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Sonoma to everybody else: We’re here, and we’re not Napa!


It’s an old saw by now: Sonoma County winemakers lament that when they’re on the road, promoting their wines, people ask them, “Where in Napa Valley is Sonoma?”

It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. Readers of this blog obviously know all about Sonoma County, and how it has 11 different American Viticultural Areas. But my readers are a special breed. The fact is that the majority of wine drinkers in America and abroad don’t know enough about our geography. That’s not their fault, of course. Why should they? Instead, it’s the responsibility of the Sonomans to engage in an educational campaign to let people know that Sonoma is not in Napa Valley and has nothing to do with Napa Valley (except that the two areas are next door to each other).

Now, it turns out that the Sonoma County Vintners is doing just that. The Santa Rosa Press Democract wrote yesterday that a coalition of some 50 “local wine industry leaders” from Sonoma worked together last year to come up with a plan. I’m not privy to the details, but the article says the committee “selected three words to define the wine region’s character: genuine, independent and adventurous.”

Educational campaigns of the sort the Sonomans are attempting are very difficult. You have to un-do the incorrect perceptions people have, which experience teaches us is extraordinarily hard, and then replace them with correct perceptions. You have to communicate to millions of people, which in a huge country like the U.S. is almost impossible and also terribly expensive, so fractured are our communities and media. And if you roll in foreign markets, the job’s even more challenging. It can be made a little easier by narrowing your focus, so instead of trying to talk to everyone, you zoom in on a select audience; call it the “cable TV approach.” It sounds like the Sonomans are doing just that: they will target “’experience seekers’ who enjoy traveling and dining out,” in other words, people with money in their pocket to pay premium Sonoma prices.

I wonder about that “genuine, independent and adventurous” thing. It sounds to me like it came out of a committee. Yet the devil’s in the details. “Genuine” is good: it implies that Sonoma wine comes from a real place that’s ideal for fine wine production, and made by real, passionate people, all of which is true. “Independent” is a little murky. Independent of what–big corporations? That’s not strictly true; Sonoma is no more “independent” than anyplace else, as far as I can tell. “Independent” is a nice word, but what is the message the Sonomans hope to communicate? Then there’s “adventurous.” I can practically hear the discussion that led up to that: “Let’s be the maverick to Napa Valley’s mainstream.” Since they can’t be Napa Valley, they can be the scrappy alternative, the choice of wine lovers who don’t want to go the predictable route. This is a little risky, since there’s always a downside involved in adventures. After all, some adventures go horribly awry. But in general, “adventurous” works in advertising, especially with a younger demographic that’s into taking chances and exploring new things.

I hope the new marketing approach works. Sonoma County has had this identity problem for years, compounded by a certain tension between the sub-appellations (Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, etc.),  individual wineries and the Mothership. It’s been hard for all the parties to work together in harmony; in this, Sonoma’s been a little behind some of the other wine counties in California. It will take time, but I do believe the Sonomans can make it work. It’s hard selling a phony message, but in this case, the message is true: Sonoma really does produce some of the greatest wine in California. And it’s not in Napa Valley.

  1. I’ve been putting on a Pinot Festival (Pinot on the River) in SoCo for 10 years, and before I began it I used to think managing the attendees would be the big challenge. Nope, it’s the Wineries! No one really agrees on anything!

  2. Well blogged Steve – our Sonoma wine identity problem is no secret; though often swept under rug so we don’t have to talk about it. It is a large County, with quite different seasons in it – and that leads to great diversity of flavors, yet also designs the large lack of cohesion. It’s probably just our fate.

  3. George Christie says:

    Imagine, Steve, how much better this would have been if you would have taken a minute or two to call someone at Sonoma County Vintners to get a comment. Not surprised, just disappointed…

  4. Steve, nice piece. Watching the growth and success of events like this past weekends Winter Wineland show the tri valleys really aren’t wanting for exposure nor cooperation.

