A Toast to Napa

The once-ignored town in the famous wine-growing valley has been transformed into a destination all its own.


Cover Story

May 09, 2004|By Craig Nakano | Craig Nakano,Los Angeles Times

In California's wine country, there's Napa, the valley. And then there's Napa, the city.

Napa, the valley, is the realm of chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville and Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum- Coppola winery in Rutherford, of the luxe Meadowood resort in St. Helena and the mud baths of Calistoga.

And Napa, the city? That's been another story. What I remembered most from visits years ago were empty storefronts and a polluted river that flooded. Polite people called the place scruffy. Honest people called it something worse.

As the ugly duckling of Napa Valley, the city had such image problems that hotels in town were dodgy about their location. "We're on First Street in Napa Valley," some would say.

Today, though, the name game has changed. Walk around town and you'll hear people speak of Robert Mondavi and Julia Child, backers of Copia, the culinary theme park that's the centerpiece of the local renaissance.

You'll hear of the Rouas family, owners of the vaunted Auberge du Soleil resort up-valley, who chose downtown Napa for Angele, their hot new restaurant. You'll hear Coppola's name, too, and details of the 1937 Uptown movie theater he's helping to transform into a performing arts palace.

As unlikely as it seems, this city finally has some backers and some buzz.

I visited in March and found it the most surprising -- and pleasing -- destination in the valley. New lodgings, restaurants and galleries, plus a historic opera house that recently reopened after decades of neglect, are transforming this place into a hamlet of fine food and culture.

While the rest of the valley is increasingly derided as overdeveloped and overrun by tourists, Napa doesn't yet suffer from its successes. Crowds are smaller, pretensions fewer. The city impresses by not trying to impress.

"In the old days, Napa was a pariah. It was not part of Napa Valley," said Garret Murphy, who opened a co-op wine-tasting room called Vintner's Collective a year and half ago. "But in the next few years, Napa Valley will be proud to have this city. Actually, I think it already is."

Napa's history as an overlooked region dates to 1823, when the first Europeans to arrive, Don Francisco Castro and Father Jose Altimira, passed on Napa as a mission site. Not until 1848 did Nathan Coombs formally lay out a town called Nappa City, the name thought to have derived from a Wappo Indian village in the area.

In the decades that followed, the town did see some change: incorporation in 1872, the dropping of one "p" from its name, the building of tanneries and fuel-loading docks along the Napa River.

But as the rest of the valley evolved into the nation's premier wine country, Napa remained a sleepy bedroom community for the low-paid vineyard and restaurant workers, removed psychologically and set back geographically from state Route 29, the valley's main highway.

A bright welcome

I pulled into town in a driving rain late one Wednesday night, and it was hard to tell whether times really had changed. The business district clustered around Main Street was deserted, as was the Napa River Inn, a 66-room midscale lodging that's a key component of redevelopment.

The hotel, two restaurants, a bakery and a general store occupy what used to be a grain mill, and, at first glance, the low-slung brick facade and steel and tin silos of the 19th-century structure looked like a sad ghost of Napa's industrial past.

Then it happened. Though the storm had knocked out power throughout town, the new Napa began shining through.

Hotel staff dispersed quickly in the dark, making sure emergency lights and guests' electronic keycards still worked. A bellman offered flashlights and apologies, as though he had any control over Mother Nature.

Come morning -- every morning, actually -- breakfast arrived precisely as ordered, exactly at 9:30. And my room was pleasant, with chablis-colored walls and a balcony overlooking the Napa River.

The other new lodgings in town were equally impressive. The highest-profile project is the Carneros Inn, opened in November and touted as the first newly constructed resort in Napa Valley in almost 20 years. The biggest surprise here isn't that its San Francisco financiers obtained the building permits in a growth-wary community, but that they have chosen this end of the valley for 86 pricey bungalows.

To see what $425 (the cost of a standard king-bed cottage) buys in the new Napa, I drove five miles to the Carneros Inn security gate and pretended to be a tourist looking for a place to sleep.

Inside, I felt as though I was entering a mirage. The hilltop infinity pool, with its vineyard views and neat rows of cushy chaise longues, looked almost too pretty to plunge into. Bungalows had Brazilian cherry floors in the bedroom, heated slate floors in the bathroom, a Jacuzzi tub and two showers (one al fresco), a wood-burning fireplace, a plasma TV. ...

All this? In Napa?

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