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The New Napa Valley: Country or Cosmo?

Columnist: Christina Julian
April, 2015 Issue

Christina Julian
All articles by columnist

Like any good relationship, my affair with Napa Valley is wrought with love/hate moments.

It’s no secret I covet the idea of small-town life and, for the most part, Napa Valley has fulfilled my fantasies. Yet my notions of such a life have always been in conflict with my big city roots, which explains how I got from Manhattan to here. It’s fitting, given Napa Valley seems to be grappling over whether to remain more country or cosmopolitan, and it’s also how I came to fall in love with the area.
Like any good relationship, my affair with Napa Valley is wrought with love/hate moments. I love that the lifting of the foie gras ban is considered headline-worthy news here, but hate that food delivery is virtually nonexistent. I love that I can walk a few blocks this way or that and sink into luxurious bliss at places like Solage and Indian Springs. I’m thrilled by the rise of a restaurant scene in Calistoga with additions like Sushi Mambo, Evangeline and—the virgin in the crowd—Sam’s Social Club. And I adore the fact that, despite an expansion this winter, JoLe will continue to serve its mind-erasing coconut cream pie, what I’ve crowned as the best dessert in Napa Valley.
I deplore the idea of a snooty Four Seasons in Calistoga, and despise the traffic that will go along with it, especially since the bottleneck at the tip of town already feels like it’s at full throttle. I’m neutral on the metamorphosis of Harvest Inn into a Charlie Palmer resort but most definitely hate the St. Helena construction eyesore that was once the Grandview. At least the dirt mounds will be replaced by a Starwood Las Alcobas resort, which will give my East Coast contingent one less thing to complain about as they forever gripe about the lack of hotel chains in Napa Valley.
This winter, I did my happy dance when St. Helena’s Cook opened a lively sidekick (Cook Tavern) and remain equally amped over the fact that downtown Napa has one too many new restaurants and nightlife options to type about in this word-constrained space, but Atlas Social stands out. I deplore the opening of another Habit Burger, especially given its location smack in the center of downtown. I heart the Napa Valley Vine Trail, especially come harvest time, when the 12.5 mile stretch that connects Napa to Yountville will be completed.
Not even an earthquake could knock us down for very long. October hotel occupancy was up 4.4 percent from 2013, a major feat given the Andaz was out of commission and the Westin handicapped. Yountville saw an 11 percent spike in average nightly room rates for 2014 and Calistoga hosted 1.2 million visitors, opened five new restaurants, two tasting rooms and eight retail stores—all in the last year.
So maybe it’s my destiny to remain in purgatory when it comes to Napa Valley, which makes sense, given we’re at odds over what to call the “off” season. At the semi-annual Visit Napa Valley marketing conference, I learned what was once known as “mustard season” has been officially renamed “Cabernet season.” It’s my nature to get hung up on words, so I won't disappoint. First off, is there really such thing as an “off” season with events like Napa Valley Film Festival, Flavor! Napa Valley, Premiere Napa Valley, Arts in April, BottleRock, Truffle Festival, Restaurant Month and the new Yountville Live, all of which drive tourism in our supposed “off” months from November to April? And if we needed another event to cement the deal, Calistoga hosted its first Mudder of All Weekends, including an all-female mud relay race and more chick-friendly faire like a bathrobe pub crawl. Second, I question the nomenclature of Cabernet season. Isn’t every day a Cabernet day in Napa Valley? If not, shouldn’t it be? Does tourism slump a bit during those months? Yes, but to brand it and give it a special name seems off to me.
Perhaps the battle between love and hate, mustard or Cabernet, need not be a war at all. Because for every aspect of development I balk at, there are other moments that remind me that small town perks still prevail—and, hopefully, always will. Like when my tot Cindy tossed her sun hat out of the wagon last weekend. A discovery I made two days after the fact, when I walked our normal route and her brother spotted the bonnet hanging on a fence post at the place where it must’ve dropped out.
Here’s hoping that, for every ounce of cosmopolitan development that descends, there are equal measures of country charm to counter.


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