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Will Oxbow Be Ready for Prime Time?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 14, 2007 11:00am ET

I can think of about a dozen reasons why the new Oxbow Public Market in Napa will succeed, and another dozen why it will fail, which is why it will be intriguing to watch what happens over the next year or so.

It will take that long before it's finished, even though the official opening takes place this weekend. Actually, only about a half-dozen of the 18 stalls in the main building can open this week. Most of the rest won't be in place until mid- to late-January. A key restaurant position, right at the front of the building, remains empty as negotiations continue over it.

Originally, the building was supposed to be open earlier this year, but as the market's president, Steve Carlin, took me through the building Wednesday, hard-hatted workmen were still at work, and not just with finishing touches. Sawdust covered the concrete floors. Electrical cords criss-crossed the space, and the sound of of power tools reverberated. A separate wing containing a butcher shop and a bakery lacked parking lots and walkways to get to them. The Napa branch of Taylor's Refresher, St. Helena's popular hamburger and ahi sandwich stand, still said "Michelin" on its unpainted exterior, a relic of its former life as a garage.

When it's complete, Oxbow will be Napa's own version of the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, which was a roaring success from the day it opened in 2003. Carlin, who ran Oakville Grocery for 20 years, was the project manager on that one, and he recruited the same architectural firm that did the Ferry Building renovation to build Oxbow from the ground up.

It's a nifty building, with skylights in the peaked roof, 10 outdoor bays for local farmers to set up permanent and semi-permanent stalls, an array of tenants who focus on local products, and Folio, the smallest bonded winery in the United States.

With everything running late, Carlin noted ruefully, few of the fresh food purveyors will be open at first. Most should be going by mid-January, but for the first few weeks you can buy books, photos, teas and spices. Pica Pica, which makes Venezuelan snacks, looks like the only place to actually buy lunch at first. Folio also has a kitchen and can serve bites to go with its wines.

Right now it looks like the main building's prime destination will be Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant, at the back of the building overlooking the curve in the river that gives the market its name. Ex-sommeliers Peter Granoff and Debbie Zachareas, who also own the wine shop in Ferry Plaza, will have a full kitchen to prepare a more complete menu than they can in San Francisco, and an extensive cheese shop run by Kate Arding (who got Cowgirl Creamery started) to go along with the bar.

The main building also will have a rotisserie chicken stand, shops selling chocolate and ice cream, a beef purveyor, another selling olives and olive oil, and shops for culinary antiques and photographs. Taylor's Refresher is in a separate wing, flanked by the Fatted Calf, a butcher and charcuterie that has been selling at farmer's markets in Northern California, and Model Bakery, which is installing a wood-burning oven like the one it has in St. Helena, its home base.

This (eventual) lineup looks like one of the pluses in predicting whether Oxbow will be a success. Another plus is the architecture, and the position by the Napa river. A regular farmer's market (Tuesdays and Saturdays) will also bring people in. But the biggest draw may well be Taylor's Refresher, which packs 'em in at the Ferry Building and always has a long line in St. Helena. Once folks are there for a burger, they will want to wander through the market.

On the down side, even though the location is only three blocks east of downtown Napa, it's not visible from there. Nor is it visible from Highway 121, which is only a few blocks to the east. The Ferry Building, one of the most recognizable landmarks in San Francisco, is served by every mode of transportation in the city. To get to Oxbow, patrons must find their way or take a shuttle from downtown garages. Eventually, they can stop off from the [still incomplete] river walk trail, which threads past it.

It's also a bummer that so little will be open at first, and the big space at the front of the building, meant to be a restaurant, will be under construction once someone commits to it.

And it remains to be seen how often the new produce bays will be full. Carlin says they're about half subscribed for the first couple of months, but expects there to be a waiting list by April, when spring produce is booming. Finally, a new river bypass is about to be built, to help deal with flooding. Eventually, it will provide a beautiful park-like green space next door. It will be a construction zone first, though, just when Oxbow is trying to establish itself.

Finally, I don't know if it's a plus or not that Copia, the Robert Mondavi-inspired center for wine, food and the arts, is its closest neighbor. Since its inception, that institution has been struggling to attract the public's attention, despite the excellence of its restaurant and sincerity of its programs.

On balance, however, anyone serious about food and wine will have to stop by to check it out. I have a hunch that, once everything is in place, it will become one of Napa Valley's star attractions.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 14, 2007 1:39pm ET
I drove by the place, by accident. Parking, it appears is going to be completely inadequate. If one is doing the winery tours and drive into town for lunch and the shopping there, are they going to park, maybe a half mile away, and then try to figure out how to get back to the market. My guess is not, or at least not more than once in a life time. This may be especially so in summer when the thermo reads 100+. Ferry Marketplace is in SF, you're walking, or taking transit anyway. Not so in Napa, I haven't stayed in Napa for years, to many great places to stay further north. Therefore, I'm driving when I hit the town, which is rarely a pleasant ordeal, because of traffic, anyway. It sounds like it should be a great place, but people that want customers in Napa, provide parking.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 14, 2007 4:10pm ET
I sure hope Oxbow works, because Copia certainly won't keep it alive. Copia's programs may be sincere, but it is also the most boring destination in the entire Napa/Sonoma complex. It was like spending time in Disneyland's Tommorowland in the 1980's. All of the exhibits were built in the 60's, and they looked like it. Copia is one place I plan to never visit again. Hopefully Oxbow isn't counting on that place to keep it afloat until it's in full swing.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  December 14, 2007 6:28pm ET
Sandy, the question about parking has the locals concerned as well. Currently, the Copia parking lot will be available for Oxbow visitors, and additional parking spots come with the market. There are also some plans in place to make the entire downtown area a little more pedestrian-friendly (new walks along the river and such). The developers point out there are a some parking garages just a few blocks away, although they are on the other side of a rather busy street, Soscol. There is also a possibility of expanding the free trolley system. There are big questions whether or not the tourists (and the locals) will find enough to do to warrant parking at one end of downtown with the idea of walking to the other.

I was thinking the other day about how, when I lived in San Francisco, the distance from the parking garages to the market would seem like no distance at all--typical for a "good parking" option in the city. Since I moved to Napa I've been spoiled with such light traffic or parking problems in comparison. It's amazing what one gets used to. . .
John Danby
Napa —  December 17, 2007 1:08am ET
Troy, I think you'll find that Copia is steadily evolving, working to find combinations to please both the wine geeks and the newbies. I believe there will be great synergy between Copia and Oxbow.

Sandy, while Copia still controls it, the south parking lot will provide quite a bit of space for both the visitor to Oxbow Market and the Copia visitor. There is a trolley stop less than 50 yards from Copia/Oxbow, so it is easy to park in a downtown garage, typically empty on the weekend, and take the free trolley to Oxbow.

Harvey's right about the lack of visibility, something that has plagued Copia from its inception. But Napa is working hard to make downtown a destination rather than an after thought in the Wine Country experience, and, as the Oxbow District expands, particularly with the new hotels, both Oxbow Market and Copia should, hopefully, become destinations, too.

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