Of course I’m happy. I won the Build-a-Blend blind taste contest. photo by Agatha Gilmore


When the invitation came for a press trip to Napa City, I was sure the PR agency must have mucked up the destination.  I’m not exactly a newbie to California’s renowned Sonoma and Napa Valley wine regions. Have sipped enough wine in tasting rooms to numb my palette and blur where I was when. I distinctly remember driving on Hwy 29 or the Silverado Trail on my way to this or that winery or to return to San Francisco and passing through a non-descript town, but what on earth were we going to find inspiring enough to do for days in that forgettable burg?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the year since my last visit, Napa City has undergone a transformation into an alluring adult playground of arts, boutique shops, 65 non-chain restaurants that embrace farm-to-table freshness and artistically-creative cuisine, and 22 tasting rooms. Napa by day is an easy walk past architecturally-historic buildings imprinted with Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Spanish Colonia, Classical Revival and Art Deco styles and those built to blend in after the 1906 earthquake took its toll. New parks are greening along the altered Napa River, which encourages fresco dining and romantic strolls. Napa-after-dark includes sweet sounds of jazz coming from Silo’s, open mic nights at Uncorked, and more than a 1000 wines and small plated delights to sample at 1313 Main.

City government officials and the Napa Downtown Association leaders call it revitalization. I think awakening better describes the resurgence. Napa City is like Cinderella after she stepped into her glass slippers and instantly poofed! into a dazzling vision. Streets and venues are cozied by fireplaces and fire pits. Colorful art and striking sculptures adorn even vacant store fronts. There’s a radiant ambiance in the chilled evening air.

In this three-part series on Napa City, I’ll tell you more about more about the independent restaurants and the 3,000+ guestrooms in and around the city. There are quaint B&B’s like the 1801 First Luxury Inn, The Inn on first, La Belle Epoque, and the McClelland-Priest. There are independent hotels from the 66-roomed 1884-built Napa River Inn that overlooks the river and the 322-room luxurious Meritage Resort & Spa that contains both an underground wine tasting room and the only spa in the country within the complex’s Estate Cave.  For those who prefer branded properties, there is the Westin Verasa Napa, Embassy Suites, Marriott-Napa Valley, and the Avia (soon to be reflagged as Andaz, a Hyatt chain). But in this first story, I want to share what to see and what to do, all of which elevated my spirits and stimulated my interest.

Napa’s glorious past and even brighter future

She’s the gilded lady of Napa, a true testament to the value of preserving art & architecture in today’s world. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Deciding to build a town alongside the Napa River in 1847 was smart planning by Nathan Coombs. A river ferry begat steamboat service from San Francisco in 1850, which in turn led to the Napa Valley Railroad in the 1860s. The population by the 1870s exploded to 7,000. Today, it hovers ‘round 75,000. Three international airports are within an hour’s drive: Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco. If driving from winery to winery along narrow, winding roads is less appealing than popping into tasting rooms at your leisure, invest in a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Shoes, an appetite to experience fresh flavors, a copy of the Napa Valley Guidebook ($11 from NapaValleyGuidebook.com) and my tips, will enhance your stay.

Wine. Wine. Wine. It’s everywhere to drink

More than 80% of all tourists come to Napa Valley to sample wines according to the Napa Valley Welcome Center. Within the city, 22 tasting rooms offer thousands of wines, many from the legendary Valley and more often than not, at least from California. A vast majority of wines are only available at the tasting rooms or vineyards. Ask at the Welcome Center about the $25 wine tasting card. Each taste at participating venues is then only a dime.  Most tasting rooms in the city offer event space, possible paired tastings with cuisine catered from local restaurants, wine education and activities geared to groups. Personally, I am all about wine education that allows me to sip as I learn.

District 4 is both a tasting lounge and really fun place to do some seriously-interactive teambuilding. I thought the name came from the four represented wineries (the former X Winery now known as Amicus, Textbook Vineyards, Match Vineyards and Fulcrum Wines) but it actually comes from the fact that Napa Valley is California’s grape growing District #4. Located in the heart of Napa’s restaurant and theater district, the space is large enough to accommodate 60, but I loved the more intimate Build-a-Blend room for 12. Typically, the roughly hour-and-a-half experience includes tastings and blending from four carafes of choice wines. You’re given a beaker, stirrer and note pad to mark your percentages. While many groups end up with at least six bottles of your blend with customized label to take home, our hosted group each received a bottle of the winning wine. We had three tries to get it right before submitting our entry to the blind tasting by a representative from each team. Fortunately, my partner, Agatha Gilmore, and I shared similar palettes. When District 4 GM James DeLuca announced that our wine was the “overwhelming favorite,” our high-five slaps and yells were likely heard across the street at the Uptown Theatre.  District4wine.com; 707-254-4906

