As a resident of the Wine Country, I think I know all about it – the best places to grow Sauvignon Blanc, the tasting room with the best view, the shops to recommend and the best happy hour.
As a resident of Wine Country, I also look down my nose on those who come to visit my town – Healdsburg – at their shallow pursuit of the best tasting room, coolest shopping and most festive happy hour.
Paradoxical, perhaps; inevitable, maybe, if you throw in the confused drivers hunting for a parking place, or the sauntering gawkers taking their own sweet time crossing against the light. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this localist’s attitude is not healthy – every now and then we should dust off the shades of habit and re-discover what it is we love about the place we live.
Visiting Napa provided such a treatment for me. Duty called me as a Patch contributor to step in as “guest editor” of Napa Patch for a couple weeks, while regular editor Louisa Hufstader visited family back East. Though it is technically possible to do the job from home in Healdsburg – everything is online this day, right? – I knew at once that I had to go to Napa to see the place for myself. After all, it had been a while.
So it was essentially as a tourist that I went to Napa, wanting to learn about the stores downtown, the restaurants, the local breweries, where people buy lunch and groceries and where they take their friends when they have visitors.
In the late 1980s, we lived for awhile just south of Calistoga, in a farm house surrounded by arugula and French colombard. The arugula was left over from a previous tenant, a Napa City chef who grew his own; the farmhouse and colombard are both gone now, I discovered as I drove down-valley to Napa late one afternoon last week. Nobody grows colombard anymore, or admits to it.
The destination was the on Thursday night, a pedestrian’s introduction to street food and other fare. We have a in Healdsburg, Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, but a Chefs’ Market was something different, a “a 17-year-old Thursday night event that … has grown up,” according to the Napa Downtown website.
Slowing for pedestrians as I drove to through downtown on Third Street, I could hear the music playing from what sounded like several different bands. That’s new, I thought, being accustomed to the one-band bandstand at the
I found a parking place at the and checked in. The location alone would sell me on this place, situated as it is overlooking the widening Napa River as it slides toward San Pablo Bay. Sundown colors saturated the Old Hatt Mill (which I misunderstood to mean headwear was somehow milled there) as I took the airs.
Dessert shops, bakeries and a jazz club are in the same complex nearby, as well as two restaurants and what looks to be a good place for breakfast, the . I made a mental note and moved on, drawn by the sound of music to the First Avenue Bridge.
A rock band played on the amphitheater state at Veterans Memorial Park, but nobody seemed to care too much: not the gaggle of girls giggling at the guitarist, or the guitarist himself for that matter. It was a clear warm summer afternoon and just basking in the bleachers was enough for most onlookers, and there weren’t too many of those.
Heading on I found the entire First Street was blocked to traffic, filled instead with food booths, wine booths, beer booths, booths for kids and booths for grown-ups. Plus, true to its name, several places that featured chefs (or at least cooks) whipping up something special for the crowds, while music combos from three-piece Brazil to five-man rock to kept the air lively.
I even ran into an old friend, Beth Rypins, whom I knew when she was a hot-shot kayaker in the 1980s. Now she runs the fitness club , which had classes for both adults and kids. An obstacle course was set up on the street pavement to challenge kids to the kind of coordinated exercise that football teams or Army recruits get. Most of them were acing it.
Instead of calling to mind the that Healdsburg has, or other similar Wine-Country farmers' markets, the Chefs' Market reminded me most of Third Street in Santa Monica: a street party in a city neighborhood, filled with plenty of food to eat, stuff to buy, and people to watch. Not a bad way to introduce oneself to Napa, wherever you're from.
I stopped in for a brew (Napa Smith Amber, of course) at the Norman Rose Tavern, and chatted with a couple touring from -- well, I'm not exactly sure. He was from Manhattan, she was from Mauritius, and they both worked for Price-Waterhouse. They were enjoying the wine country, though, and that's all that mattered.
It was well after the hour most restaurants shut down the grill, and the Chefs’ Market was disassembling into its parts. I slowed near one restaurant I had my eye on earlier, but it was pulsing with a dance band and I walked on, looking for something quieter.
I wrote it down: Chilled avocado and cucumber gazpacho with wild bay shrimp, and a locally grown Alboriño. Then Niman Ranch meatballs with sherry and piquillo pepper sauce, and an Argentine Malbec. Good music, very relaxed place. It’s even fun to say: ZuZu.
The next day was a work day, gathering information for stories and meeting a few key contacts. On the way home I decided to take the Silverado Trail, the reliably less-crowded avenue north toward Calistoga.
“Napans are lazy,” I had been told. “They don’t go to Healdsburg or Santa Rosa much. Why should they? They have it all here, and if they don’t they can go to the City.”
True, geographical convenience keeps Napans in Napa County, or headed south to the city lights when culture calls. But on that winding two-lane highway, with gently rolling vineyards on either side, it was clear to me that Healdsburg has more in common with Napa than not – a love of good living, of rural living, of healthy living.
And rediscovering those commonalities made me better appreciate both being a local and being a tourist in the Wine Country.