By Tom Passavant
Until just a year or so ago, the idea that anyone would think of the city of Napa as a legitimate destination for wine and food lovers was laughable. Compared to the heavy hitters just upvalley—world-famous towns such as Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga, with their legendary wineries, resorts, and restaurants–Napa itself was the northern California equivalent of flyover country, the place you had to drive through to get to the real action.
Today that’s changing in a hurry, as downtown Napa is being transformed by a slew of sleek restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels, as well as the Oxbow Market, a gathering of local food vendors that’s the best thing north of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. All of these are attracting a younger, livelier crowd than the stratospherically-priced towns up Highway 29. Stroll along First or Main streets or the new River Walk complex, an esplanade perched above the Napa River, any evening and you’ll find happy throngs of 20-somethings nibbling sushi at Morimoto, downing oysters at Angele, or tearing into crispy, wood-fired pizzas at Oenotri. The historic Fagiani’s Bar, a watering hole since 1945, has just been reimagined as The Thomas at Fagiani’s, a tri-level bar and restaurant with a top-floor open terrace overlooking the river. Wine bars and winery tasting rooms abound within a few blocks, so you can sample a bunch of Napa Valley cabernets without risking a highway encounter with Officer Chip.
A few weeks ago I got to explore downtown Napa in depth, courtesy of the new Andaz Napa hotel. Andaz is a group of seven (and counting) boutique properties under the Hyatt umbrella, each one customized to its locale, from San Diego to Shanghai. Of course, every hotel seeking “hip” and “boutique” cred loves to boast about its groovy bar, party-ready patio, and absence of last-century features like reception desks. Amazingly, the Andaz met all these criteria in a thoroughly delightful way. Service came via swarms of iPad-toting staffers who did everything from check you in to arrange to have your wine purchases shipped home, no problem. The lobby is more akin to a living room; the bar, immediately to your right upon entering, offers everything from eye-opening espresso to expertly-mixed late night cocktails. Rich wood and quirky design elements—Moroccan-inspired hanging lamps, a rotary-dial hall phone—made the place seem miles away from cookie cutter anything.
The guestrooms, were equally impressive. Even the smallest are 350 square feet. From the solid hickory floors to the nubby fabrics, comfortable desk chairs, and spacious bathrooms with long shower stalls complete with wood benches, they manage to be both modern and warmly luxurious—a rare combination given the reasonable rates (doubles start at $209, including wifi, parking and even the non-alchoholic contents of the minibar). The bathroom cosmetics, from a line called 29, were custom-created by Lydia Mondavi, wife of fourth-generation winemaker Rob Mondavi.
The Mondavi connection to Andaz and Hyatt turns out to be more than skin deep. For the past five years, Michael Mondavi Family Estate has been producing a lineup of wines exclusively for Hyatt, called Canvas. The wines, made by Michael’s personable and highly knowledgeable son, Rob, have been a resounding success with hotel guests (they’re also available online), and father and son just happened to be introducing a Canvas pinot noir during our visit. Purely for the sake of research, we managed to taste it, along with the merlot, cabernet, chardonnay, and pinot grigio. When in Napa…
“The changes here in town over the last five years have been remarkable,” noted Michael Mondavi as we strolled along Main Street one balmy evening. Having been born and raised within a few miles, he ought to know. Clearly, it’s time for visitors to northern California to discover what the Mondavis are already enjoying.
Andaz Napa; 1450 First St., Napa, CA 94559; 707/687-1234
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.