A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and ... well, just make sure the wine is from the paradise known as Napa Valley.
A short road trip north of San Francisco, Napa Valley would be just another pretty place if not for the magic marriage of climate and volcanic soil. Napa Valley grapes are used to make nectars of the gods, including Merlot, a popular, full-bodied red blend concocted here.
Over 200 wineries are now situated along the 30-mile slip of land that makes up the valley. Even Francis Ford Coppola got in on the act, purchasing the
Inglenook chateau and vineyard in nearby Rutherford in 1994.
Visitors come to Napa for the wine and stay for the spectacular countryside. Tours are available in a hot air balloon or from the Napa Valley Wine train, a three-hour railway tour complete with gourmet food. Other attractions include Napa's natural hot mineral springs as well as the famous volcanic ash mud renowned for its rejuvenating qualities.
The city of Napa, long ignored by wine country visitors, is fast reinventing
itself. Now there's plenty of reason to linger.
By Janet Fullwood -- Bee Travel Editor
NAPA -- More than 5 million tourists a year visit the Napa Valley, and 95
percent of them blast right past the region's commercial center on Highway 29
without so much as a sidelong glance.
Those who do venture into the city of Napa often as not make a beeline for the
Visitor Information Center in the Town Plaza shopping mall, right next to a
not-so-scenic parking garage.
"They ask, 'Where are the wineries?' and head right back out of town," laments
Craig Smith, executive director of the Napa Downtown Association, which hopes to
see that situation turned around.
It shouldn't be long: The tide already is turning in once-sleepy Napa town --
and a tsunami of a tide it is. Now under way are a bevy of projects that within
three years will see a revitalized riverfront become the focus of a downtown
historic district sure to loom large on the tourist map.
Didn't know Napa even had a river? Sure it does: The Napa River, close enough to
San Francisco Bay to experience 8-foot tides, was once the scene of heavy
steamboat traffic, and even today sees the occasional small cruise ship glide
The river also is subject to flood -- which is why, two years ago, voters
approved Measure A -- a $240 million flood-control project financed by a
half-cent sales tax increase. Diverse community groups have rallied around the
innovate plan, which has been lauded for its environmental sensitivity.
Instead of controlling the river through a traditional system of reservoirs,
dams and concrete embankments, the "living river" design will see the river
channel widened, terraced levees built and a dry bypass constructed to redirect
high water when the river rises to flood stage. Three bridges in downtown Napa
and several more upstream will be rebuilt or replaced to accommodate the
broadened stream, and dozens of businesses and residences in the path of the
construction will be relocated. (Among them: Chanterelle, a popular restaurant
on Soscol Avenue; and almost a mile of adjacent railroad track serving the Napa
Valley Wine Train.)
"It's a model project in the nation for a more natural river, a softer design
that allows for natural inundation in certain areas," explained Jennifer Louks,
redevelopment/economic analyst with the City of Napa.
For more information: Call the Napa Downtown Association, (707) 257-0322, or
visit www.napavalley.com. Another helpful site is
revitalized riverfront will include public plazas, riverside promenades, boat
docks and other venues geared to redirect residents and visitors alike to
downtown. Work that began in August will take seven years to complete.
"We're definitely experiencing a renaissance, if you will," said Louks. "Instead
of downtown properties turning their backs on the river, the river is becoming
their front door."
If a redefined downtown isn't enough to get both residents and tourists excited,
the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts surely will: The $70 million
center, going up on a 12-acre, riverfront site, opens in fall 2001 and is
expected to draw 300,000 people a year.
Meanwhile, at the corner of Fifth and Main streets, the chic new
Napa River Inn
is the cornerstone of the Napa Mill and
Hatt Market, biggest historic
restoration project ever undertaken in Napa. In the center of town, plans are
underway for a redesign of Town Plaza, a central gathering place dominated by a
1970s-era, problem-plagued clock tower that will be replaced with something more
pleasing to the eye. Veteran's Park also will get a face-lift, including a new
amphitheater with a direct relationship to the river. And on Main Street between
First and Pearl, the 1879 Napa Valley Opera House -- renamed the Margrit Biever
Mondavi Opera House Theatre in honor of its main benefactress -- is being
restored by a nonprofit group and will open within a couple of years as an
elegant performing arts venue.
