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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.

The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. Lunch customers waited up to 20 minutes just to enter the store on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. Lunch customers waited up to 20 minutes just to enter the store on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

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.

The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. The Oakville Wine Merchant and 1881 Napa Wine History Museum have opened in the historic building next door. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. The Oakville Wine Merchant and 1881 Napa Wine History Museum have opened in the historic building next door. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

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.

To back up that assertion, Gallagher pointed to Napa County’s hotel occupancy level in August that was just under 70%, and the average daily overnight room rate of $368 for the annual period from August 2020 to August 2021, according to Smith Travel Research. That’s the highest average hotel room rate for that stretch compared with other hot destinations in the Bay Area and Central Coast, including Sonoma County’s $188, Monterey County’s $252 and San Francisco County’s $150.

Gallagher said besides being a “perfect spot to refuel” with food between winery stops, Oakville Grocery shows tourists the important historical elements of the valley.

She credited the grocer’s new ownership under second-generation family vintner Jean-Charles Boisset with “breathing new life into the Oakville property, while staying true to its Napa Valley’s heritage.”

Boisset added Oakville Grocery and its much younger sister store in Healdsburg to his business portfolio at the start of 2019, acquiring them from the family of noted Napa Valley vintner and restaurateur Leslie Rudd, who died in May 2018. He also owns several other area wineries, tasting rooms plus a luxury inn in Napa and Sonoma counties, and in San Francisco, as part of his Boisset Collection of 28 wineries in California, his native France and Canada. Boisset, 52, is married to Gina Gallo, of the acclaimed Gallo wine family.

When announcing his purchase, Boisset said by taking over Oakville Grocery he and his team of employees are responsible “to protect its past and enhance its future.”

The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. Lunch customers waited up to 20 minutes just to enter the store on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Oakville Grocery has nourished locals and tourists in the middle of the Napa Valley for 140 years. Lunch customers waited up to 20 minutes just to enter the store on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Brisk business rebound

The venerable grocery store sits in the center of Napa Valley — which draws nearly 4 million visitors a year who collectively spend $2.2 billion on this 35-mile stretch between the city of Napa and Calistoga — between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west separating Napa and Sonoma counties, and the Vaca Range to the east.

Oakville itself is sandwiched between Rutherford and Yountville. The retail property, which includes the Oakville Post Office, is nearly surrounded by Opus One’s estate vineyard and the To Kalon estate vineyard across Highway 29 adjacent to the old Napa Valley Railroad line. Originally planted in 1868 by Napa Valley pioneer Hamilton Crabb, the lush To Kalon (a Greek phrase meaning highest beauty) 1,000-acre vineyard is where some of the most sought-after red grapes in all of Napa County — and the nation — are grown.

Inside the small Oakville grocer, everything revolves around the center deli with its fresh and prepared foods and vast selection of cheeses. Along the walls of the building are an espresso bar, breakfast/lunch counter, an assortment of vinegars, mustards, jams, sweets, nuts, crackers and many bottled wines and a few craft beers for sale.

Upon walking into the alluring store, I met and struck up conversation with Walter Hamlin, the wine director for Oakville grocery stores. He told me the brisk business I was seeing on a Tuesday is representative of the property’s strong rebound of 25% higher annual revenues so far this year, compared to the same time in 2019 prior to the pandemic.

Secret tasting room

Hamlin was excited to show me perhaps the best kept secret on the property. He led me on a short walk to the adjacent Victorian home converted into the Oakville Wine Merchant and 1881 Napa Wine History Museum.

The reveal was on the first floor just inside the front door: a newly upgraded small tasting room with an eye-catching antique crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. People, without reservations, can buy samples of 50 of the top wines produced in the Napa Valley. Opened quietly last year, there’s room for 50 customers, but the capacity has been limited in the pandemic to 15 mask-wearing visitors at a time.

“If they find it,” Hamlin told me, this room is where people can see that Boisset expanded from selling Oakville’s 1881 private label wine to showcasing the area’s finest wines. “We started it last year, just in time to close down for COVID basically.”

The Oakville Wine Merchant and 1881 Napa Wine History Museum in the historic building next door to the 140-year-old Oakville Grocery in the heart of the Napa valley. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Oakville Wine Merchant and 1881 Napa Wine History Museum in the historic building next door to the 140-year-old Oakville Grocery in the heart of the Napa valley. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Consumers can spend as little as $5 for a taste of exclusive varietals that start at $70 a bottle and go way up from there. In addition to tastes and bottles, the wines are available by the glass, too.

“Customers can choose to drink a single glass, or if they choose, sit here and taste wines for three hours, then take an Uber home,” Hamlin said.

And to not leave out craft beer drinkers, there’s private label Oakville Brewing IPA for sale in large magnum bottles — chilled or room temperature for $24 — made by Mad Fritz Brewery in St. Helena.

Outside the wine merchant building, Stephen Stocker and Mustafa Hussain of Chicago were eating lunch at a picnic table on the front lawn.

They were hungry after leaving Silver Oak winery and found Oakville Grocery on Google maps, on the way to Cakebread Cellars where they are wine club members.

“We needed to eat lunch before we imbibe any more,” Stocker said, noting they visit Napa Valley every couple of years, but never stopped in Oakville and had no idea the historic grocer was nestled here among the expanse of wineries.

Just after they finished lunch, the Napa Valley Wine Train blew its horn loudly at about 2 p.m. It rolled by on the old rail line across Highway 29, where an Oakville station had opened on Sept. 15, 1867, for steam locomotives running between Vallejo and Calistoga.

Wine tourists aboard the vintage locomotive — which can be booked online and the cheapest single ticket package viewed Thursday was $255 for a 3.5-hour Thanksgiving journey and holiday lunch — stood outside the rear railcar and waved to Oakville’s visitors standing in line to go in the old-fashioned grocery store.

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local post-pandemic recovery to paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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