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Napa and Sonoma counties in the North Coast of California are two of the most famous centers of wine in the United States. Wine production in both regions began in the 1800s when European settlers transplanted vines from the homeland. Their stories are similar, with various periods of boom and bust since then, most notably during the Prohibition. From the 1960s on, these regions have seen enormous growth, with diverse winemaking styles from traditional to modern, large scale commercial and small scale boutique, popular jug wines and bank-breaking cult wines, and the rise in significance of organic/sustainable practices.
Though there is a large range in microclimates and topography spread between these regions, one can categorically state that Napa is typically warmer than Sonoma. Napa has hot and dry summers with cool winters. The Pacific Ocean has more of a cooling effect on Sonoma, with foggy valleys toward the coast, getting hotter and drier moving further inland.
Zinfandel, the grape now known to be the same as Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak Kastelanksi, is a big success story out of both regions - the hotter the conditions, the more commonly found. While the White Zinfandel “blush’ wines are now thankfully confined to mostly large scale commercial producers, dry Zins have seen more focus and quality in the past decade or so. The French varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and of course, Chardonnay have traditionally been the stars of these regions. The warmer climates, particularly in Napa, are also giving rise to emerging varietals such as Tempranillo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Petit Syrah, Verdejo, Colombard and Albarino. Sonoma’s cooler coastal areas are particularly well-suited for quality sparkling wines made in the methode traditionelle. These areas are also prime for growing such grapes as Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Dornfelder and Blaufrankisch.
Dessert wines are also a popular trend, with most wineries producing some form of late harvest offering in their portfolio. Fortified wines in port and sherry styles have also gained significance in recent years.
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