Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Moving to Napa? and Napa Valley Writers Conference Sneak Peek

I was asked in a recent blog comment, "I Have to ask now that you have been there a bit, how do you like it? My husband and I are considering it as a retirement location."
So, after being here a year, here's my list of pros and cons:

--Almost perfect weather. Not too cold in the winter, perfect, low-humidity 80's in the summer. We go outside and walk on one of our little trails every day.
--Flowers bloom nearly year round (may be a con if you are allergic to pollen!)
--Access to beautiful vineyards and five-star restaurants (if you can afford them)
--The Oxbow Market has fun fresh food and activities every week. At the downtown park in the summer, there are concerts and free movies, and on Thursday's there's the Chef's market, a kind of free-for-all of kitchy booths, local produce, and fried food on a stick. Summertime - these activities don't go on the rest of the year.
--People are fairly friendly, much friendlier in Napa proper, for instance, than St. Helena. This may go with it, but rents are also more reasonable here.
--Fairly clean air, especially compared to Walnut Creek or San Francisco or Oakland. Important if you have asthma or other lung problems.
--Farmer's markets, fresh produce, and good grocery stores.
--I haven't been able to enjoy these, but if you like tiny local chocolate shops, locally-made ice cream, locally made charcuterie, cheese, olives...well, this is the place.

--Not enough parks, especially with accessible trail walking. I've found two good walking trails: one in the Oxbow Park, which is really small, and another behind the Community College which is long enough to bike on.
--Napa is far from everything. I didn't make it into San Francisco as often as I would have liked, or even into Healdsburg or Petaluma very often. Sonoma and St. Helena are both a good thirty minutes from Napa proper without traffic.
--Not too many doctors. I had to go to most of my specialists in San Francisco and it took me a while to find a primary care doctor accepting patients.
--The hospitals, at least the Queen of the Valley, aren't exactly top-notch. It's run like a small-town hospital - they are friendly and get you in quick (important for say, head injuries or asthma) but the doctors weren't especially competent, and the billing system was midievel. St. Helena's hospital, a 45-minute drive up winding mountain roads (not kidding) has a no-wait ER policy, and the tech stuff was more updated than the Queen. But it's 45 minutes away. Even if you lived in downtown St. Helena, because of the location, it would take 15 minutes to get to the hospital. The Queen has a trauma center; St. Helena's doesn't. St. Helena's does have a heart center.
--As an avid reader, I was really disappointed by the lack of book availability at Napa's library centers - that includes ALL the libraries in the area. And since there's only one bookstore in town, and it's fairly small, you're limited in your reading material. California's population must not read at all, compared to the rich access of libraries in Seattle or Portland, and the lack of bookstores is pretty shameful (at least two closed in the last year in Napa and in St. Helena.)
--If you're not a drinker, and you don't have unlimited money to spend at restaurants, there's not much to do here, especially in winter when everything closes early. Think relaxation rather than cultural enrichment. A young person would be bored out of their mind.
--No shopping. Nearest mall is at least 45 minutes a way. If you need a t-shirt, your choices are limited to Target and Wal-mart. Like many a small town.
--No jobs. I mean, really.
--There's kind of been a ghost-town feel to the downtown area - things are finally starting to pick up, but for a while, it was closed storefront after closed storefront.

A quick peek at the Napa Valley Writer's Conference:
Went to the Napa Valley Writers Conference for a night and attended a reading at the Mondavi winery with Major Jackson and Ron Carlson. It was wonderful to see Major read his work, which I've admired for a long time, and the winery setting was just perfectly beautiful for a poetry reading. Got my copy of Hoops signed (and Major's new book is just out from Norton, though they didn't have copies there, unfortunately.) He read from all three books of his books, and I appreciated the references to classic and pop culture hiding in his work, and his reading style was very laid back and easy to listen to. The prose reader, Ron Carlson, also read some poetry, which ended up being funny stuff. If you get a chance, go to one of the readings they have during the conference - they aren't advertised anywhere except on the Napa Valley Writers Conference web site.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Napa Valley Fourth of July Report, plus Writer's Conference

A belated report on celebrating the Fourth here in Napa Valley. As charming and friendly a 4th of July celebration as could be. We went down to the river an hour or so early, it was crowded but people were generally aware of others, not drunk and obnoxious, and many were sitting in restaurant patios or on the bridge looking over the water, while others dined on cotton candy and other foods from the many vendors, or listened to one of several bands playing downtown. We ended up accidentally in a great vantage point, for a fairly long and impressive fireworks display (even in this downturn) that definitely made it worth the wait.

