Wineries Move Into Downtown Napa

City's relaxed rules offer more options for winemakers and consumers

by Paul Franson
district 4
Patrons participate in the "build a blend" program at District 4.
Napa, Calif.—Napa County has implemented stringent laws to protect and maintain its agricultural heritage—primarily winegrape vines, but those laws don’t extend to wineries located in all of Napa County’s five cities. Now, some wineries are starting to exploit that loophole to offer wine experiences unique to the county, though common elsewhere.

Specifically, Napa County bars inns, restaurants, weddings, concerts, most events unrelated to wine marketing or the sale of logoed merchandise. Appointments are required even for tastings at newer wineries.

The county has been encouraging new winery production facilities in existing areas zoned for industry (some outside cities) to avoid removing land from agriculture and deflect excessive congestion in the protected area, but those wineries are mostly south of Napa, not downtown.

At present, only a few wineries produce wine in downtown Napa, although it contains more than a dozen winery tasting rooms.

Venoce/20 Rows winery occupies a space that once held Robert Craig Winery near downtown, only two blocks from the capacious Westin Verasa hotel and the Napa Valley Wine Train Station. In addition to making wine, the winery has a tasting room open without appointment and hosts periodic concerts.

Marketta Fourmeaux, the celebrated winemaker who once owned Chateau Potelle Winery with her ex-husband, operates a tiny commercial winery in the basement of the Victorian home she occupies in Old Town Napa, but she can’t have a tasting room in this residential neighborhood.

Winemaker Michael Terrien and others are also developing proposals for a winery in a downtown landmark, the Borreo Building (See “Co-Op Winery for Downtown Napa?”)

A whole new level
St. Clair Brown Winery is taking its operations to a whole new level, however. The urban winery one building away from Vinoce will also include a microbrewery, restaurant, produce garden, greenhouse and café with picnic tables. It also plans wine and food classes.

The winery complex consists of two parcels, one containing two existing buildings and a small parking lot, and one across Action Street that is now a vacant lot. It will be used for a parking lot, garden, greenhouse and café.

The partners in the winery are marketer/administrator Laina Brown and winemaker Elaine St. Clair. St. Clair has a degree in fermentation science and has used it to make both beer (Napa Ale Works) and wine (Domaine Carneros and Black Stallion.)

Brown managed Black Stallion most recently, leaving after the Indelicato family, owner of 3 million-case Delicato Vineyards, bought the 4,000-case facility to change its focus to high production and away from the direct-to-consumer model she prefers.

Exploiting the frenzy for locally produced goods, all of the landscaping on the property will be edible, too; the partners are even replacing the trees with fruit trees, and the shrubbery with herbs and edible perennials. They expect to offer CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) boxes from the site and from off-site gardening partners.

Likewise, the beer will be sold only on tap (and in growlers), not bottled.

The eatery, as they call the casual restaurant, will be in the front of the complex, with the small microbrewery operating behind glass so patrons can watch the activity there.

The restaurant will have a wood-burning oven for flatbreads and serve light food, sourced partly from the garden. It will also sell local prepared sauces, condiments and foods from other local companies like Tulocay. It will also have tables outside.

St. Clair and Brown plan to offer gardening, cooking and wine classes; local Napa Valley College Cooking School and Culinary Institute of America offer classes primarily for professionals, and there’s a huge demand for consumer-oriented cooking classes from locals and visitors.

Brown said the whole project is budgeted at $2.8 million—$1 million for construction alone. They are raising the roof in the front area that will house the restaurant and brewery, for example.

The winery itself has a permit for 45,000 gallons, but Brown said it will start far smaller. It occupies a former machine shop with a high ceiling, but requires substantial modification. The winery and brewery must be separate for legal reasons, but also to ensure that there’s no cross contamination.

St. Clair has already been producing wines that will be ready for sale when the facility opens. It will eventually offer Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel for reds, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Syrah Rosé, all targeted to complement food, as well as the currently popular sweet Muscat.

Navigating bureaucracy
Brown said the city of Napa has been very cooperative in helping them set up the venture. On the other hand, navigating California’s Byzantine alcohol beverage laws has been a challenge for the pair. A few examples:

• They can sell wine, but not beer, in the café and garden (which would be a natural biergarten) across the street.

• They can’t sell hard liquor, like other microbreweries—luckily, they don’t want to.

• They don’t have to offer other vendors’ wines, as do other restaurants that share ownership with a winery.

The partners hope to open St. Clair Brown Winery/Brewery/Eatery around April 1.

You can reach Brown at (707) 529-2210.

It should be noted that the other cities in Napa County set their own policies. Calistoga, for one, has been discussing tightening its requirements for wineries.

Bin to Bottle’s tasting lounge offers new attractions:

Another wine company is taking advantage of Napa’s booming downtown to offer attractions impossible or unrealistic at its production facility.

John Wilkinson, the founder and CEO of Bin to Bottle custom crush winery in an industrial area south of Napa, has opened District 4 tasting room to showcase wines from some of his clients.

The tasting lounge lies between the thriving Uptown Theatre with its live music, and the burgeoning West End tourism center of downtown Napa.

The name is an homage to the official designation of Napa County as California’s fourth viticultural region, although a few wines from Sonoma and elsewhere will also be offered in District 4.

The space was formerly a tasting salon for X Winery, a Bin to Bottle client that will participate in the new tasting lounge. Wilkinson also manages the Ramal Road custom winery in Carneros, once home to Buena Vista Winery.

In a new twist for a tasting room, however, the lounge also offers a custom Build a Blend program, where customers can blend a wine they like and have it bottled and labeled with their names. 

The Build a Blend program is an offshoot of one that Wilkinson’s company, Total Adventures, has been conducting for years at hotels and corporations.

Wine lovers can create their own blends from four Napa varieties of wine, then order a half- or full case bottled and custom labeled to take home (or ship) for $239 or $399. Blending takes place in a private room; visitors in the lounge can watch through a window.

The lounge is across the street from the Uptown Theatre and is designed to attract both theater audience members and performers to hang out before and after shows or during intermissions.

Wilkinson has signed up four of his alternating-permit customers from Bin to Bottle to pour their wines:

Fulcrum, a Pinot Noir producer

• Textbook, from Jonathon Pey of Pey-Marin, with Old World-style Cabernet

Match Vineyard from Randy and Sasha Sloan, where Cary Gott is the winemaker, with a big Cab

• X Winery

All are small—under 500 cases per year—except X, which will pour only its small Amicus brand.

Each winery can showcase two wines for tasting or drinking by the glass. The wines, soon to total 15 or so, will rotate among the portfolios. Three tastes are $15, five for $25, and the wines retail for $35 to $65.

Wilkinson expects a few other Bin to Bottle clients to join in, but he anticipates no more than about seven altogether.

The lounge features comfortable sofas and chairs, free Wi-Fi and a music system playing music to emphasize the urban feel. It will play music from performing bands on show nights at the Uptown to further encourage crossover. James DeLuca is the manager of District 4.

Wilkinson emphasizes that the purpose of the tasting lounge is to sell wines, however. The blending and tasting programs are there as added attractions.

For many locals, the prospect of the club by the Uptown will be enticing, especially if performers decide to hang out there. Wilkinson will offer performers the opportunity to create their own blends for free. The performers can hide in the private room with curtains drawn, but also mingle with fans.

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