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Wine Country Travel Watch: Downtown Napa’s Revival

Once a place to drive through on the way to wineries, Napa has found new energy with exciting dining options and more
Photo by: Celia Carey
JaM Cellars' space in downtown Napa functions as both tasting room and music venue.

Aaron Romano
Posted: October 14, 2016

Not long ago, most visitors to Napa Valley bypassed the city of Napa, favoring the more charming towns of St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville instead. Things are changing in the valley’s most populated city, however, thanks to new restaurants, hotels and tasting rooms along the riverfront, downtown and beyond. In 2014, the city received the highest percentage of county visitors of all Napa Valley cities, 67 percent, passing St. Helena and showing no signs of slowing down. Boasting more than 180 restaurants, 43 hotels, motels and B-and-Bs, with more on the way, Napa is evolving to meet vacationers' demands.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Kenzo Tsujimoto, the Japanese millionaire tycoon and owner of Napa winery Kenzo Estate is set to open a Japanese sushi restaurant this fall. Located on the corner of Pearl Street, in the former home of Pearl, the restaurant will feature fresh fish delivered directly from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, as well as a tasting room for Kenzo Estate wines.

The Moana Restaurant Group (owner of Redd in Yountville and El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma) has breathed new life into the former Fish Story space in downtown Napa with Basalt. The almost 200-seat restaurant features a California-inspired menu with Spanish and Mexican influences from Esteban Escobar, former chef at Town Hall in San Francisco.

A few doors down from Basalt, the recently opened Corner Bar offers an impressive 26-page wine list, including everything from high-end French Champagnes, like Krug Clos du Mesnil 1988, Napa cult Cabernets, including verticals from Dalla Valle, Scarecrow and Spottswoode, and Burgundy collectibles, with multiple bottlings from Domaine Dujac and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Guests can also sample from a collection of 150 Bourbons and other whiskeys. Executive chef Dustin Falcon, who worked under Thomas Keller at Ad Hoc and the French Laundry, has put together a small, contemporary menu of “elevated” comfort food. Think deviled quail eggs, grilled cheese with braised lamb and twists on surf and turf.

John and Michele Truchard have found their groove in downtown Napa. After opening the John Anthony tasting room next to the Andaz Hotel in 2010, the couple has now opened the JaM Cellars tasting room on the other side of the hotel. The tasting room features wines from both JaM Cellars and Truchard’s partnership with JW Thomas, and several private-label wines for musicians like Brett Dennen and Mat Kearney. The walls are adorned with music paraphernalia, including vintage Rolling Stone magazine covers and guitars. There’s even a private recording studio in the back. Guests can enjoy tasting flights or order by the glass or bottle.

Vineyard 29 proprietors, Chuck and Anne McMinn, have opened Cru at the Annex, next to the Oxbow Market, on McKinstry Street. The tasting room has a homey vibe, with cozy couches and an outdoor patio for tastings. The McMinns have partnered with Oxbow merchants to offer bites to pair with CRU and Vineyard 29 wines.

New and Improved Beds

With more people visiting wine country every year, accommodations for travelers have improved and increased in 2016. The budget-friendly, 115-room Hampton Inn and Suites opened its doors in March. The hotel is located two miles south of town in the South Napa Century Center, which includes a movie theater, shops and restaurants, and the future home of a winery for NakedWines.com.

Also on the southern end of Napa, Meritage Resort and Spa has begun construction of Meritage Commons, slated to open in summer 2018. The new four-story hotel will be across the street from the existing resort and will feature 145 guestrooms, including 39 suites, and a food and wine village, with nine tasting rooms and a boutique market. In north Napa, the Marriott Napa Valley Hotel & Spa has completed a $21 million facelift, adding a new resort-style pool, modernized guestrooms and an outdoor event space.

Beer, Cigars and a Reborn Napa Wine Train

Craft beer is finding its niche in Napa Valley wine country. Berkeley-based Fieldworks Brewing Co., known for a wide range of styles, including experimental flavors like salted cucumber, a refreshing farmhouse style saison, and a striking white mocha golden stout, has migrated north, and opens a taproom in the Oxbow Market today. And San Diego’s I.P.A powerhouse, Stone Brewing Co., has plans for a brewery and restaurant in the historic Borreo building on the east side of the Napa River, with a projected opening of spring 2017.

For a taste of the finer things in Napa, Sidestreet doubles as a luxury lifestyle and cigar shop, as well as exclusive, members-only cigar and business club. Since Baker Street closed in 2013, cigar lovers have been calling for a spot where they can smoke freely and socialize, and Sidestreet carries 25 high-end cigar brands, as well as luxury accessories, such as made-to-order suits. The tiny, 350-square-foot storefront hides a nearly 1,600-square-foot members-only club behind a closed door.

The sounds of jazz will soon ring out from the historic Napa Valley Opera House. Blue Note Napa opens downtown on Oct. 25, with an intimate jazz club in the renovated first floor and a large performance space in the Opera House ballroom upstairs. It's the latest venture from the company that owns New York's Blue Note in Greenwich Village, as well as several other music clubs in multiple cities and four countries.

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been hauling guests up and down the valley for more than 25 years, offering dining and wine tasting experiences for passengers. Under new ownership for almost a year now, the company has been expanding its offerings. Earlier in 2016, the train began a new, high-end tour titled Quattro Vino. The train makes stops at four wineries: Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, Merryvale and V. Sattui, where guests enjoy a tour and tasting. On board, the train’s chef, Donald Young, prepares a three-course, small bites menu, featuring items like shaved pork on ciabatta, with arugula pesto, caramelized onions, sliced egg and Manchego cheese, as well as grilled duck sausage with potato puree, grilled onions and sauternes apple. Tours start at $249 per person.

Greg Bardakos
San Jose, CA USA —  November 10, 2016 1:57am ET
Very impressive I must say!
Napa is going to the extreme, which no town in the valley really has done to this extent!
They are bringing in what you read about!
Let me just say this,..... I hope they are ready for the action that is going to OCCUR, HAPPEN and Rattle Napa Valley's cage!
Greg Bardakos

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