In restaurant news, the new Morimoto restaurant looks terrific, by the way - the sushi beautiful, the plates well laid out, and people always seemed happy to be there. I overheard someone saying it was the best $180 they ever spent on a meal, if that tells you anything (expensive but good, I guess.)We didn't have any sightings of Morimoto himself, my favorite Iron Chef, which was sad, but I heard he's renting a condo out here.

I'm planning to go to a few lectures and readings at this year's Napa Valley Writer's Conference, and I'll report on that and see how it goes!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Looking for Napa Literary Activity

Hey you all! This is an interactive post. I'm looking to see if anyone in the community knows about poetry readings in the Napa area? A regular poetry reading series at a library, coffee shop, university? People have been asking and I've been going to Oakland and SF for my poetry reading fixes...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hess Winery

After all these months in Napa, when my brother and his wife came out to visit, we finally made it to our first official wine tasting at Hess winery. The grounds are lovely, there are three floors of interesting contemporary art (my favorite piece being a flaming typewriter - such a good metaphor for writing) and the views from the art gallery are Monet-worthy. The person presiding at the tasting (sommelier?) was good-natured and informative, pouring my brother and my husband about eight tastings apiece, and my husband ended up buying two bottles of reasonably-priced, delicious wines - a Pinot and a Gewurztraminer. It's a good winery for those who, like me, can't drink alcohol (genetics!) because there's so much else to entertain visitors, particularly the lovely garden with wisteria in bloom and a water-lily containing reflecting pool complete with little goldfish. I did smell all the wines, and the sommelier told me I had an excellent nose! I did run a parfumerie over ten years ago, so finding top notes and bottom notes is second nature to me.

We've had a particularly damp, cold spring and winter this year, so I'm happy to have a bit warmer temperatures and sunshine, especially now that I'm up and about more (no more crutches!) I'm looking forward to exploring more in Napa as the weather improves. Still not a huge crush of tourists around here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The New Taylor's Refresher - Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet

Well, yesterday was the grand re-opening of the Taylor's Refresher in Napa and St. Helena under their new name - a somewhat awkward mouthful - "Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet" and the husband and I went out to stand in a line that wound about a mile back yesterday - in picture perfect spring weather - in order to find out what was going on and were treated to free Ahi burgers (sushi-grade Ahi with asian slaw and wasabi mayo) and Seoul burgers (pulled pork with kimchi slaw) - usually these run $15 a piece, because though it is a burger joint, it is not cheap - as well as some free champagne and soft drinks. My husband was a big fan of the "Seoul" sandwich, especially the kimchi flavors, but thought the piece of ahi was almost too big. What a criticism, right? Ha! It was fun to get to see the whole community turn out - big families, gangs of teens, elderly couples - brought together with a love for food and for this place.
Taylor's/Gott's was already super popular with locals and tourists - we were joking last night that the line wasn't that long for a Friday night - and I'm sure the name change won't change that. The service was cheerful despite a huge number of people and the atmosphere was party-like.
I hear they're opening up a new one in SF in the Ferry building, as well. We always bring our visiting family in to visit, not only because of the atmosphere and fun, relatively (for Napa) inexpensive menu, but because you can get certain wines by the glass that are hard to find by the glass anywhere else. I know you think, wine with cheeseburgers, corn dogs, and milk shakes? Well, it is wine country....

Monday, March 15, 2010

Napa Valley: Depressed Small Town America?