Back Room Wines is both a shop and bar that carries small production California wines and some liquor. They can cater groups up to 50 and host a challenging game called $15 or $50. It’s a blind tasting game with a great prize for the winner. Backroomwines.com; 877-322-2576

The Westin Verasa Hotel (which you’ll hear more about in another blog post) prides itself on taking wine tasting group events to another level. Their sommeliers host wine blending 1-4 hour classes for team building, with the group or the master sommelier deciding the winner. They also have competitions for label designing and how to market the wine. Oft requested wine education sessions, geared to the group’s needs, include “wine etiquette (such as ‘to spit–and when– or not to spit’), the differences between Napa and Sonoma wines, or why do certain grapes do better in California than France,” says Heidi Miersemann, CMP and the Director of Sales and Marketing.  Westin.com/napa; 707-257-1200

Uncorked at Oxbow is a tasting room with pizazz. By day, owners Bruce Ahnfeldt and Celeste Carducci (who also own the McClellan-Priest historic 12-room B&B) have three rooms that cater to tastings and team blending experiences. One space contains the area’s  only licensed and bonded barrel tasting room.  But it’s at night when Uncorked at Oxbow cranks up the party with open mic nights and mini-concerts. Uncorked-at-oxbow.com; 707-927-5864. We tasted many of their wines. My faves: the 2009 Ahnfeldt Black Label Cabernet and the 2007 White Label Classic Cab. Smooth!

1313 Main is one of the premier late-night Napa venues. Love this place. Proprietor Al Jabarin, who also owns the highly-successful calwine.com, is so passionate about wine that he designed his place around six intimate vignette-spaces with cozy couches and chairs. Each indoor/outdoor space can blend into the next or be separated by its design to allow for groups up to eight to still converse. He has more than 1300 wines, multiple wine flights, and some delicious Mediterranean appetizers for munching. 132 seated. 175 reception.  1313main.com; 707-258-1313

Love in your love before boarding the romantic Napa Valley Wine Train. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The Bounty Hunter was started by Mark Steven Pope, who says he will “match your screaming eagle palate with your pocketbook. He tastes more than 5,000 wines a year, and claims to reject 95% of them.  Craig Smith, Executive Director for Downtown Napa Association, says Pope lives up to bounty hunter title. “If you find expensive wines you like but can’t afford, he’ll find something comparable for less.” Pope produces 12 wines rated higher than 90 on the Parker scale and is reputed by multiple people during my stay to have the best beer can chicken in the Bay area. His shop can hold 25 max. bountyhunterwine.com; 707-226-3976

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been on my bucket list for more than 15 years. When I first started visiting wine country, my dad (who didn’t drink, mind you) would remind me that he’d heard about this wine train he was positive I’d love. I can finally check this one off my list! The Wine Train is a throwback to elegance, fine-dining on white linen with pampered tableside service, and watching the sloping grape-vined hills roll by. We sat in the main club car, which was one of 20 steel-bodied cars built by Pullman for Northern Pacific in 1915. It’s an impressive 83’ long and weighs about 80 tons. The Wine Train also bears Pullman’s first full dome car, called the Vista Dome. Built in 1952, it seats 52 for dining while enjoying spectacular scenery. The cars have been preserved and maintained. The lead glass windows and electrical lighting, the first used in rail transportation, are original.

You can walk through the train and even watch Chef Kelly Macdonald and the kitchen staff preparing meals along the narrow length of one car. We dined on appetizers and a plentiful three-course meal and drank Ahnfeldt and Carducci wines supplied by those winemakers. We had a choice of grilled pork tenderloin stuffed with a wild mushroom polenta on pan roasted vegetables in a truffle port reduction, a salmon filet on a bay shrimp risotto with wilted spinach, roasted beef tenderloin, or my selection, a coriander breast of chicken on grilled yams with roasted beets in a peppercorn cognac demi. The Wine Train doesn’t stop for you to visit area wineries unless private group arrangements are made.

One key element has stayed with me and didn’t pertain to the historic train, food or even the wine. Approaching the train, we passed a chain-linked fence. Hundreds of locks, from heart-shapes to traditional squares to obviously handcrafted one-offs were locked into place on the fence. Ryan Neergaard, PR Coordinator for the train, said the fence is now called Love Lock Bridge. “Comes from the Chinese tradition of lovers locking their souls together and then they throw away the key into the abyss so they can never be separated,” he says. The first locks appeared on the fence nearly two years ago and there are now hundreds. The Wine Train’s shop does sell some locks, but now “people are bringing their own,” says Neergaard. That’s a whole lotta love or wishful thinking locked into place. Winetrain.com

Lest you think Napa is only about wine, let me tell you about Downtown Joe’s Brewery, the city’s only microbrewery. It’s also a restaurant with stunning river views from the backroom and one of the few places in Napa City that can host large groups for events. Downtownjoes.com; 707-258-2337

If you like to get a feel for what the city has to offer and aren’t too keen on self-exploration, maybe the mid-week, once a month Napa Culinary Crawl is for you. Can be customized for a group of 35 max, with visits usually limited to four venues. Includes food and beverage tastings; possibly theater tickets.  Typical cost is about $30 a person.