    The ” over-riding comments ” I hear at the tastings ( besides how good the wines are ) are ” Napa has become too ….. ”

    Having said that it is important to consider the view is that Sonoma is ” genuine “, like Napa was in the 70’s. My hopes are we don’t allow the new wave of carpetbaggers create a new western sub – urb of that other place. It wasn’t so long ago the only lunch you could buy in Healdsburg was a taco or burger !

  5. Great piece. Totally agree about the 3 words sounding like they came out of a committe. I hope it works because what I love about Sonoma is that it’s not Napa!

  6. raley roger says:

    I’m in the business, so constantly visiting wine regions. As a consumer, on my time off, I choose to go up to Sonoma to chill out. I just love it there. I love Napa, too. Both are lovely, but Sonoma’s town proper just feels more centralized. The Square is so easy to navigate and it’s got great restaurants, etc.

    With regard to visiting their wineries; that’s where it gets challenging. I often hear tasting room staff members there decry the quality of wines by many of their colleagues. They’ll try and convince you that they’re very serious about the wines they make, as opposed to their neighbor down the street, whom they’ll refer to as “mediocre” or “just okay.”

    It’s this sense that the locals don’t do enough to support their own industry that I find off-putting. When I’m in Sonoma, and back home, I search out Sonoma wines. I wonder if that’s true of people who actually live and work there…..on their days off….what are they drinking? What are they doing to support their local industry.?

  7. Steve,

    Thanks for bringing this topic to light. It is one that is near and dear to me – not becuase I reside in Sonoma but because I have been and am faced with helping to ‘reimage’ things from time to time.

    It certainly is a challenge for a region as large and diverse as Sonoma to reimage itself and set itself apart from its neighbors. It’s diversity is the ‘problem and solution’ here – how to create a succinct message about something so diverse?

    Down here in the Santa Barbara County area, we are faced with just such a challenge. We’ve altered the slogan of the SB County Vintner’s Association to now say ‘Diversity Perfected’ to get the point across – but as we all know, it takes a lot more than just ‘slogans’ to make it happen. It truly takes ‘a village’, and what I like about what Sonoma is doing is getting many different folks involved, including many OUTSIDE of the wine industry. To me, that is key – ‘tunnel vision’ is way too common in all industries.

    Some of the other comments above discuss internal issues, with tasting rooms ‘bad mouthing’ others in the area. For this transforationu to truly work, I think there needs to be a somewhat ‘unanimous’ approach, where the businesses set aside any differences and work towards the good of the region as a whole to accomplish the task.

    It’ll be fun to read more responses and see what comes of this campaign – keep us posted, please.


    Larry Schaffer
    tercero wines

  8. If people think Sonoma is part of the Napa Valley then what is the beef? If I were making wine in Sonoma, I can’t think of a better confusion. Napa Valley is a strong selling point, and if such confusion is true, it is probably helping them sell their wine.

    My sense is that it isn’t true, it’s just part of the “story” that they want to create. That being confused with Napa is a hindrance. (yeah, sure!) This isn’t much better than the other one Sonoma tried, where they were positioning themselves as the Avis of the wine industry. ” We’re not number one, but we try harder.” That one was certainly self defeating. People want number one on their table.

    I’m not sure a clever marketing message is ever the answer. I think what you DO is far more important than what you SAY. People see through this stuff a lot more than we realize. I can’t recall the Napa Valley Vintners ever worrying about creating a clever marketing message. But maybe they never had to.

    Traveling around the county over the years and talking with thousands of wine drinkers, you find that if they haven’t visited the Napa Valley, they usually don’t know where it is or what it looks like. Most imagine it to be much like the San Joaquin. Big, broad, and central. So the key to all this is serious education of the consumer. Not marketing cliches, but real, fundamental education.

    This requires leadership and that means individuals have to step forward. Where the Napa Valley was fortunate was it had leaders like John Daniel, Louis M. Martini, Robert Mondavi, Brother Timothy, and dozens of others who put aside competition with one another to jointly cooperate in doing real things to increase awareness about the valley and improve winemaking.

