Since its opening in 2007, Napa Valley’s Press delivered a classic steakhouse experience and built an extensive Napa Valley–only wine list heavy on Cabernet Sauvignon. The formula for success was simple, and Press became beloved by locals and visitors alike.
But in mid-2018, owner Leslie Rudd died. And by then, the wine list was showing signs of attrition as diners plundered the cellar of its older and hard-to-replace vintages. Rudd’s daughter, Samantha, who had no formal role in the restaurant previously, was thrust into the owner’s role.
“It surprised me what a tough business a restaurant is,” says Rudd. “Curtains are open every night. If you fumble, everyone sees it.”
Among her first moves was to hire chef Philip Tessier as a consultant in June 2019. Tessier is no stranger to Napa, having worked with chef Thomas Keller in both Yountville’s Bouchon Bistro and the French Laundry. (New York’s Le Bernardin and Per Se are also on his résumé.) But Tessier, the first American to lead a winning team at France’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or cooking competition, wasn’t sure whether an American steakhouse was the right fit for him.
“At that time, it was in dire straits,” says Tessier of Press. “Leslie had recently passed. They had gone through six chefs in two years. I thought, I’ll do this consulting for a few months while I was looking to open my own place in Yountville.”
Then COVID-19 hit, and Tessier’s plans for his own place were derailed. Rudd decided to offer Tessier the full-time role at Press, a move she knew would result in a massive shift in the kitchen, but one she was confident in.
“I knew I could trust that what he would do to the restaurant would do Napa Valley justice,” says Rudd. “The one thing that was absolute was the wine list would be Napa, and we would continue to put Napa and our wine community on a pedestal.”
The shift was dramatic. Gone was the signature bacon-tasting menu. The steak-heavy fare shifted to include dishes such as petrale sole with Dungeness crab, pumpernickel and Cara Cara orange; braised abalone with pickled cucumber and ponzu; and Tessier’s own signature sweet-and-sour pig’s ears, with espelette glaze.
It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. “We got a lot of tough feedback from people not wanting us to change,” says Rudd.
But as the regulars adjusted to Press’ new style, wine- and food-loving tourists kept coming and things began to turn around quickly. With the kitchen earning a refreshed reputation, Rudd turned her attention to the wine list, hiring sommelier Vincent Morrow as wine director at the end of 2020.
As with Tessier, Morrow admits he was a little concerned that selling only Napa Cabernet and steak all night wasn’t a fit for him. But he saw the changes Tessier was making and realized it was an opportunity.
“I saw the potential for evolution. I felt like there was something untapped in terms of depth and the stories the wine list can tell,” says Morrow. “As the menu evolved, there was more ability to shine a light on other things Napa Valley does well that many people haven’t heard about.”
When Morrow arrived, the list featured 1,200 selections. In his short tenure, he’s already doubled it.
“Sometimes we can eighty-six a half-dozen listings a night. So there’s a lot of effort to not only maintain and stay ahead of attrition, but then also grow,” says Morrow. He takes a two-pronged approach, developing relationships with wineries to make sure there’s a continuing stream of new releases, while also plumbing the cellars of private collectors to maintain vintage depth.
Today the list’s nearly 1,500 Napa Cabernet selections continue to provide its formidable backbone. There’s depth back to the 1940s, including important wines such as Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernets from the 1970s, 1979 Opus One and additional vintage depth from Heitz, Inglenook and Robert Mondavi Reserve. Legend hunters can go for the ’74 Mayacamas Cabernet ($4,500), one of 11 Cabernets on the list from that storied vintage. Old-school fans can dive into verticals from Diamond Creek, Togni and Spottswoode. But there’s also breadth from new faces in the valley, including boutique producers Kinsman Eades, Abreu and Pott.
There’s value to be had as well. Riesling, Zinfandel, Charbono and other varieties make scouring the list part of the experience. Half-bottles and large-formats also abound, including a 375ml of 2015 Neyers Carignane ($70) and a magnum of 2015 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($525). And Morrow has slipped a few non-Napa bottlings in as well, such as Favia, Keplinger and Thomas Rivers Brown’s Sonoma Coast Pinot project Aston. Those choices, along with a Champagne listing and a few others, are placed in the “Beyond Napa” section of the 220-plus page list.
The leadership team now seems settled in—and they’re not stopping. Rudd and Tessier have plans to renovate the kitchen and update the dining room this winter, and to open additional restaurants in the future. “We’re still at the beginning of this journey, but we’re here to stay and evolve,” says Tessier. “We have our own identity now. It’s such a unique location, and there’s such a strong connection to the wine industry. The Opus One team was at one table the other night, and they sent a bottle of Opus over to a table with a newlywed couple. It’s that kind of feeling here. Every night feels special.”
587 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena, Calif.
Telephone: (707) 967-0550