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Gone Baby Gone

Columnist: Christina Julian
January, 2019 Issue

Christina Julian
All articles by columnist

With the dawn of the New Year, I once again resolve to “get real” with myself. As much as I prattle on about being adept at punting and shifting when life throws its curve balls, I deplore change, especially when it comes to saying bye-bye to longstanding restaurants.

The classic and revered Tra Vigne in St. Helena ended a 28-year run when it closed in 2015, signaling what ultimately became a series of restaurant exoduses. Redd, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Brannan’s, and Hurley’s all shut their doors in 2018. The reasons for the closures are manyfold—a shift in tourists’ eating preferences, stalled bounceback after the valley fires, perceived competitive threats due to mega resort expansions, and the ever-present lack of affordable housing for employees.

Eateries such as Pizzeria Tra Vigne (the casual sister outpost to Tra Vigne) have been forced to reinvent themselves as a means of survival in what has become a saturated hospitality market. The pizzeria refashioned its interiors and menu to incorporate signature dishes from the iconic restaurant including the famed Mozzarella Al Minuto, the minestrone soup, and thanks be to God, the butterscotch panna cotta, which I once dubbed (and still believe to be) the best dessert in Napa Valley. Additionally, the restaurant offers happy hour discounts seven days a week and presents monthly Pint Nights featuring local breweries and deals. Interestingly and annoyingly, the restaurant did away with its free corkage policy, leaving only Sam’s Social Club as one of the last men standing, in the gratis corkage club

The new face of the valley

Change continues to reign across the valley, more than a year after the 2017 wildfires. This “after” identifier has fast become a distinguishing line in Napa Valley discussions in much the same way “before” and “after” tags were used in post 9/11 ravaged New York City. People wax on about travel conditions, before—the glory days of travel when you could sail through airport security, in contrast to after in NYC, which is marred by multi-hour waits and full body TSA frisks. Before, you could run through neighborhood streets, singing, screaming, and even stripping with barely a blink from passersby. After, uniformed military lined those same streets, machine guns strapped to backs, waiting for the next hit.

In Napa Valley, I’ve observed similar identifiers in relation to the wildfires. Before, summer campfires blazed, vineyard managers proactively burned vines to make room for new ones. The power stayed “on” regardless of windstorms that blew into town. After, as I type today, schools have been closed for four days due to smoke from the far-flung Butte County Campfire. PG&E has proactively shut down power in the City of Calistoga, on at least two occasions, due to forecasted high winds. During one outage more than 5,700 Napa County homes and businesses lost power. As many as 100 customers filed claims on everything from spoiled food to property damage and lost revenues, all results of a flick of a switch, what PG&E dubbed de-energizing power lines. Try de-energizing tweens and teens suffering from a lack of screen time who are forced to do the unthinkable—engage in, real, in-person conversations. Grownups reignite power-outage gripe sessions every time there’s a whiff of wind. Some herald the proactive power shutdowns, others chastise the litigious nature of our society, bent on assigning blame on random acts of nature. PG&E responded to outcries, with a vow to “do better” in the future with more advance notification, detailed maps on affected areas, and improved communications regarding power restoration times.

As an east coaster, wild fires were never a worry. Instead, hurricanes sent kids home from school preemptively. College students reacted by throwing hurricane parties with every blink of a storm warning. Here in Napa County, I’ve vacillated between being perturbed and panicked every time the power was shut off, or school was canceled due to smoke. In the case of the latter, wondering why the inside of my home was deemed safer than inside a school, yet dramatically concerned over the impact of air quality on my wee ones.

I realize with the dawn of a new year and reality before me, it might be time to come to terms with this heightened sense of alert as the new norm in Napa Valley. Tensions may ebb and flow but the undercurrent of danger will likely always live on. Widespread devastation of land, homes, and people stays with us and shapes our lives. Be it the activation of a plan for inevitable power outages, or simply the way in which we react to potential threats. I repeatedly tell my toddlers, change is never easy, especially when it’s thwarted on us. Yet, it’s a necessity nonetheless





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