Despite pandemic, US visitors head to Napa Valley during grape harvest peak
OAKVILLE — During the 1870s, wine grape vineyards replaced verdant wheat fields in the Napa Valley.
In 1881, Oakville Grocery opened in the tiny village of Oakville, 5 miles east of St. Helena along what is now Highway 29. The country store’s owner then, wheat farmer John Garner, lived next store in a two-story Victorian home.
Today, 140 years later, the vintage grocer — purportedly California’s oldest continuously operated food retailer — sits surrounded by 430 acres of some of the world’s finest premium vineyards. It has truly stood the test of time and remains a destination for many of the millions who visit this grape-laden expanse of Napa County yearly to mainly taste wines from among almost 400 wineries.
With the annual grape harvest reaching its peak in October, I visited the 1-acre landmark property that includes the old store, ample outdoor courtyard seating and lunchtime food service, and the adjacent wine merchant museum and tasting room in Garner’s former Victorian residence.
I wanted to see if on a weekday, the lingering coronavirus pandemic was keeping people away from this popular gathering place that often serves as a respite from tasting wines in the heart of Wine Country. Conversely, I wondered if I’d meet visitors who traveled here to vacation far from home that would provide further solid evidence of a steady economic recovery that started this summer in Napa and Sonoma counties, one depending heavily on wine-related tourism.
It didn’t take long to be convinced, on a Tuesday visit to Oakville, the North Bay’s recovery continues gaining momentum despite the 18-month pandemic. Dozens of tourists from places like Dallas, Chicago and Charleston, South Carolina, were here spending plenty of money to eat, drink and shop. In between checking out the throwback grocer, which limited the crowd inside to 15 masked people at once, many filled outdoor tables for lunch, eating freshly made sandwiches or pizzas baked in the wood-fired clay oven outside.
California’s pandemic comfort
Among the tourists that I met, the delta variant that loomed over the summer months was still on their minds. However, they were well aware that California has taken public health seriously, managed to reduce COVID-19 infection rates to among the lowest in the nation and vaccinated about 60% of its population.
“I felt more comfortable traveling to California than living in South Carolina,” said Amanda Oliver of Charleston, who was on her first trip to Napa and California.
Oliver came for a week as part of a friend’s birthday vacation. On a recommendation from someone at Caymus Winery in Rutherford, they stopped at Oakville Grocery for lunch, before heading to Robert Mondavi Winery and Opus One Winery. Opus One’s tasting room sits inside a structure that looks like a bunker built into its Oakville estate vineyards behind the fabled store.
“Who’s going to say no to coming to Wine Country during the peak of harvest season,” she said, sitting at a long table next to the grocery store eating a sandwich made at the deli inside.
As many people do, she came as a consumer of one or two wine varieties — sparkling and sweet whites, in her case — and has enjoyed tasting something different. For Oliver, it was cabernet sauvignon, one of Napa Valley’s premier red varietals, and full-bodied and fruity malbec.
On this early afternoon, several dogs had come along with their owners to visit Oakville, population less than 100, and its prized century-old purveyor of provisions. Harry, the black and white Great Dane, stood above them all. His owner Katie Sholty was vacationing in the Bay Area, where she lived before moving to Dallas in December 2018.
Wine tasting in Napa had been a regular event for her and a group of friends, but because of the pandemic this was her first excursion in two years. Sholty was with Melissa O’Keefe and her mastiff canine Abby.
The two friends are wine club members at Frog’s Leap and Honig wineries in Rutherford and “big cab fans,” O’Keefe said.
With the coronavirus still a menace, Sholty, who noted she was vaccinated, was quite happy to be on the West Coast.
“California certainly takes much better precautions than Texas, so we appreciate coming here,” she said, as Harry greeted another dog walking by with a howl, or hello.
Preserving Napa Valley history
Those statewide public health precautions, coupled with Napa Valley’s plethora of outdoor wine and restaurant venues, has many domestic travelers “choosing Napa Valley as the first place to visit” after staying home for nearly two years in the pandemic, Linsey Gallagher, CEO of local tourism marketing agency Visit Napa Valley, told me.