Merlot meets modern art in St. Helena

Small town and cutting-edge sensibilities merge harmoniously just north of the Napa Valley.


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The architecturally striking home of Hall Wines in St. Helena

Photo by Tubay Yabut, courtesy of Hall Wines

As you drive up Highway 29, just out of Yountville and Oakville, a giant silver rabbit rises, as if leaping out of a vineyard on your left, a gleaming apparition that stakes a claim for modernity in the northern Napa Valley. It’s the de facto mascot of Hall Wines, a sprawling venture on the outskirts of St. Helena, a small town where traditional and cutting-edge sensibilities commingle in surprising harmony.

St. Helena was incorporated in 1876. Its landmarks include a Carnegie Library, constructed in 1908, and Elmshaven, built in 1885: the former home of Seventh-day Adventist church cofounder Ellen G. White. Hall Wines was founded somewhat more recently by Mendocino native Kathryn Hall—who served as both assistant city attorney in Berkeley and ambassador to Austria—and her husband, entrepreneur/art collector Craig Hall. They bought St. Helena’s Bergfeld winery in 2003 and recently completed an ultramodern, LEED gold-certified visitor center there, populating it with enough dazzling sculptures and installations to fill many cities’ modern-art museums.

The tension between old and new is represented by the historic buildings along St. Helena’s tree-lined Main Street and shady side streets and the sleek spectacle of Hall with its entertaining tours, special events, and one of the valley’s best tasting rooms. But the pressure is resolved congenially in the town’s tourist-friendly accommodations, shops, galleries, and restaurants.

For instance, take the 12-room boutique Wydown Hotel, which opened in 2011. Financier-turned-hotelier Mark Hoffmeister refurbished a Victorian building with a balance of tastefully curated homey furnishings and modern art. Its central location puts such essential stops as the Model Bakery, Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen, Goose & Gander gastropub, and La Condessa—serving upscale Mexican fare and knockout cocktails—within walking distance.

Wine is, of course, the primary draw throughout the valley; stop in at Sequoia Grove for a secluded tasting. But so is fine dining, and St. Helena boasts a boggling array of bodacious menus at such spots as Tra Vigne, Terra, and Press, a famous steakhouse where chef Trevor Kunk has introduced a superb tasting menu and sommelier Kelli White oversees an unmatched Napa wine library. Then again, there’s the Restaurant at Meadowood. Cash in your 401(k) and splurge for three-Michelin-starred chef Christopher Kostow’s tasting menu in the dining room or his equally life-changing three-course dinner at the bar, and let bartender Sam Levy astound you with his mixology magic. You’ll leave St. Helena in an appropriately sybaritic daze.

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