Not all the fun is about drinking

Napa’s night life has multiple options, but here are three we checked out.

Silo’s abuts the Napa River Inn, so you literally can play and stay. The fanciful jazz and comedy club can do 60max. silosjazzclub.com; 707-251-5833

The Napa Valley Opera House was originally built in 1879 and is still being renovated as dollars come in. They host the Napa Film Festival and concerts. This is a great choice for large groups. Seats 490 upstairs, 200 downstairs. There’s a commercial class kitchen, but groups can bring in their caterer of choice. Architecture buffs won’t want to miss the second-story original wooded curved balcony. napavalleyoperahouse.com; 707-226-7372

The incredibly ornate Uptown Theatre Napa originally opened in 1937, closed for a number of years, and reopened in 2010, restored to its Deco glory by George Altamura and his partners. You can’t appreciate the dedication and love (and millions of dollars) it took to recreate this theater until you’ve heard him personally describe every detail.  (I wish I’d recorded him.) The theater is a gilded lady with carved posts and a hand-painted ceiling that would give revered Italian artists pause. Painted cameos on the ceiling are of his female family members. The women’s “parlor” is so beautiful that each of the women in our group had to be sure to visit. The theater seats 857 and the elegant lobby and courtyard can be used for receptions.  The Uptown Theatre has played host to touring acts such as Boz Scaggs, Merle Haggard, Cyndi Lauper, Ron White, Foreigner, and BB King. Uptowntheatrenapa.com; 707-259-0123

Other than the usual boutique shopping and eating (more on that in my next blog post), Napa has lots to keep you active.

During the summer, Veterans Park offers free concerts on Friday nights and weekly movie nights. They have Shakespeare in the Park productions in July.

Also during the summer is the Thursday evening Chef’s Market. We were at the summer’s first and I can truthfully say I’ve never seen a market like this. At least 10 streets of food and product and city services vendors, stage concerts, and a plethora of people packed the streets. I watched cooking demonstrations by two chefs (different ones each week), which came with wine pairings and samples of each. One of the other market highlights was being introduced to winemaker legend Gustavo Brambila, who co-owns the downtown GustavoThrace retail store with Thrace Bromberger. If Gustavo’s name isn’t familiar, rent the movie, Bottle Shock. It’s the true story of how California wines beat French wines in a 1976 blind tasting competition called “The Judgment of Paris”. Gustavo is played by Freddy Rodriguez.

Get your exercise while experiencing the city and outdoor sculptures from artists representing seven states with the Napa ARTwalk, presented by the Napa Community Redevelopment Agency and Arts Council Napa Valley. Tour pieces rotate every 18 months. Group tours with docent (20 people max per docent) can be arranged. Audio tours are also available. The current theme, Momentum: Art that Moves (Us) runs through Spring, 2013. Napaartwalk.org

There’s shopping and there’s the Oxbow Market, a 40,000-sf facility built originally for community events. Many vendors present their wares, from olive oils to chocolates. Grab a bite or have a cup of coffee and just enjoy.

Each piece of chocolate is meticulously adorned. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Like any after-dinner treat, chocolate makes the perfect dessert. Our group didn’t wait until after a big meal to sample the diverse treats rendered at Anette’s Chocolates. We were there in mid-morning for an educational chocolate tasting experience. Anette rarely leads these small group (12 max) tastings because she and her partner, brother Brent, are too busy creating and shipping chocolates, syrups and brittle to companies worldwide, such as to William Sonoma. Just like wine education, Anette had us sample various types of chocolates, explaining how the origin of the cacao bean affects smoothness, texture and sweetness. The higher the number listed for chocolate, the darker it is. She pointed out that wines pair better with her winter cabernet truffles than with the lighter, summer ones. Remember that classic Lucille Ball episode where she was in a candy factory and the chocolates tumbled and spilled  over the fast-moving rack? I kept waiting for that to happen (it didn’t) as we watched truffles being individually decorated by a pastry worker as they slowly moved across the machinery. Through a glass viewing window in the store, we watched hot brittle poured onto enormous steel tables and then quickly stretched and sliced. My favorite: the chili lime tequila tortilla chip brittle, with enormous chunks of tortillas festooned into each piece.  They also make a chardonnay brittle, beer brittle, and a triple nut Kentucky Bourbon brittle. Have an ice cream sundae. They make their own sauces and syrups, with and without wine. Anettes.com; 707-252-4228

Don’t know about you, but I have a sudden craving for a ruby red glass of wine and chocolate!

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com