Two years ago, Dan Dawson sold one of Napa’s highest-end wine merchants, Back Room Wines. Starting in 2001, he had built up the business from a tiny hidden location on Franklin Street, moving in 2008 to a more than 2,200 square-foot-store on First and Main streets that had wine sales, a tasting area and racks of locally rare-to-find producers.
More than a place to buy wine, Back Room Wines became a hangout for winemakers and industry professionals to come and learn about the newest and finest examples of wine from the area and around the globe. Dawson had become a trusted voice, leading his dedicated customers toward wines of quality, often at low prices. Now, without a storefront, Dawson has embarked on a new journey — a personal wine adviser/educator, which seems a blending of equal parts expertise and experiment.
Before Back Room Wines, Dawson already had years of experience. As the buyer at All Seasons Bistro and Wine Shop (1992-1998), the first head sommelier at The French Laundry (1998-1999) and wine merchant at Dean & Deluca (1999-2001), Dawson had refined his skills at scouring the back roads and hidden vineyards of the area in search of the undiscovered.
He had grown up in Eureka, where he started working at the Red Lion right after high school in 1985.
“It was the fanciest restaurant in the area at the time,” Dawson said. “As a server, I wore a polyester suit with a bowtie and a name tag, prepared steak Diane tableside flambé style and got my first experience serving wine. It was also around a team of pretty special folks.”
Like many young people entering into the world of fine dining, Dawson was smitten by the fast pace, camaraderie of the team and the allure of fine wine and fancy food. He quickly rose from busboy to dining-room captain, where he joined two other captains on the team who had also risen quickly in the ranks. One of them was Guy Fieri, who is now one of America’s best-known restaurateurs, cookbook authors and an Emmy Award-winning television personality. The other was Matt Guyot, who for the last 20 years has been at Brix in Yountville.
“It was a great team, and I learned a lot about wine — fast,” Dawson said. “I also learned that wine and hospitality were two sides of one coin.”
According to Dawson, Fieri, now known for his spiky bleach-blond hair and penchant for loud clothes and spicy food, was a charismatic personality who had a way of capturing the attention of the room.
“Can you imagine Guy Fieri preparing a flaming steak tableside?” Dawson said and then laughed. “Even back then he was the center of attention and amazing to watch interacting with people.”
Both Dawson and Fieri left Eureka to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), each graduating with a bachelor of science degree in hotel management.
After graduating, Dawson moved to San Francisco, where he interned at the Olympic Club and then moved to Iowa to become the maitre d’ of the Davenport Club.
“I still didn’t know much about wine, but at the time people were buying a lot of Cakebread Chardonnay and also white Zinfandel — one from Sutter Home and the other from Deloach,” Dawson said. “I was like, ‘These wines do make sense to me’ with the food we were serving, and so I started making suggestions and almost to my surprise people agreed with me.”
Dawson was learning that he had the ability to taste elements within wine that others might not. After surviving one winter in Iowa, he headed back to Northern California, hoping to secure a position at a Napa Valley restaurant.
Wine and food in the Napa Valley — the early years
Today, the Napa Valley is known as one of the world’s most famous wine regions, but that didn’t happen overnight. Charles Krug is credited with building the valley’s first commercial winery in 1861, with more than 140 more wineries and 16,000 acres of vines planted by 1889.
However, changing tastes, bouts of root louse (phylloxera) and Prohibition decimated the nascent wine industry so that by the 1930s there were only a handful of wineries and vineyards left standing.
But by the late 1960s, Robert Mondavi’s winery had been built and helped usher in what we know as the Napa Valley today. By 1970, the planted vineyard acres had again reached 1889 levels, and the number of wineries was growing. In 1976, when the famous “Judgment of Paris” awarded Napa Valley vintners with higher-ranked wines than the more famous French first-growth Bordeaux wines, a near flood of new investors descended on the area, further accelerating both growth and wine quality.
