On Sept. 1, Lee and Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson and their team opened the doors to Napa’s newest winery. Located on their 2,000-acre ranch just north of San Pablo Bay in Napa’s Carneros region, the winery, caves and tasting rooms form a village-like collection of structures where guests taste wines and learn about the history of both the property and the proprietors.
Napa’s newest restaurant, the hip and lively Gran Eléctrica, is grabbing well-deserved attention. New York owners Elise Rosenberg, Emelie Kihlstrom and Tamer Hamawi have joined forces with locals to craft modernized Mexican “street food” and super-creative cocktails served in a spacious indoor-outdoor dining room decorated with art inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday and mural art.
Working as a hired sales and marketing team, this group of wine experts provides a collection of selected, mostly local, wine brands the ability to obtain broader exposure throughout the United States. Other companies do this type of outsourced work, but what’s unique about Scale is that their team includes some of the world’s leading wine sommeliers.
The reviews, tentative at first, have begun to pour in: The San Francisco Chronicle placed The Charter Oak on its Top 100 Restaurants list of 2018, the Wine Enthusiast added them to its list of top 100 wine restaurants in America, and the prestigious James Beard Foundation nominated them as one of five of the Best New Restaurants in America. Beyond this impressive list, Food & Wine magazine recently included Hong as one of their Best New Chefs of 2018.
Lodi’s rapid rise is largely due to three factors: 1) the cost of land is relatively low; 2) Lodi is large (over 110,000 planted acres, compared to Napa’s 45,000), displaying a wide diversity of microclimates that can grow everything from heat-loving Zinfandel and Cabernet to cooler-climate varietals such as Kerner and Gewürztraminer; and, 3) the culture encourages wine experimentation.
Pawlcyn and her business partner, Sean Knight, had sold the restaurant and the liquor license for an undisclosed amount, and, at the time, the new owner was unnamed as well. The news of a second iconic St. Helena restaurant to close abruptly within a few weeks of one another (the building next door housed Terra restaurant, which closed June 2) sent a wave of concern throughout the Napa Valley’s culinary world, with many fearing some sort of domino theory of eatery Armageddon. However, the timing of the closure appears to be more of a coincidence than a harbinger of doom.
The world of food in the Napa Valley has never been more in flux than it is today. With major changes in demographics, technology and climate change all coupled with increased competition, limited labor and changing consumer preferences it often seems as though there are new revelations on a daily basis.
Owners Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone had created the benchmark for a style of modern California cuisine, fusing European and Japanese influences. And they had also maintained a consistently exceptional Napa Valley dining experience that was rewarded for decades by reviewers such as Michael Bauer and Michelin.
Solbar used to offer a semi-hip, healthy, local-produce focused menu from which you could pick blind — anything you chose would have delighted you or at least been executed to perfection. Now, although there are hidden gems, most of which seem centered on the new chef’s Italian heritage, the menu often seems unfocused to the point of distraction.
Charlie Palmer might be the hardest-working chef in America. And unlike many “celebrity chefs,” even with a dozen restaurants around the country that he visits on a rotating basis, he finds time to sit as a board member for the Citymeals-on-Wheels charity and the Culinary Institute of America. He often appears as a guest on NBC’s “Today” show, has authored six cookbooks, and is a husband for 25 years and father to four grown children.
“Many people now want freedom when they eat — not forced into a composed dish, but instead able to pick and choose from ingredients that are of the highest quality but minimally garnished,” Palmer said. “For dinner they might just want a protein (beef, chicken or fish) prepared simply, served with a side of vegetables with a great bottle of wine. It’s a way of dining that we feel is a perfect match for the Napa Valley.”
When Celebrity Chef Chris Cosentino and partner Oliver Wharton opened St. Helena’s Acacia House in May 2017 expectations were high and they delivered, quickly being listed as one of San Francisco food critic Michael Bauer’s 10 best restaurants of 2017. Less than a year from opening they’ve continued to innovate, refining what it means to be a sophisticated-casual Napa Valley restaurant, part of which appears to include an increasingly plant-based focus.
This year’s Wine of the Year also seems to highlight the changing nature of Wine Spectator itself. With decades of experience and deep wine knowledge, the Spectator appears to be taking a more sentimental view of Napa Valley winemaking, looking to some of the stalwarts and maverick visionaries who with a strong team of smart, hard-working and loyal employees and investors might be recognized for having built something good and solid with their decades of effort.
The fires continue to have a lasting impact, labor is tight, extreme weather is the new normal, competition has increased to dizzyingly high levels and the expectations of consumers have never been greater. The upside has been a redoubling of efforts to increase efficiency, maintain quality and develop innovations.
Those directly affected by these unprecedented events are transitioning from frantic survival mode to grief-stricken cleanup. Emotions remain raw, and a strange amalgam of fear and anxiety have blended with the uncertainty of the future in a manner that seems unbearable at times. It is true that unfathomable challenges exist, but don’t believe those who predict Armageddon for the 2017 vintage or wine country.