NAPA, Calif. — It’s Saturday night in Napa, and First Street is quiet. But the shiny new Archer Hotel, which opened in November, is teeming with wine lovers. At Charlie Palmer Steak, the hotel restaurant that spills into the lobby like a carelessly poured sample of cabernet, chef Jeff Russell sends out plates of Wagyu beef, foie gras, crab salad, citrus-infused salmon and . . . well, you get the idea . . . to hungry oenophiles fresh from winery visits or the Premiere Napa Valley auction.
Just steps from the restaurant’s side door, tucked away in a still-under-construction pedestrian retail mall, master sommelier Matt Stamp and his business partner, Ryan Stetins, are hosting a more casual but equally enthusiastic evening at Compline. The combo wine bar, restaurant and retail shop offers a quirky selection of imported wines, most priced under $40 a bottle. And perhaps the best darn burger I’ve ever tasted.
Across First Street, tucked behind plywood walls surrounding a store under renovation, is Cadet wine bar. It is a raucous scene where I am able to enjoy a glass of Bedrock zinfandel, if not a conversation. (That may be an age thing; I’m easily the oldest in the joint.) I long for the quieter confines of Outland wine bar just down the alley, where earlier I had enjoyed wines from three wineries and the affections of an adorable Bernese-poodle mix named Hermione.
“What Napa has lacked for so many years is a nightlife,” Compline’s Stamp says. Not so long ago, visitors to Napa Valley could be excused for ignoring Napa itself. It was a sleepy little town, making the news whenever the scrawny Napa River flooded, or when the Copia wine and food mecca famously failed. But now the Oxbow Public Market draws food lovers, and Copia has reopened as part of the Culinary Institute of America (the “other CIA”), with a new restaurant and a food museum.
The First Street renaissance is a recovery from the 2014 earthquake, but it could not have come at a better time for Napa Valley and Northern California wine country. Last October’s wildfires created an impression on mainstream and social media that the entirety of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties was ablaze, and tourism plummeted at the busiest and most profitable time of year. But wineries in all three counties survived relatively unscathed, and they are open for business.
Business as usual meant the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction in St. Helena on Feb. 24. The auction raised $4.1 million for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, featuring barrel lots mostly from 2016, which wine blogger Alder Yarrow dubbed “the rock star vintage.” The highest lot went for $110,000 for 20 cases of a Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon, about $458 a bottle, to a bidder from the big-box retailer Total Wine & More. Napa is enjoying a string of exceptional vintages, as a retrospective tasting of the 2013s, 2014s and 2015s demonstrated the day before.
The scars of the fires are hard to see in Napa Valley, except for the “closed” sign outside Signorello Vineyards along the Silverado Trail. The space where the winery building and tasting room burned down has been cleared and the surviving patio furniture stacked to one side, awaiting construction of a new facility. Fire damage is vividly apparent in the hills between Napa and Sonoma counties, along Trinity Road connecting Sonoma to Oakville and Mark West Springs Road, where the Tubbs fire raced across the Mayacamas Mountains from Calistoga to unleash its fury on Santa Rosa.
In Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where the fires raged for more than a week, “99.8 percent of vineyard acres and 93 percent of wineries were unaffected,” said Robert Eyler, an economist with Sonoma State University. He added that 99.5 percent of crop value was recovered, and very little replanting will be necessary. Some vineyards at higher elevations lost infrastructure, such as irrigation and drainage systems, fencing and equipment.
Some wines from grapes harvested during or after the fires have been tainted by smoke, but not as many as initially feared.
“If we think the wines are tainted, we’re not going to bottle,” said Christopher Carpenter, winemaker at Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt. Brave wineries. “The 2017s that are released will be ones that producers are 100 percent confident in.”
There may be lingering effects on vineyards. About 3 million gallons of fire retardant were dropped on wine country, with potential effect on soil chemistry. And labor issues remain, as many vineyard workers were displaced by the fires and may be lured away by the newly legal cannabis industry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation raids in Northern California are adding additional uncertainty.
The overall attitude, though, is defiant optimism.
“The story of our fires is not so much about what was lost, but more about how much was saved,” said Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of Rebuild North Bay. “Downtown Sonoma should not be there.”
But it is. And so is downtown Napa, shinier and louder than ever before.