  9. Morton,

    Your last paragraph is paramount to the success of any region these days, IMHO – ‘leaders’ willing to put the good of the whole ahead of their own personal gains. I believe this is one of the things that has helped propel Paso Robles to the ‘limelight’ these days (along with winemaking, of course) and one that will hopefully help other regions in the near future.


  10. ‘Manufactured’ slogans seem contrary to authenticity. I know that one of the things that is so attractive about Sonoma is the hiking, biking, etc. Maybe the slogan should have just been REAL WINE COUNTRY.

  11. then there is the Sonoma TOWN vs the rest of the county and ava’s to distinguish…..

  12. MikeG sez: “Having said that it is important to consider the view is that Sonoma is ” genuine “, like Napa was in the 70′s. My hopes are we don’t allow the new wave of carpetbaggers create a new western sub – urb of that other place. It wasn’t so long ago the only lunch you could buy in Healdsburg was a taco or burger !”

    I guess I’d argue to the contrary that Napa is for the hoity-toity and Sonoma is for real folks. Sure…driving up Hwy 29 or the Silveradotrail, it’s easy to be bedazzled by the showcase wineries and ostentatious homes. There are some of them over in Sonoma as well. And up in Amador. And down in SantaBarbara.
    But, just like out in the Hamptons, or down in LaJolla, or in Saratoga; you really don’t have to scratch very deep below the glitzy veneer to find real/live/honest folks in Napa…folks who are worrying about paying their mortgage, worrying if the school programs are good enough for their children, worrying about the leak in their roof…all the things that ordinary folks have to worry about. Just talk to the person pouring in the tasting room, or running a wine shop in Calistoga, or bagging your groceries at the SafeWay…they’re all over the place. And some of them folks even have vnyds and run wineries. You just gotta look.
    Napa gets a bad rap, IMHO.

  13. Healdsburg is on the top 10 list of places I would want to live.

  14. Tom Hill is, as usual, a good voice of reason. Let’s not make this thread into a ‘bash Napa’ thread because, as Tom points out and as most people know, there is still plenty ‘right’ with Napa these days . . .


  15. Bill McIver says:

    Napa is known as California’s wine country and capitol because it had a true innovator, marketing and P.R. genius and a leader: Robert Mondavi
    Sonoma has Gallo who they look down their nose at and hated their only true genius and born leader, Jess Jackson. At a Sonoma Vintners tasting gathering, Gallo offered Patrick Campbell and me a deal to take to the Sonoma board: He would put up million $ for a marketing program to compete with Napa if Sonoma vintners would match it. Patrick and I rolled on the floor laughing about the idea that Sonoma would work together on anything that required putting up enough funds to defend their interests.
    Fuggetaboutit! LOL

  16. Honore Comfort says:

    It is gratifying to see the topic of the Sonoma County brand meriting so much discussion, however to clarify – the brand work won’t be complete for several more months. We have shared our strategic direction to keep people in the loop on our progress and apprised of the process. No slogans, no ads, no branding…yet. There is a lot more work to be done, with good involvement from our wine community, and once it is complete we will be eager to get people’s feedback. If you’re interested in the info that was presented and details to date, the presentation is posted on the Sonoma County Vintners website

  17. Thanks for weighing in, Honore!

  18. Yes, being a neighbor to Napa has its upside (people associate Sonoma with the most widely recognized wine region name in CA) and the downside (having to live in big brother’s shadow). In some ways, Sonoma is like many other emerging wine regions in the US and faces many of the same tasks, mainly making a name for itself.

    Bashing other regions or other wineries in the area is usually a tactic that doesn’t sit well with most consumers. Do you enjoy watching negative political ads? I’m farily sick of them and we have 10 more months of this stuff!

    Walla Walla, Paso Robles, southern Oregon, Virginia and Texas wine regions are all in the same predicament — how to convince consumers to spend their hard-earned dollars to visit *them* instead of a more well-known (i.e., known quantity) area? If you can pick up some consumers who have “been there, done that” with the already-known regions, then you have a good chance of getting them to visit your area.

    And then the work *truly* begins — convincing them that they made the right decision and getting them to come back again. That means experiential consumerism, a small part of which is in the glass for us wine folks.

