Craig Smith

Craig Smith is the executive director of the Downtown Napa Association.

J.L. Sousa/Register

Dan Dawson, owner of Back Room Wines on First and Main Streets in downtown Napa, plotted his career path early in life.

He attended college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, majoring in hotel/restaurant management. After a couple of culinary apprenticeships, he went to work for the All Season Bistro and Wine Shop in Calistoga. The plan was to hone his skills as a chef and open a restaurant.

That all changed the more he began to appreciate wine.

“I wised up when I started learning about wine,” said Dawson, “And I never looked back.”

Dawson eventually managed the All Seasons Wine Shop in Calistoga and later had stints at Dean & DeLuca and the French Laundry in the late 1990s. In 2002, he opened Back Room Wines, a name that suggests the very best wines. He carries small-production, “artisan” wines from Napa, Sonoma, the rest of California and Europe.

Dawson is able to identify high-quality wines that are delicious, distinctive and a good value. He has an ability to communicate by writing (via a weekly newsletter) and talking.

He educates customers, which he thoroughly enjoys, so that they leave a little wine-smarter than when they came in.

Kyle Wood, a Napan, has been buying a mixed case of wine every month from Back Room Wines for 10 or 11 years.

“It’s fantastic,” Wood said. “Dan knows my taste and picks out things I like. Every once in a while, he’ll send a surprise from some part of the world, like a Hungarian white wine.”

Wood says he no longer buys wines in grocery stores, and “I get delicious wines from all over the world at Back Room.”

Dawson is also a very good listener and he encourages customers to be critical. Locals know wine, and if one of them passes on a Back Room recommendation, Dawson isn’t fazed. The kind of feedback only helps him make better recommendations.

For Dawson, taste is just part of the equation of good wine. Years ago, after a particularly good bottle, he researched the area from which it was produced, and made a connection between it and the wine.

“In a way, it’s like taking a trip to the area when you drink a bottle of wine.” Dawson still researches wines, both local and international. He shares what he likes, stories that go with it and tasting notes about the wine he sells. Customers learn to depend on him.

Back Room Wines moved to its current location seven years ago. It offers more space, which allows for more wine and a more relaxed place from which to taste.

All wines are carefully chosen, and customer feedback is always appreciated. Dawson is confident that his customers get more for their money, which, for him, is one of the joys of being in the business.

Open daily, 226-1378, or visit and sign up for the newsletter.

See you downtown!

Craig Smith is the executive director of the Downtown Napa Association. Reach him at 257-0322 or


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