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The New Napa

Look past the wineries, vines, and rocky slopes. There’s a fresh spot in Napa valley—a city full of tastes and treasures.

Napa River from River Terrace Inn MJ10
Photo caption
From the River Terrace Inn your can see the Napa River and distant hills.

"I see myself in this painting,” says Amelia Morán Ceja, cofounder of Ceja Vineyards, a respected Napa Valley winery. She’s standing in her tasting room, sipping pinot noir beside a bright mural that depicts toiling vineyard workers amid a panorama of winemaking history. The first Mexican American woman to head a New World winery, Ceja was only 12 when her father brought his family from a tiny Jalisco village to the town of Napa, Calif. During school breaks, she picked grapes and pruned vines, learning from the ground up. In 1986 Ceja, her husband, his winemaker brother, and his parents planted their first vineyard, and in 2007 they went looking for a place to show their wines.

“Downtown Napa had what we wanted,” Ceja says. Although the district is still in the early stages of a renaissance, she cites its grand buildings and all-budgets dining scene, which this year will include a contemporary Japanese restaurant launched by Masaharu Morimoto, one of TV’s first Iron Chefs, and a rotisserie run by Tyler Florence, the Food Network heartthrob.

“A single $20 pass lets you sample wines at 14 tasting rooms within walking distance of each other,” Ceja says. She rattles off more of her favorite things: the Thursday night Chefs’ Market, held May through August. The newly opened Avia Hotel, the city’s first five-story building. The Veterans Memorial Park on the revamped riverfront, site of free concerts. “My family has deep roots in the Napa Valley,” Ceja says, “and it’s exciting to see its namesake city blossom.”

In some ways, Ceja’s history mirrors that of Napa, a city of 75,000 at the valley’s southern end. “This is a blue-collar town,” George Webber tells a group on his Napa Walking Tour. “And until Mare Island shipyard closed 15 years ago, it was a navy town, too.” Dressed in Victorian garb that includes a top hat and brass-handled cane, Webber describes a rollicking city with breweries and tanneries that flourished after the Gold Rush. Paddle-wheelers plied the Napa River, hauling goods to and from San Francisco. But if the river gives, it also takes. It has flooded 22 times since 1861.

In the commercial district, Webber leads visitors past the 1879 Napa County Courthouse, noting its steel-lattice flagpole—like a spindly Eiffel Tower—before steering them to the 1874 First Presbyterian Church, a carpenter Gothic beauty with a soaring steeple and an interior like the bowels of a wooden ship. Down the street, handsome old storefronts stand out among parking lots and chunky cinder-block buildings. “Napa has suffered two tragedies,” Webber says. “The first was Prohibition, and the second was so-called urban renewal in the 1970s.” At least 25 historic buildings vanished.

“For years, Napa was a drive-by city, the place you hurried past on your way to Yountville or St. Helena,” says Gordon Huether, an artist, planning commissioner, and longtime resident. “But that’s changed. Things are going snap, crackle, pop downtown, because we’re finally embracing the river.” A massive flood-control project prompted the building of stylish new bridges, terraces, and a paved biking and walking path that will eventually stretch six miles through town. Levees south of the city have been razed, revitalizing a 1,000-acre, bird-filled wetland you can see by kayak or on a two-hour Napa River Adventures cruise in a jaunty, 11-passenger electric boat.

At the heart of the new Napa stands the Oxbow Public Market, an airy steel-and-glass barn housing two dozen vendors. At shaded outdoor tables above a river bend—the oxbow—you can settle in with briny shellfish from Hog Island Oyster Co., succulent porchetta sandwiches from Fatted Calf Charcuterie, or some local Goat’s Leap cheeses and rustic breads from the Oxbow Cheese Merchant.

Or sample Venezuelan arepas (corn flatbread stuffed with meat, cheese, or veggies) at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, then head to Anette’s Chocolates for Triple Nut Kentucky Bourbon Brittle or to Three Twins for a scoop of strawberry balsamic ice cream. Savvy visitors stop at Whole Spice, where co-owner Ronit Madmone holds court in front of 250 large jars of herbs and spices—annatto to marjoram to za’atar. She urges browsers to dip bread into olive oil spiked with zhug, a Yemeni mix of red pepper, garlic, cloves, and cumin.

Legs need stretching? Cross back over the river to central Napa and roam one of California’s largest residential districts noted by the National Register of Historic Places. Among hundreds of vintage homes—the city boasts nearly 3,000—you’ll see mansions that now house bed-and-breakfasts, century-old trees that shade picnic areas at Fuller Park, and one of the valley’s best breakfast spots, the perennially packed Alexis Baking Company (ABC to the locals). For serious calorie burning, head out to Skyline Wilderness Park, where 20-plus miles of hiking trails crisscross oak- and buckeye-studded hillsides and reward you with great valley views.

Dinner options start on the high end with a pair of Michelin-starred eateries: French-Californian La Toque in the posh Westin Verasa Hotel and Ubuntu, an innovative vegetarian restaurant. You’re on a budget? Neela’s offers contemporary Indian dishes such as sindhi lamb chops—poached with whole spices, then seared with coriander, cayenne, and mango powder—served in a colorful room where Bollywood movies play in the background. At Azzurro Pizzeria, a lively crowd—vintners debating vintages, parents treating their kids after soccer—can be found digging into robust pastas and thincrust pizzas, including a pie topped with mushrooms, taleggio cheese, and roasted garlic.

Nightlife is also popping. The 1879 Napa Valley Opera House, a 480-seat venue restored in 2002, hosts local and national acts; headliners have included Steve Martin, Wynton Marsalis, and Willie Nelson. At Silo’s Jazz Club you can often catch singer Wesla Whitfield and pianist Mike Greensill mining the American songbook, while Merle Haggard and other big names are soon to blaze on the marquee at the 1937 Uptown Theater, reopening May 14.

But perhaps the hottest party happens Saturday nights at the Ceja tasting room, where as many as 50 people—ages 21 to 60—show up for wine pours and free salsa dance lessons from Ceja’s son, Ariel. “Vineyard workers and winery owners, big-name chefs and short-order cooks,” Ceja says. “It’s Napa in cross section.”

Photography by David H. Collier

This article was first published in May 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.