they had a good laugh, and hoped more Sonomans would show off their sense of good fun and tweak the uptight, yupscalers from the valley of gold.
Napa and Sonoma. They are California's two leading wine regions, and each has its bragging points.
Taken as a single unit, Napa and Sonoma now offer the nation some of the world's finest wines from their combined 100,000 acres of prime vineyard land--from high atop Howell Mountain with merlot that commands attention to the farthest reaches of the Russian River and its pinot noirs that rival Burgundy.
The petty bickering all comes down to one thing: local pride has kept standards high. It is what has helped make this vast, once-remote pastureland, prune orchard and forested hillside district one of the world's most interesting wine country regions, and a source of national pride and great wine.
But if you live in either spot, or spend a lot of time in each and pay close attention, you can hear the irritation for "those guys over there" in people's inflections, tonalities, and emotions.
This is a rivalry, no doubt about it, and one that seems to fester on many levels. And one that's not going away.
Napa makes cabernet sauvignon of such a high order that prices for the best have risen to the hundreds of dollars, and are in demand by collectors. And they have created a lot of animosity throughout the wine industry, wrinkled the brows of Sonoma cabernet makers, and forced the retail and restaurant trades to reassess their policies of wine marketing.
Sonoma makes such a wide array of great wine, from a diversity of climates, that some wine makers have never met their county cohorts because they work in completely different circles, either varietally or regionally.
The tension between the two regions is evident from the way they speak about each other. Usually, it's not terribly complimentary.
Napans rarely bring up Sonoma without being prodded. They are the target of the world's vinous spotlight, so why chat about the less-than-lucky Sonomans, often viewed as a snot-nosed cousin who's really not related to moi.
Sonoma folk, for the most part are a bit less self-conscious about their achievements. But they do snort a bit about all the attention that goes over the hills to the east. They are, frankly, a bit jealous.
WE'RE NO. 1
yet they certainly don't want the negatives that come with being No. 1. And Napa has its albatrosses, such as being the target of environmental lawsuits from the Sierra Club, and being raked over searing coals in books like "The Far Side of Eden," in which author James Conaway views many in Napa as egocentric, outrageously wealthy louts, members of what he calls a lucky sperm club, folks who merely want to pillage the land in their greedy quest for greater self-aggrandizement.
Some old-timers in Sonoma love to point out that the two-decade-old Napa Valley Wine Auction, which today is viewed as the most upscale of all bacchanalian parties, started only after Sonoma had announced it would do a charity auction first. Napa folk heard about it and jumped into the fray the same year.
But Sonomans get spittin' mad when, for instance, a local newspaper columnist points out that one of Sonoma's most famed restaurant placements, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, is listed on an upscale New York restaurant wine list as being from Napa Valley. And they get just as irate when a San Francisco newspaper does a huge feature story on wine country and Sonoma gets three sentences; the rest is about the Napa winery with the 32,000-square-foot mansion and its four fireplaces, wine caves, limos in front, and the gourmet chef flown in from Paris for a private wine dinner.
Not that they wouldn't like that sort of publicity. It's just that Sonoma tends to be a lot more laid back. Oh, it has its wealthy set, its candelabra dinners with tuxedos and foie gras. But more than anything, they'll tell you that Sonoma is a diverse culture that makes real wine. Wine you can drink and afford.
Not that Napa doesn't also make sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and chardonnay. It does. But when the wine competitions are complete for another year and a range of wine-making is considered, Sonoma always comes out way ahead. This is simply because Sonoma still makes glorious gewurztraminer (Napa makes almost none), remarkable riesling (Napa makes far less), and a whole lot more exciting wines, like barbera, zinfandel, syrah, and numerous other varietal wines. Napa has become a one-grape region (cabernet sauvignon), and that seems enough to keep the world's searchlights focused.
What Napa has had for decades, however, is far ore precious than just the lure of cabernet. It as the perception of a heritage of fine wine that dates back, in the minds of many Americans, a half century to a Broadway musical called "Most Happy Fella."
The show about an Italian family opened on May 3, 1956, and told the tale of Tony who proposes by mail to Rosabella. The show-stopping tune of the musical included the line, "'m the most happy fella, in the whole Napa Valley," an idyllic image that stayed with theatergoers for decades.
Almost exactly 10 years after opening of that play, another Italian by the name of Robert Mondavi opened his own Napa Valley winery and began to fly around the country telling why he was time most happy fella in the whole Napa Valley.
