Wine Country Boom
Over the past 40 years, Napa and Sonoma have transformed from tranquil country towns into bustling world-class food and wine destinations. Here’s how.
Courtesy of Bardessono Hotel and Spa
Catherine Bartolomei, whose children are sixth-generation Sonoma residents, remembers her idyllic childhood of the 1970s in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
“We used to ride our bikes everywhere,” says Bartolomei, who lives on the ranch her great-grandfather bought in the early 1900s. “We were a little farm town, a 4-H mecca. We were apple country.”
Oh, how times have changed.
During high season, if you’re craving dinner at Bartolomei’s Michelin-starred restaurant at Farmhouse Inn—the hotel south of Healdsburg that she owns with her brother—be sure to book ahead. “May through October, you need to book a couple of weeks in advance for a Saturday night,” she says. “And when hotel guests book with us during the high season, we tell them to book all of their outside reservations in advance, too.”
So how exactly did a 4-H mecca explode into one of the most popular destinations in the world, together with Napa producing much of the most highly coveted wine on the market?
The 40th anniversary of the turning point—the dramatic Judgment of Paris—is being toasted all across Wine Country. The 1976 blind tasting pitted top California wines—upstarts from a region that had to recuperate from Prohibition—against the historically renowned French vintages. The mostly French judges expected the contest would prove their own wine’s superiority.
But when Napa bested the French in both the red and white categories, it was clear that California wine was on the A-list.
“Yes, 1976 was the tipping point, but it was a reflection of all that happened in the years earlier, a confirmation of all of this work,” says Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. “It marked the transformation, and all of the trends sort of accelerated. It gave legitimacy to California wine.”
Let’s just say that winning the Judgment might have come as a surprise to the French (and the Californians, too, to be fair). But it was not beginner’s luck.
Going back to the late 1800s, Sonoma and Napa had a thriving wine culture—before Prohibition decimated it all. (During Prohibition, the number of wineries in Napa dropped from more than 140 to less than 40, according to Lin Weber, author of Roots of the Present: Napa Valley 1900–1950.)
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, so many winemakers had given up or passed away that rebuilding was a major challenge. Many of the remaining vintners had planted heartier grapes during Prohibition because they shipped better to home vintners, but these grapes did not make the best wine.
By the 1960s, when the pioneers of modern Napa were blazing trails of high-quality grapes as we know them now–big names such as Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, and Joe Heitz–Napa only had about 25 wineries in the county.
While Mondavi and his peers were toiling away, Americans’ interest in sweet, fortified wines began to wane, and the idea of sharing a good bottle of wine with friends started appearing in popular movies.
“Culture started to change,” says Dinkelspiel. “Soldiers from WWII saw people drinking wine in Europe, so they started drinking it at home after the war. Jackie Kennedy had spent a lot of time in Europe and started promoting good wine. Slowly but surely, Americans started drinking more and more wine.”
After several decades of rebuilding, wineries were itching to be recognized. But it wasn’t until the big Judgment win that banks began to lend money to California wineries and international wine press inquiries began rolling in.
Napa and then Sonoma started to explode. And so did the region’s international acclaim as a place to see and be seen—wine glass in hand. The timing was ripe.
From 1978 to 1988, the number of wineries in Napa grew to 204, an average of more than one new winery a month, writes James Conaway in his historical Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Then in 1989, wine grapes became Sonoma County’s biggest revenue-generating crop, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Also around this time, a young writer named Robert Parker began cutting his teeth as a wine reviewer. His newsletter, The Wine Advocate, which published ratings on his now-famous 100-point scale, spurred many of the new wineries to vie for higher ratings in order to sell more bottles. The goal of striving for higher-quality wine was here to stay.
The 1990s ended up being a wonderful decade for California wine—and wineries grew at a rapid clip. All of the well-heeled new visitors clamoring for a firsthand wine adventure needed high-end restaurants to dine at and five-star hotels to sleep in after a day full of wine tasting.
One of the pioneers in developing Wine Country’s world-class dining scene was chef Thomas Keller, who bought The French Laundry in Yountville in 1994. By 2007, the year he won his first three-star Michelin rating for his landmark bastion of fine dining, he had also opened neighboring Ad Hoc and Bouchon (which would also earn a Michelin star), and set the stage for a new era of award-winning restaurants in Wine Country.
Today, nine restaurants in Napa and Sonoma boast a Michelin star, including The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood, both of which have the coveted three stars. (By comparison, the entire city of San Francisco also has two, three-starred restaurants.)
And who remembers when downtown Napa was the last place a tourist would stop in? Lisa Sedgley recalls 16 years ago, when she first arrived in the valley: “It used to be all mom-and-pop places, and there weren’t many dining options,” says the director of consumer sales and hospitality for Odette Estate, PlumpJack Winery, and Cade Estate. “Now, you can find any type of food there. It’s not even recognizable.”
When Napa’s now-bustling Oxbow Public Market opened at the beginning of 2008, it had whole sections that remained empty—which is hard to imagine now. As it filled up, the ultrachic Morimoto Napa restaurant opened in summer 2010, ushering in a new scale of hipness.
