In 1968 I made my first excursion to Napa, CA and witnessed the fervor about the new winery called Mondavi. I was instantly hooked on Wine Country as a destination. Subsequently, working in the travel industry, I have brought many travel industry groups and companies to Napa to experience the culture and trappings of Wine Country. So, let me present my take on Wine Country. Both counties offer hospitality and a different feel, but both are genuinely real.
Over the years, people not familiar with Northern California’s Wine Country always ask, “What’s the difference between Napa and Sonoma Counties for my meeting?” I wrestle with this question on a daily basis. If a you are focused on high-end experiential corporate ‘happenings/events’, the best location for a business meeting or board meeting or any off-site meeting is really dependent on the purpose or objectives of the event.
Napa County’s success is a result of a perfect storm: a convergence of a super sized ego(s), marketing genius, success in Paris, big name players (private and corporate) and a very defined geographic region. If any one of these elements had been lost in the 70’s and 80’s, Napa would probably have less of a cachet today. On the other hand, Sonoma County was the first wine region in California. It is 3 times larger than Napa County, enjoys a 55 mile picturesque coast line and is dominated by established lineages of family owned vineyards and wineries. But each, with their differences offer a great place to experience…a great board meeting, a great team building exercise, a great incentive program — as we say, “A pinnacle experience”.
Napa of today was born of a well executed marketing strategy to make Napa an icon of culture, wealth, corporate presence, and food, while being wine centric. It was/is “the place to see and be seen”. Like Sonoma, Napa has a great infrastructure that caters to corporate and leisure events; it’s just much more concentrated. Some say Napa’s success is due to the prophesying of one man: Robert Mondavi. On the other hand, Sonoma is about generations of families who work the land and produce the broadest range of varietal grapes and wines without much fanfare, but with equal sophistication. Because Sonoma is so large, compared to Napa, it has many significant appellations that are disparate and do not coalesce into a single defined area like Napa. With approximately the same number of luxury hotel and estate properties and activities their diversity is spread out over a larger area that includes Redwoods, the ocean and interior valleys. Sonoma and Napa are also defined by their commitment to nature. (More on this in a moment.)
Both counties have their equal share of high-end self contained ‘destination resort’ properties (inclusive of hotel, spa, fine dining and golf amenities-all on-site). Napa and Sonoma are equally populated with prestigious exclusive hotels and restaurants/chefs. Finally, activities are plentiful to support great corporate meetings. For example, winey visits, hot air ballooning, golf, green winery/vineyard tours, etc. Going one step further, great options exist for small corporate meetings using exclusive private estates with all the amenities such as a private chef.
Food is still a major attraction and reason for a Wine Country meeting. To start with, I mention the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa and Ramekins in Sonoma. The Culinary Institute of America is all about training professional chefs and Ramekin’s is dedicated to a cooking school experience for people interested in cooking as an avocation. Both are great facilities for team building exercises. If there are requirements for a private/personal chef; Napa and Sonoma are rich in well known chefs. Of course, The French Laundry is the only Michelin 3 Star restaurant in Wine Country; well worth the experience. Together, in the 2007 Michelin Guide, Napa and Sonoma had a total of 10 restaurants rated 1, 2 and 3 Star (4 in Sonoma and 6 in Napa). Interestingly, approximately 35% of all Bay Area and Wine Country Michelin rated restaurants are in Wine Country. Not bad for farming communities!
If you are involved in a company that supports the “green, sustainable, organic and/or Biodynamic’s” movement, coming to Wine Country will be your Nirvana. There are 13 wineries in Napa certificated by Napa County Environmental Management as “Green”. The Federal government has certified 150 Napa and Sonoma vineyards as “Organic”. A lesser known certification that has been around since 1928 in Europe is a little more esoteric; Demeter “Biodynamic Certification” is a method of grape production that goes well beyond organic into the realm of eco-system management. I am aware of 8 vineyards that are certified as “Biodynamic” vineyards. The first such vineyard to be Demeter Biodynamic in the U.S. was Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County. If you want to experience a Green winery, Organic winery/vineyard or Biodynamic certified grapes, Wine Country is holy ground. Of course, hundreds of wineries are certified by the State of California as “Sustainable”.
Finally, there is a connection with Napa’s success and Paris? The year 1976 is the year to remember for Napa and Wine Country. Well, this was the year that California wines broke the proverbial viticulture glass ceiling in Paris. At that French competition, Napa’s Chateau Montelena Winery’s 1973 Chardonnay (made from Sonoma County grapes) was judged the finest white wine by French judges. Chateau Montelena was competing against 4 French wines and 6 American white wines. At that same tasting, Napa’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Souvenian also took the top prize. This seminal tasting event was recreated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1996 to mark the 20th anniversary of the event. At that time, bottles of the first-place wines–the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay–were accepted into the Museum’s collections.
You still want to know more? Pick-up one of the following books for an interesting read.
Napa-by Mr. James Conoway (Available in paperback)
The House of Mondavi-by Ms. Julia Flynn Siler (Available in paperback)
The Wine Bible-by Ms. Karen MacNeil (Available in paperback)
A Tale of Two Valleys-by Alan Deutschman