Bob McClenahan
At Napa Valley restaurants like Goose & Gander in St. Helena, there is a casual, more approachable vibe, though the food and beverage are meticulous.

Napa Valley's Evolving Wine Scene

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While some wineries and restaurants become more casual in aesthetic and pricing, quality and experience are not compromised.
By Kristine Hansen September 2016 Wine

Yesterday’s Napa Valley was all about stuffiness and formalities. Tasting rooms carried a certain air of entitlement, which extended to the cost for a Cabernet Sauvignon from the valley’s 16 storied AVAs, such as Stags Leap District and Rutherford, commanding nearly $350 on a restaurant’s wine list for some producers.

Charlie Palmer—who already had restaurants on the Strip in Las Vegas and Times Square in New York City, far more glitzy sites than Napa—saw the potential to remove that abrasive layer when he bought Harvest Inn in 2014, renaming it Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer and giving it a fresh, modern look, right on down to its 78 rooms. Adding a restaurant was first on his list. Harvest Table is open for dinner nightly, except for Monday, and each of the dishes is a love letter to the surrounding landscape, whether it’s grape vines, quail from Fairfield, or berries from Sebastopol. Outside of a “Blind Vine” list devoted to non-Napa wines, everything is local, including Cabs from powerhouses like Caymus Vineyards and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which would be a major faux pas not to include given their acclaim.

Next, he sowed the seeds for six culinary gardens, planting a vision that, as the years pass by, will make the inn and restaurant even more of a destination—perhaps a place where guests might pluck herbs or hope that an orange has dropped from the orange trees for a juicy and fresh late-afternoon snack. (In fact, those orange trees inspired Harvest Table’s logo.) Chefs at Harvest Table weave the garden bounty into each meal, whether from the plantings on its property or farms within the region. For instance, with the smoked Mount Lassen trout—stemming from Northern California’s Shasta region—Meyer lemons are employed, and an organic chicken from nearby Petaluma also features English-pea purée. 

Across the valley, the tide is turning to include a casual, more approachable vibe, shifting the focus from places like Thomas Keller’s prestigious French Laundry to Goose & Gander, a popular restaurant in downtown St. Helena where craft cocktails (designed by rockstar mixologist and cocktails author Scott Beattie, who got his start at the now-shuttered Cyrus Restaurant in downtown Healdsburg, in Sonoma County) are just as meticulous as the food, and celebs like NBA star LeBron James pop in. “Nicest guy I’ve ever met,” says Rafael Sardone, one of the bartenders. “Every time we dropped a drink it was ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’” 

Owner Andrew Florsheim fell in love with Napa on a trip, so much that he decided to pack up his life in Chicago—where he was working for Levy Restaurants group—and head west. Seating is available in the extensive courtyard or inside, which mimics the interior of a cozy bungalow. On the menu are elevated bar bites such as roasted bone marrow, artisan-cheese plates, and duck-fat fries, before easing into a menu packed with seared foie-gras and burgers alike. 

A similar vibe exists at the brand-new Cairdean Estate, a village-like concept on 57 acres in Saint Helena that boasts a restaurant, winery, lifestyle boutique, and bakery. Launched by Edwin and Stacia Williams, it’s an innovative project designed to entice Millennials to visit Napa Valley. It’s also a project, dubbed “the village,” that recruited almost the entire team at Tra Vigne after the restaurant closed last year. The synergy among the staff at Brasswood Bar + Kitchen, Cairdean’s restaurant, is hard not to notice as they visit my table numerous times throughout my stay. You can see they genuinely enjoy working together—and share a love for Napa Valley’s gastronomy scene. 

The restaurant’s menu has a rustic Italian slant with entrées like dry-aged Bistecca Alla Fiorentina and sharable starters like fritti (rock shrimp, calamari, castelvetrano olives, green beans, romanesco, and chipotle aioli). Taking a detour from the French country aesthetic common at many California tasting rooms, the décor is modern and sleek, with clean lines and shades of gray and black.

More Casual, More Affordable

The casual vibe that Napa is currently experiencing extends beyond visitor experiences and straight into consumers’ palates and pocketbooks, regardless of whether they’re in Napa or not. Several Napa Valley wineries have rolled out second-, even third-, tier wines at a more affordable price point. One example is Duckhorn Vineyards, known for its Merlots, which typically cost between $95 and $200 on restaurant wine lists. The Decoy label’s Merlot, while featuring Sonoma County (not Napa) grapes, is priced remarkably less ($25 at retail)—but its quality does not suffer. At Lyndenhurst, which is owned by Napa Valley winery Spottswoode Estate, its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon runs $80 at retail, a deep dive from Spottswoode’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon priced at $185.

Another angle of the new Napa that winemakers are embracing is to play up their sustainability mantras. One example is Beringer Vineyards, a winery in St. Helena, dating back to 1876, and the state’s longest continually operating winery. Its estate resembles a castle or fortress, but the goal is to bring its portfolio of wines—a mix of reds and whites, culled from 15 Napa Valley vineyards and in six tiers—into casual restaurants across the country. Last year, founder Jacob Beringer’s great-great-grandson Mark Beringer—a member of the family’s fifth generation—joined the winemaking team as chief winemaker. He is continually hammering away at the winery’s effect on the environment. Recent initiatives include reducing energy consumption by 30 percent (since 2007), implementing the largest solar installation of any California winery, and seeking certification of all of its vineyards by Fish Friendly Farming, a third party that vouches for a company’s commitment to protect waterways.

Yet another reminder of Napa’s future greets me when I walk into Charles Krug’s tasting room in Saint Helena. As the oldest commercial winery in California, its roots in this region run deep, with a commitment to continue the legacy Charles Krug founded in 1861 as a 27-year-old Prussian immigrant. But there, in front of me, is a sign of modern times: a gleaming espresso machine, ready to serve up lattes and macchiatos. You can almost hear the whir of the grinder and the tap-tap as espresso beans are ground and packed into a stainless-steel tamper. 

As I sip a glass of the winery’s 2015 Sauvignon Blanc—an incredible value ($18 retail), vintage after vintage, with its crisp grapefruit notes and rich minerals—I don’t worry that the winery’s tradition has dissipated. It’s right there, out the window, where rows of vines hold generation after generation of grapes. Now, its history deepened even further with the descendants of one of Napa’s leading wine families, Marc and Peter Mondavi Jr., in charge.