Exploring wines from Napa and Sonoma, Caliofnria

While the world is drinking in, and guzzling down, American politics, wine writer Natalie MacLean chooses to shine a light on, and raise a glass to, one of her favourite aspects of America—Californian wines.

These wines, and wine regions, are sentimental favourites for MacLean.  Napa and Sonoma were her introduction to travelling, touring and getting to know grapes.

"Sonoma and Napa were the first wine regions I really came to know because I worked at a high tech super- computer company in Mountain View, now the headquarters of Google, near San Francisco," said MacLean.

"I would actually arrange my meetings for a Friday. I would fly down on Thursday, or Friday, for my meetings and I would drive up the coast to Sonoma and Napa."

MacLean’s descriptions are as rich and bold as the wines.

"The biggest feature of Sonoma is that 60 miles of it hugs the Pacific coast lines of the fog rolls in it has a moderating impact sunny days cool nights which is exactly what you want for wine."

Maclean says Sonoma Chardonnay like Ghost Pines won the blind tasting against French wines in 1976 and put Sonoma, along with Napa, on the map.

"Sonoma is the birthplace of wine in California. Grapes were planted there in the 1800s by Spanish missionaries."

"Although they’re not inexpensive they are extraordinary value," according to MacLean.

"Some people have that all perception California wines are fruit bombs, or high in alcohol, but it’s not the case anymore. They’re very balanced.  They have this racy, juicy acidity that makes for some wonderful dinner companions.”

While some may be drinking more wine during COVID-19, MacLean is seeing more of a thirst for information.

She offers online wine and food pairing classes at nataliemaclean.com.

MacLean jokes she hasn’t moved six inches from her computer since the pandemic started.

"My food and online food and wine pairing courses have just skyrocketed. I love the connection online. I think it’s done some great things for wine because wine can be intimidating. But, when you can learn in the comfort of your own home, in your pajamas, a lot more people are willing to get involved, and ask questions, to taste," said MacLean.

"It’s a thing that couples can do together.”

Impact of California Wildfires on Vineyards:

MacLean says the damage to vineyards by wildfires was likely mitigated by the time of year.

"It’s actually better than you might think looking at all of those fires on television.  That’s because California’s wine regions stretch on the northern part where they meet Oregon right down to the Mexican border," said MacLean.

"Most of them have not been affected. The regions of Napa and Sonoma have been impacted but fortunately the damage has not been extensive. Eleven wineries of the 475 in Napa have been affected."

"Of course the vineyards at this time of year are leafy and green.  That doesn’t make them absolutely immune to fire but they don’t get attacked by fire right now as opposed to when they’re dry and brittle right after winter."

"Eighty per cent of wine makers are going forward with their vintage. They’re very pleased with it actually, and they have very good inventories, so I don’t think we’ll see a shortage of California wines.  We’ll see how it unfolds in the form of any smoke taint.  They were optimistic actually.”

"Best Tips & Sips":  MacLean’s notes on Sonoma & Napa: 

Let’s first take a look at the map and where these two wine regions are.

  • Just an hour north of San Francisco – I used to drive up there on Fridays
  • You can see that they’re side-by-side, with Sonoma a touch more northerly and hugging the Pacific Ocean, while Napa is inland and a little more southern.

What would surprise us about Napa Valley?

  • It’s the most famous winegrowing region in the U.S. but it’s actually tiny, producing just 4 per cent of Californian wine and only 0.4 per cent of the world’s wine production
  • The valley floor is just 30 miles long and just 5 miles at its widest point

What grapes is Napa famous for?

Cabernet Sauvignon is king like these 3 wines I have with me here:

  • Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, $37.95
  • Beringer Knights Valley Caberney Sauvignon 2017, $39.95
  • Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, $44.95

Plus, I have a Petit Sirah and a blend:

  • Stags' Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2016, $58.95
  • Orin Swift Papillon 2017, $92
  • Merlot, Pinot Noir Petite Sirah Zinfandel, more than 30 red varieties

What about white wines?

  • Chardonnay is the flagship white grape like this one:


  • There’s also Sauvignon Blanc

So how many wineries are there?

  • There are approximately 700 grape growers in Napa County
  • There are approximately 475 physical wineries in Napa County producing more than 1,000 different wine brands
  • 95% of Napa Valley’s wineries are family-owned and nearly 80% produce fewer than 10,000 cases annually – that’s small

How long has Napa been making wine?

  • Grapes first planted in 1839
  • 1970s quality leap
  • 1976 Judgment of Paris: head to head blind tasting

Sonoma: The Birthplace of Californian Wine

Birthplace of Californian wine, planted in the 1800s by Spanish missionaries. The flagship is Chardonnay. 

Judgment of Paris in 1976 – Chardonnay mostly from Sonoma like this Chard I have:

  • Ghost Pines Chardonnay 2017, $21.95

What other wines is Sonoma famous for?

Sixty varieties of grapes

  • Handley Cellars Anderson Valley Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, $54.90
  • Handley Cellars RSM Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, $78.65
  • Ghost Pines Winemakers Blend Merlot 2017, $19.95
  • Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $23.95
  • Zinfandel, Syrah

What’s the climate like?

  • Mediterranean climate, with dry summers, wet winters 
  • Defining feature is the coastline – 60 miles/100 kilometres of coastline
  • Marine fog keeps grapes cool in the morning, burns off
  • Mountains separate coast from Valley – act like an oven, hot air rises, pulls in cool air from the ocean underneath – warm days, cool nights
  • More soil types (31) exist in Sonoma than in all of France