    Washington has done a great job with their wine trail program (choosing key decision makers in targeted markets to visit WA wineries and get an intensive multi-day tour of the region). A similar success can be seen in Oregon’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (“Pinot Camp”) that has grown to large proportions and has world-wide impact.

    When Sonoma can do something along those lines (and get most of its wine community on board with the program), then they won’t be remembered as a “Napa wannabe” but as a truly distinct area with its own charm and style. But it’s a long term project that takes a lot of commitment, time and money, plus a focus on the goal — very challenging work, indeed.

  19. I think that the Sonoma County Vintners, headed by Honore Comfort,is doing an incredible job in promoting the wines of Sonoma County. Noreen Evans put through a law that will require every bottle of wine produced in the county to clearly display SONOMA COUNTY on the label. This will produce a unified marketing front that can be supported by the work of the Sonoma County Vintners who are promoting Sonoma County, not as a local area of importance, but as an International Wine Region, comparable to Burgunday,Piemonte and Alsace. There is still an element of wildness in Sonoma County. There are still great numbers of small family wineries run by fiery independent people who do not fit an image of manicured gentility. If I was running an advertising campaign for Sonoma County I would stress the rich contrasts within Sonoma County and would people it with strong characters from all walks of life.
    Best wishes,
    Linda Schwartz

  20. 1_Sonoma rocks – it is the real thing. It has remarkable diversity and quality.
    2_Napa rocks too, sometimes. However, every time I have a mediocre Cab from there (which is more often than not) it reminds me that I never want to hear “Jumping Jack Flash” again.That’d be too soon. And really, what else do they have?
    Napa is corporate.
    Sonoma is family.
    Napa is White Collar. (inauthentic)
    Sonoma is Blue Collar. (authentic)
    When all the early retired dentists and portfolio managers figure it out and climb over the hill into Sonoma (that only a matter of time) we here in Sonoma are gonna get it in the neck.
    Perhaps we can escape to Lake County – which ain’t so bad.
    That’ll (at least) save the bath to wash off the vulgarity every time I need drive the gauntlet of Napa.
    That place is like a nightmare Disneyland of wine fantasy – tour buses, moats, minature golf, whathaveyou.
    Gimme a frigging break.

  21. And, most importantly, Sonoma has the Bachelor!

  22. I have gigs in both Napa and Sonoma, like them both very much, and note they have very different feels…or “vibes” if one can revert to 60’s talk. In Napa, it seems like there is a strong sense that cooperation is a good thing. In Sonoma, there sure seems to be a chip on the shoulder concerning Napa (I have heard so many Sonoma based consultants engaging in Napa bashing while happy to cash checks from their clients there). And I don’t sense that Sonoma has the cooperative spirit of recognizing that success for each individual helps to float all the boats. Why the difference? Robert Mondavi was certainly a factor in promoting the one for all, all for one approach. I think the geography is also at play: Napa is a narrow watershed, and we all mostly live in four towns, and see each other at just a few grocery stores. Kids in winemaking families in Napa Valley attend a hand-full of schools. Sonoma County is way spread out, and divided by a freeway, making it harder to have a sense of community.

  23. Bill Dyer, great analysis about the “see each other” thing. I think that does help unify Napa Valley. Sonoma County is huge. It’s just an accident of political geography that it’s a county.

  24. steve christian says:

    Steve, you have been a good roll of late. Steve

  25. Bill Smart says:

    Bill Dyer – great comments. You really hit the nail on the head. I was at a conference late last year and one of the panel discussions was regarding the topic of “Rising Tides Raises all Boats.” Now I know that sounds a tad cliche but hear me out. One of the panelists was Michael Mondavi. Among the many intelligent things he had to say that day, one comment really stuck with me. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “when my father came to Napa Valley, no one had ever heard of the place. they thought it was an autoparts store. My father spent the better part of his life promoting the NAPA VALLEY, not Robert Mondavi Winery.”

    How amazing is that? If Sonoma wants to know how to build brand equity the way that Napa has, all one need do is look at the blue print that Robert Mondavi provided.

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