Poor Napa. Just as the Robert Modavi-backed food, wine, and art museum, Copia, was starting to garner some kudos for this under-appreciated town at the mouth of the Napa Valley, what should happen but Copia goes belly up? But this quiet, wine-country town along the banks of the Napa River is fighting back, hoping to regain some allure with its latest food, wine-tasting, and shopping district.
The Oxbow District, a loop of land created by a U-shaped bend in the Napa River, has had its historical ups and downs—mostly when the Napa River would jump its banks after heavy winter rains. The feds started a flood control project, but then (like so many federal projects, it seems), the work stalled. Now, the city has been promised nearly $100 million in stimulus money to finally finish the job.
The idea behind this unusual flood control project is to create a somewhat channelized yet still living river, with terracing on the riverbank and a parklike bypass channel instead of just pouring concrete in (if you know the LA River--that’s the concept they’re trying to avoid).
Along the way, it’s helping to revive the entire neighborhood. A retail/residential project called the Riverfront has opened along the river, with restaurant and retail space below condominium spaces. You can already enjoy the restored Napa Valley Opera House and Hatt Mill Building (with cafes and shops), along with some 20 wine tasting rooms and dozens of area restaurants, including Ubuntu-- the vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio (recently mentioned in Sunset Magazine).
The death of Copia (the Mondavi-backed wine and art museum) hurt the area, of course, but a group of Napa businesspeople called the Coalition to Preserve Copia, is working to reopen that building in the fall (it is expected to have conference space). In any case, the restaurants, tasting rooms, and newly opened Avia Hotel downtown as well as the Westin in the Oxbow has brought new energy to the district.
In part because it sits in the biggest town in the Napa Valley, the Oxbow is drawing more top foodies like chef-restaurateur Ken Frank (he just moved his famed restaurant, La Toque, from Rutherford to the Westin Verasa in the Oxbow District). At the stub end of First Street (near the Napa River and the Oxbow Public Market) there are now four new free-standing tasting rooms, each operated by a local vintner. The latest is Uncorked at Oxbow, housed in three historic cottages, the creation of fiancés Bruce Ahnfeldt and Celeste Carducci, who pour and sell the wines that bear their names. The trend of vintner-operated tasting rooms is becoming a mark of the Oxbow neighborhood almost as much as the flowing river.
Details: There's so much to do here: lodging at the Napa River Inn, cruises and river tours with Napa River Adventures, bird watching and walking along some segments of the Napa River. Uncorked at Oxbow offers wine seminars, wine and food pairings, and art and music education. A seasonal Farmer's Market operates May thru October. And don't forget The Wine Train, a great way to sip as you sightsee, without worrying about getting pulled over.