When I was growing up, our family literally took a trip every year to "the Boonies" - my grandparents lived in a ramshackle three-story home on the banks of the Missouri River in a town called, no joke, Boonville. It was a small town without a lot going on - there was a half-price theater showing only family-friendly fare, a five-and-dime store, a fabric shop that also sold cltohes, a pharmacy/ice cream shop, and at the end of the string of retail, the bridge over the river, which my brother and I would dare each other to walk out on for fun. Giant oak trees, many of them over a hundred, dominated the streets and yards. As the years went by, more and more of those mom-and-pop stores closed, and the town began feeling like a ghost of its former self. A few more years, and a huge flood wiped out a lot of the housing and retail.

Napa's downtown feels a little bit sad these days, with quickly-built condos and retail space sitting empty month after month, grand Copia sitting unused as its gardens, unmaintained, grow overrun with weeds. Right now the vines are still bare, and the spring has started showing up in scattered tulips in yards, a clump of daffodils here and there. The Mustard Festival went on last weekend, and we drove by the festivities without stopping, where a band played, a tiny few booths of restaurants and art exhibitors made the most of the sunny weather and plied their wares. We hoped it would help the frail local economy. It seems so incongruous that a place where the local resort hotels can charge upwards of $500 - and a facial at the local spa might cost $175 - that the locals might be struggling to keep their cupcake shops, their toy stores, or their bookstores open. The storefronts are plastered with "Everything On Sale!" signs. Where you can buy $150 bottles of wine at the grocery store, but most of the locals are clipping coupons and waiting for their milk or eggs to go on sale. Wealthy tourist numbers dwindle, and the impact is felt everywhere. Small towns, whether on the coast or in the midwest, feel the immediate pains of the recession sharply - maybe the margins aren't as good when there aren't as many people, maybe towns that have relied too heavily on one or two industries - a steel mill or the wine trade - are suffering disproportiately. I've become fond of Napa, though it seems steeped in a sad nostalgia for former glory.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bottega - A Restaurant that Lives Up to the hype!

Yes, we finally ate - with a lunchtime reservation, no less - at a Napa Valley restaurant that actually lives up to its hype. The new-as-of-last-year Bottega, set in charming and starred-restaurant-full Yountville, had as splendid a repast as I have ever eaten. Bottega is a small restaurant in the middle of a large Inn setting and focuses, I believe, on mostly Northern Italian specialities. It was a lot of fun for husband G and I to dress up, as we hadn't been on a "date-date" in some time. We ate there at lunch because it's a tiny bit cheaper - and you can get away with not ordering wine and dessert without looking crazy. There were people dressed up in designer outfits and people in t-shirts and jeans. I was happy I'd worn a dress.
My husband G had a divine pasta dish topped with fresh ricotta and swimming in roasted rabbit and chanterelle mushrooms in a kind of red wine sauce. Really very good. However, my dish was so much better! It was perfect, perfect browned ricotta gnocchi with delicious juicy duck, roasted chestnuts and butternut squash. And the chef (Michael Chiarello) came up afterwards, not usual with a "celebrity chef" restaurant, and asked me how everything was, and I told him truthfully I'd just had the best gnocchi I'd ever eaten, and that includes trips to Italian restaurants in New York City and the south of France. The funniest part of the meal was that we were seated at a table between what appeared to be two aging blonde socialites discussing plastic surgery and what appeared to be a some sort of crime-syndicate couple (very Sopranos, but upscale!) So we spent a lot of time telling each other how delicious our food was, and also eavesdropping. And one of the socialites said to the other, "This place is expensive, but not expensive for Napa Valley!" Which I have to say, I agree with. My pasta was around $16 - and worth every freaking penny! Next time, though, I want to try the confit de canard with moutarda di fruitta. (I think I just mixed my French and very poor Italian spelling there.) I could only finish half of my pasta dish - I imagine I'll only be able to get through one quarter of an entree!
Here's a link to their dinner menu:
The service wasn't super attentive, except for a very friendly desk hostess and maitre-d - it was packed full when we were there, we couldn't get a drink refill, but maybe it's like that all the time? The waitress did know how to answer questions about the menu, and steered us accordingly to our delicious lunches, although she didn't visit us much during the lunch (see lack of drink refill opportunities.) Though it was cold outside (in the fifties) the restaurant was about a billion degrees - so dress accordingly!
Anyway, it gets two thumbs up from us! Finally, a place in Napa Valley that didn't make us long for (gulp) Seattle's dining scene!