Now, Napa and Sonoma are prime destinations for people from around the world, with trips that include spa time, hot-air balloon rides, outdoor hikes, and of course, lavish dinners and wine tasting.
“People come here from across the globe, including folks from around the United States, Asia, Europe, and South America,” says Marcus Notaro, the winemaker for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, whose Cabernet Sauvignon won first place in the Judgment’s red category.
The pressure to maintain—and even improve—quality is intense. “The increasing recognition has meant that the sky’s the limit with wines in Sonoma,” says George Hamel Jr. of Hamel Family Wines. “Wineries here now don’t want to take a backseat to any wine, anywhere.”
Nowadays, the numbers from each county’s tourism bureau are staggering. In Sonoma County, hotel occupancy rates have risen from 62 percent to 75 percent in the past 10 years, and a whopping seven million visitors descend on Sonoma every year, spending $1.82 billion annually.
And in Napa? The tourism numbers continue to break records: Visitors spent $1.3 billion in 2015, an 8.9 percent increase over 2014. The county now has more than 475 wineries.
Of course, new wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and hotels continue to open all the time. With all this staggering growth, it’s hard to imagine what lies ahead, but one thing’s for sure: There’s plenty of fantastic wine to toast to Wine Country’s success.
So cheers to the next 40 years and all the good things yet to come
New Hot Spots
By Sara Hare
Eat: Buzz-worthy Miminashi, a Japanese izakaya, draws crowds for the whole animal yakitori and rice bowls. A simple dining room sports unstained wood tables and rustic ceramic dinnerware, and every bite of food is impeccable.
Sip: Since it opened in May, Jam Cellars, a wine bar-meets-live music venue, has become the hottest stool in town thanks to owners John and Michele Truchard (J and M), second-generation Napa vintners.
Stay: While the super-chic Andaz Napa hotel has been sizzling since it opened in 2009, the newest retreat is the completely redesigned Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa. But this is not your mother’s Marriott—the revamped hotel boasts a show-stopping resort pool surrounded by sexy umbrellas, glowing fire pits, and shady redwood nooks. The rooms have also been completely renovated, with 3-D artwork above the beds, wooden barn-like sliding bathroom doors, and glass walk-in showers.
Eat: This small hamlet might just have the highest per-capita rate of Michelin-starred restaurants outside of France. With legendary eateries like The French Laundry, the cozy Bistro Jeanty, the refined Redd, and Michael Chiarello’s bustling Bottega, there are more than a handful of sizzling spots to shake your credit card at. But after a long day of wine tasting, sometimes you just need something casual, fast, and spicy! Enter Protéa, a new Latin American restaurant that has droves of locals and visitors lining up around the block for savory empanadas, braised and roasted meats (including goat), and crispy plantain chips. Anita Cartagena, formerly of Yountville’s Ciccio, is the chef and owner.
Sip: Since Valentine’s Day, Wine Country bon vivant Jean-Charles Boisset has been romancing Yountville with his latest endeavor. At JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier by JCB, you can sample flights of wines while nibbling rarefied cheese and charcuterie imported from France. The expansive atelier (French for “workshop”) has become the spot to purchase picnic supplies, complete with a picnic basket.
Stay: Tiny Yountville continues to pack in more than its fair share of overnight guests. The minimalist Bardessono Hotel and Spa is still the most stylish scene in town, while the handsome Hotel Yountville and elegant Villagio Inn and Spa are in high demand. So is the exclusive Poetry Inn, perched on a hill above the Silverado Trail, unbeatable in the price-is-no-object club.
Eat: The lines at Barndiva and Chalkboard restaurants are still as thick as the aroma of crushed grapes in autumn, but Healdsburg is anxiously awaiting the opening of Single Thread, an ultra high-end restaurant and inn by chef Kyle Connaughton and his “culinary-gardener” wife, Katina. Her gardens will supply the vegetables for their 11-course tasting menu inspired by kaiseki, a traditional type of Japanese cuisine. Above the restaurant, Single Thread will offer five sublimely simple yet upscale rooms.
Sip: Those who love the hip Spoonbar restaurant are also bound to love Duke’s Spirited Cocktails, a new bar right on Healdsburg Plaza created by Spoonbar alums Laura Sanfilippo, Steven Maduro, and Tara Heffernon. Chef Shane McAnelly of Chalkboard supplies the nibbles, while the stand-up-and-shout cocktails are crafted with fruits, flowers, and herbs grown by Duke’s owners. (For Chalkboard fans, McAnelly plans to open a new eatery in the location of the former Ralph’s House.)
Other notable, drink-it-all-in-scenes include Medlock Ames Winery, which transforms into a 1920s speakeasy themed bar at night, and the new wine lounge for Siduri Wine Lounge, producer of cultish Pinot Noirs.
Stay: Nothing is sweeter than a room right in the heart of Healdsburg. Faves include the industrial-chic Hotel Healdsburg and h2hotel, which are still the hottest reservations in town, but keep an eye out for the opening of H3 GuestHouse next winter.