The momentum also has inspired a crop of new downtown restaurants and the
promise of hundreds of new hotel rooms.
"Measure A is serving as a catalyst for redevelopment of all kinds of properties
that historically have not taken advantage of their riverfront location, because
historically they were subject to flooding," explained Louks. "With the future
guarantee that they will be protected, folks are coming in and investing money
Napa's charismatic potential was tested last summer with an expanded
Friday-evening event called Chef's Market, featuring food and wine tastings from
Napa Valley restaurants and wineries, cooking demonstrations food and crafts
booths, produce from regional farmers, music stages and family entertainment. It
proved wildly successful, drawing up to 5,000 revelers on each of 20 consecutive
Now, with pile drivers slamming and bulldozers scraping along the riverbank, the
best place to get a sense of what's to come is at the Napa Mill, in the 1884
Hatt Building on a bend in the river just east of downtown.
Built in 1884 by steamboat captain Albert Hatt as a feed mill and grain
business, the building complex, which is on the National Registry of Historic
Places, is being turned into what developers are calling a "specialty urban
marketplace." Beginning next year, an outdoor farmers market will operate
seasonally, while an indoor public market featuring specialty foods and wares
will operate year round. A fine dining restaurant, Toulon, will open on the
waterfront, and an outdoor Riverfront Plaza will serve as a public gathering
space. The complex will be connected to downtown and the new American Center by
a landscaped riverfront promenade.
Already up and running are Geezer's Grill, a casual eatery that relocated from
another downtown location; and Sweetie Pie's Bakery, both serving guests of the
new Napa River Inn. An upscale boutique property to have 66 rooms and a
conference center spread between the Hatt Building and two annexes, the inn
opened its first phase last summer and is targeting business travelers during
the week, leisure travelers on weekends. Its final 32 guest rooms are under
construction in a new building next to the Market Hall.
The new inn offers traditional decor with modern conveniences, along with some
quirky history. Built of bricks made of clay dredged from the adjacent river,
the Hatt Building featured a second-story roller rink that later saw use as a
dance hall, basketball court and armory. The rink's bird's-eye maple floor,
restored to a golden luster, has been incorporated into a second-floor lounge
and conference room. The flooring of the inn's signature guest room, the Hatt
Suite, meanwhile, is made of maple salvaged from the gymnasium of the old Napa
High School. Guest room decor throughout the inn is traditional, but with bright
colors and nautical touches tying the site to the river and its steamboat past.
Seismic reinforcement of the historic building -- including its original,
exposed brick walls -- had just been completed when a 5.2 earthquake struck Napa
on Sept. 3. "We didn't expect it to be tested so soon," Nancy Lochmann, the
hotel's general manager, said with a wry smile.
A few hairline cracks, quickly repaired, were the building's only evidence of
the quake that caused as much as $50 million of damage in the Napa Valley, most
of it residential.
A few blocks away, a rippling roofline gives a hint of things to come at the
American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts, meant to be a defining destination
for downtown Napa and the California wine industry. Cradled in an oxbow of the
Napa River, the 80,000-square-foot Center is architecturally designed to
incorporate water views. "Across the river is a wildlife refuge: It will serve
as a backdrop to our concert series," said Kerry Evans, spokeswoman for the
Facilities at this nonprofit cultural museum and educational center will include
an outdoor concert terrace, a theater for small musical performances, 3 1/2
acres of gardens, 13,000 square feet of exhibition space and facilities for
films, seminars, lectures, culinary demonstrations, wine tastings and workshops.
The Center's 75-seat presentation dining room has been named for Julia Child.
"It's the first time Julia's lent her name to anything like this," said Evans.
"She's really involved."
On any given day, promoters say, visitors to the Center will be able to attend a
cooking demonstration, learn how grapes are grown, attend a film or lecture,
tour the exhibitions, participate in a wine tasting class and enjoy a live
All of which will add considerably to the appeal of a town that, more than 150
years after its founding, finally is coming of age.
"This is going to be something else for Napa," the Downtown Association's Smith
said of the anticipated impact on this city of 70,000. "Napa hasn't been a big
destination like St. Helena or other town Up Valley. We hope to become that."
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