And he was no Johnny Appleseed, walking here and there with his wares. He was a jet plane touching down in every city and burg from here to Harrisburg, carrying the message of the greatness of Napa Valley wine.
To this day, people associated with the wine industry acknowledge the impact Mondavi has had on California wine.
Yet if you talk to many Sonomans today, many would take issue with the message of Bob's vinous hegira. They might not say it in stentorian tones, but they'll quietly remind you that the Napa jet always seemed to flame out as it flew west. There was no vapor trail in their neighborhood on the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains, they'll say. All the glitter that Mondavi spread fell gently on Napa's forest-green hillsides.
And thus was born a bit of envy and enmity on the western side. "We have the grapes and we make great wine, and they get all the ink," groused one Sonoma wine maker about six years ago during a lull in an otherwise festive evening.
To which John Williams of Frog's Leap quips, "Well there's the Napa Valley and there's "not exactly."'
SONOMA ON THEIR MINDS
So some Sonoma folks, seeing the proliferation of NAPA signs for the, automobile parts group, now have a saying, Sonoma makes great wine and Napa makes great auto parts."
It was supposedly a call to action. Napans were sort of being asked by a few of their own to respond. There was no reaction. Napa is above that sort of name-calling. The challenge dies for lack of a quorum.
Oh, a few began to call Sonoma "The Gateway to the Anderson Valley," a double-slap since remote Anderson Valley in Mendocino County can mainly be reached from the south via a winding road that few tourists care to brave. But that was it. Napa had other fish to fry and couldn't be bothered by Sonoma taunts.
Cutler, the wild-eyed, hilariously funny wine maker, "once offered to make me an honorary Sonoman," says Williams, "but nothing ever came of the offer." Would he have accepted? "Well, I'm not sure," says Williams. "What's in it for me?"
Then there was the time Robert Mondavi himself broke protocol and attended the Sonoma Auction. It was an act of daring, some thought. A couple of his fellow Napans believed that Bob was doing something far too risky: acknowledging that Sonoma existed.
That prompted Cecil DeLoach, one of Sonoma County's more humorous souls, to attend the Napa Auction. That, however, was a decade ago. I was chatting with a Napa wine maker about that episode the other day and said I hadn't seen any Sonoma winery personnel attend the Napa Auction in a long time.
He replied, "They probably can't get a ticket," quickly adding, "or afford one."
I asked John Williams if he ever bought grapes from Sonoma County. He replied, "I don't think I'm allowed to, am I?" And he reminded me that if you try to order a Bordeaux in a Burgundian restaurant you'd get thrown out. I asked if that was the case in St. Helena. He said he didn't think anyone had ever tried.
Mike Martini, grandson of the founder of his Louis Martini Winery, established here in 1933, has long made some of his best wines from his famed Monte Rosso Vineyard, high atop the Mayacamas Mountains. Curiously, that vineyard is located just the other side of the ridge, putting it technically in Sonoma Valley.
I asked him if ever gets ribbed about making a "Sonoma" wine. He said no one ever mentions it, pointing out, "When my grandfather was looking for great cabernet land, he didn't care where the county border was."
But I have never heard a single Sonoman crow when Martini's Monte Rosso Cabernet is awarded a high honor. It may be from Sonoma land, but it's from a Napa winery.
Sonoma has a lot more recommending it than simply wine, of course. It s a culture that Napa can t match, Sonomans hasten to point out. For instance, Sonoma grows an amazing array of great foodstuffs, from wild greens, cheeses, breads, lamb, and fruits and berries. Napa is closer to a monoculture.
Napa Valley, on the other hand, boasts sensational restaurants, from the world-famed French Laundry to places like Bistro Don Giovanni, Martini House, Tra Vigne, Pinot Bistro, Terra, Roux, and Auberge de Soleil. Sonoma folk will happily rejoinder that the main ingredients at those restaurants are grown in Sonoma.
Money drives it. Mondavi is now a publicly traded corporation. More than three dozen wineries have a cabernet sauvignon that retails for $100 or more. Film director Francis Ford Coppola is highly regarded for his small-production cabernet called Rubicon, a $125 bottle of wine, but less well known is the fact that his winery now churns out 450,000 cases a year. The June auction now rakes in literally millions a year.
Yet despite their success, a number of Napa Valley locals still harp on Sonoma's carping. One Napa winery owner said of Sonoma County, "There's no there there," quoting Gertrude Stein's remark about Oakland.
Sonomans call where they live poor man's paradise, and ask, "Who can afford to live in Napa?"