At about this same time, California was becoming obsessed with French cuisine, and by the late 1970s the Napa Valley saw the opening Étoile in Yountville and the nearby French Laundry (originally owned by Don and Sally Schmitt). Beyond Yountville, by the early 1980s there were other culinary destinations throughout the valley with a distinctly French bent. Restaurants such as St. Helena’s Miramonte, Le Favour Cafe Oriental (one of the first French-Thai fusion restaurants in America), Trilogy and the nearby Auberge du Soleil were gaining national prominence.
The small town of Calistoga was also making its culinary mark with a restaurant owned by Alex and Gayle Dierkhising that they called All Seasons. Unlike other eateries at the time, the Dierkhisings also sold wine in what was a small backroom near the kitchen.
By the 1980s, All Seasons had become one of the first restaurants in the United States to receive the Wine Spectator’s prestigious “Grand Award.” By the early 1990s, the Calistoga restaurant wine/shop had become a must-stop for wine collectors and aspiring wine professionals alike.
Dawson worked at All Seasons as a server from ‘92 to ‘94 and then took over the restaurant’s wine store from ‘94 to ‘98. But before he could even start, he first needed to take a wine-knowledge test from the Dierkhisings.
“[Alex] asked me what was the difference between Pinot Noir and Burgundy,” Dawson said. “Of course, the answer is ‘nothing’ but at the time I went blank, but somehow I got the job. Their love of wine and cutting-edge wine program seemingly drew the next generation of wine professionals to All Seasons like a magnet. It has been a center of wine culture for Napa Valley that has helped launch many careers in the wine industry.”
“Dan has a great palate but also always was looking for a good deal for the customer,” Dierkhising said. “His specialty was Cabernet Sauvignon, but give him a well-made old-vine zinfandel and he could tell you what vineyard the grapes had come from without looking at the label.”
It was the heyday of Napa Valley wines, and Dawson was in the middle of the action.
“You could still get some of the cult wines from Napa at a reasonable price then,” Dawson said. “And what I was seeing was that people were starting to shift their attention, starting to go nuts over wines from the valley.”
His recommendations were getting people’s attention, and soon he was pondering his next move.
Becoming Backroom Wines
By the late 1990s, a nearby small restaurant in Yountville was also gaining national attention. The French Laundry had been purchased by Thomas Keller in 1994 and had quickly gained accolades, awards and stars for his innovative haute-inspired cuisine.
“I became the first official sommelier at The French Laundry,” Dawson said. “Up until 1998, they really didn’t have a dedicated somm on the floor, which seems strange now but at the time it just wasn’t all that weird.”
After The French Laundry, he spent time at Dean & Deluca, and through all of Dawson’s experiences his understanding and love of Napa Valley wines grew.
“I found that there were a lot of wines out there that people hadn’t ever heard of before and many of those were at reasonable prices, so I decided to strike out on my own,” he said.
Back Room Wines was born, and for nearly the next two decades Dawson created a strong network and reputation for finding many of the newest and greatest wines, often with an eye for value.
“I have always focused on small-production wines that overdeliver for the price,” Dawson said. “For example, finding a delicious Napa Valley Cabernet for $45 can be done.”
Now, beyond enjoying time with his wife (Holly Dawson, public information officer for Napa Valley College) and their daughter (Talia, who is of African American/Korean heritage, born in New York and adopted at birth) and teaching wine-appreciation classes at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, Dawson has also started Dan Dawson’s Wine Advisor, an online subscription-based guide to the artisan wines from California. Subscribers who pay $60 a year receive discounts at selected wineries, monthly wine recommendations, access to the Dawson wine-rating database and reviews.
He also contributes stories to the Napa Valley Register’s Wine section.
“Although I sold the shop, I’m still finding people value getting recommendations on the newest and greatest wines that are also exceptional values,” he said. “The world of wine is constantly changing and I believe that today there is even a greater need for someone who has the customers’ backs, someone with a history of finding the hidden gems that don’t cost an arm and a leg. My hope is that I can be that person.”