Nonlame Food Shopping in Napa

I spend a lot of summer weekends in the Napa Valley—my wife’s parents have a place outside the town of Napa—and for years now I’ve been struck by the sheer lameness of the food-shopping scene. It’s astonishing: In the national epicenter of the food-and-wine lifestyle, with so many spectacular restaurants and literally millions of food-and-wine-obsessed tourists, the grocery situation has generally been on a par with Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1970. Even the Saturday farmers’ market in the town of Napa has been an embarrassment: Several weekends last summer I counted exactly zero organic vendors. (I hear the Tuesday market is better; also, on other weekends, I did find one or two organic stands.) By and large, the stands were just conventional Central Valley monoculture farmers asking boutique prices for supermarket produce.

To make matters more curious, this farmers’ market happens in a parking lot across the sun-bathed street from Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts, a huge and classy-looking building that promises to celebrate everything I hold dear, but that is somehow utterly impossible to engage with. The front of the building is an impenetrable monolith, and once inside you feel like you’re in the glorious lobby of a grand new museum, except you can’t figure out where the galleries are, nor why you would ever come back. As a result, the place hasn’t done especially well.

Enter the Oxbow Public Market, directly next door to Copia. Modeled after the celebrated Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, the Oxbow Public Market opened in mid-December, and does in a single stroke what neither Copia nor the Napa farmers’ market accomplished in years of trying: It creates a must-visit destination for enjoying the food-wine synergy of Napa. On both of the last two weekends, throngs of tourists and (more important) locals stood in long lines at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, a spin-off of the great little diner in St. Helena housed in the market. Also inside its airy and beautifully designed food hall are vendors with everything we’ll ever need to eat and drink the way we want to eat and drink on Napa weekends: terrific seafood, all-natural meats, organic produce, and killer coffee from the ridiculously good Ritual Coffee Roasters. A Hog Island Oyster Bar is on the way. The Model Bakery, also based in St. Helena, is making great breads and desserts and full breakfast plates to be eaten on outdoor picnic tables. A true cause for celebration is the Fatted Calf shop, offering first-class charcuterie and specialties like duck confit, along with raw pastured meats and pastured chicken and eggs from Soul Food Farm, the current favorite of many high-end restaurants.

Most fun of all, and most deserving of a detour to see Oxbow, is the Oxbow Wine Merchant. The brilliant sommelier Peter Granoff—partner in San Francisco’s excellent Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant—was manning the register the other day, and he walked me through the offerings. In a big open space, with large windows and outdoor patio tables, this is much more than a wine shop. It’s a wine shop with a wine bar, a kitchen making wine-friendly light eats, and a first-rate cheese shop. Drop in for a bite and you can put together a sensational picnic, enjoying it on the spot.

The economics aren’t entirely there for Oxbow yet—it doesn’t have anything like the daily foot traffic of the Ferry Building. And it’ll need Napa locals to get serious about shopping there, which will put pressure on the alarmingly high prices (which are, no doubt, in turn driven by rents, and by the sheer economics of Napa real estate). But the new Westin Verasa Napa—an upscale condo-hotel complex—will soon open across the street, as will a Ritz-Carlton resort. Throw in the wholesale redevelopment of downtown Napa, with the beautiful riverwalk promenade opening up, and this once-dowdy town, long the back-lot service center for the wine industry, will be on its way to becoming the center of retail gravity for the entire valley. Given that I weekend nearby, and much prefer cooking to dining out, I consider this a great thing. I bet it will help Copia, too.

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