This year’s 2019 Michelin Guide ratings for the Bay Area have been released.
Within the Napa Valley there are now a total of 35 Michelin-rated restaurants, including 21 L’assiette (adding Charlie Palmer Steak Napa, Compline and Redd, which closed in October), eight Bib Gourmands (up from six in 2018 by moving Ciccio up from L’assiette and adding Gran Electrica to last year’s remaining six), four one star (same list as last year), zero two-stars and the two remaining top contenders kept their three stars (The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood, which has had three stars since 2011).
Beyond the Napa Valley, this year saw two new restaurants in the Bay Area’s three-star lineup: Healdsburg’s Single Thread, owned and operated by chef Kyle Connaughton, and Dominique Crenn’s San Francisco Atelier Crenn, making her the first female head chef of a three-starred restaurant in the Bay Area.
Michelin’s Guide has played a significant role in helping illuminate some of the finest restaurants on the planet. Initially limited to France, the guide is now in 25 countries across four continents. Since 2007 the highly secretive Michelin “inspectors” have been rating Bay Area restaurants, including those in the Napa Valley.
Since that first review year, only three Napa Valley eateries have retained stars every year: Auberge du Soleil (one star) and two Thomas Keller restaurants — Bouchon (one star) and the French Laundry (three stars).
Today there are five levels of Michelin ratings: L’assiette (the plate symbol representing “simply serves good food”), Bib Gourmand (an image of the Michelin Man licking his lips and signifying “friendly establishments that serve good food at moderate prices”), one star (“high-quality cooking worth a stop”), two stars (“excellent food worth a detour”) and three stars (“exceptional cuisine worth a special journey”).
With the inclusion of Yountville’s Redd, which closed in October, coupled with the exclusion of Acacia House, All Seasons and The Charter Oak not receiving a star, while Kenzo wasn’t lifted to two stars, the Michelin 2019 results suggest the inspectors may not be as dialed into the Napa Valley food scene as they might be.
There are those who believe such ratings are more trouble than they are worth, with more and more restaurants voluntarily shedding their Michelin stars. In France, Chef Sébastien Bras of Le Suquet asked to be stripped of the three Michelin Stars he’d held since 1999 because he no longer wanted the pressure of having to retain them.
Chef Julio Biosca of Casa Julio (Fontanars dels Alforins, Spain) reportedly felt the award restricted his creativity. Andre Chiang returned the two stars he earned at Restaurant Andre (and shut the acclaimed venue down), saying that for the past 30 years of his career he’d been searching for “that unrealistic moment of perfection” that he thought he could reach through professional accolades.
Some local chefs have felt such pressure, too.
“When I received my first two stars from Michelin all I could think about was getting the third,” said Chef Douglas Keane (formerly Cyrus and now chef/owner of Two Birds One Stone). “It was a complete distraction from doing what I wanted to do, which was to cook food that inspired me and made others happy.”
Even with this year’s controversy, it remains an honor for those working in what is often a thankless profession to be acknowledged. And entrants on this year’s list express gratitude for being provided recognition and encouragement.
Tamer Hamawi, co-owner of Gran Electrica: “We are thrilled and delighted to have received this recognition from the Michelin team — it feels amazing to know we are on the right path. We are especially pleased for chef Ignacio Beltran. He is so talented and he deserves to be recognized and rewarded for his hard work and his incredible skills in the kitchen.”
Bryant Minuche, executive chef at Ciccio: “I am very humbled. I want to thank Michelin for encouraging our community of restaurants to be the best they possibly can be and for recognizing all the great chefs and their teams on this list. We are going to keep doing what we are doing and striving to be better for our guests every day.”
The fact that the Napa Valley saw gains speaks to the quality and vision of the culinarians who call this valley home. This is very good news for those of us who live and visit here, but what it means for the chefs who have achieved these lofty goals is that although they might take a few moments to celebrate, they must keep their high standards, while at the same time figure out how to hang on to the stars next year. The training for the next Olympic medal begins again, now.
Christopher Kostow, executive chef of The Restaurant at Meadowood and co-owner The Charter Oak: “It is an honor to receive three stars from the Michelin Guide. (At both our locations) We strive to grow each day, pushing to evolve our style and approach. To have our team be rewarded for these daily efforts is very satisfying.”
Total list of 2019 Michelin-rated restaurants in the Napa Valley:
Charlie Palmer Steak Napa*
Goose & Gander
Redd* (but has closed)
Sam’s Social Club
The Charter Oak
Cook St. Helena
Two Birds/One Stone
Auberge du Soleil
The French Laundry
The Restaurant at Meadowood
*New to the list
** Changed status in 2019
Pioneer-day mercury mines in far-flung mountains east of Calistoga are safer, cleaner places these days, though whether surrounding land is ready to become a hiking-and-camping destination is another question.
Stephen McCord has spent a couple of years working on a $2.4 million, state-funded clean-up of the Corona and Twin Peaks mines. He and others are doing such things as injecting chemicals into the ground to reduce acidity and metals in water draining from the mines.
“We’ve seen some benefit from that,” McCord said as his McCord Environmental firm wraps up the work.
The Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District has a chance to own all or part of the 375 acres where the mines are located and extend the Oat Hill Mine Trail to reach the site. That’s a tempting prospect.
“There’s an old hunting camp there that’s right on the creek,” district General Manager John Woodbury said. “It would be a great place for a back country campground.”
But there’s a catch to this offer of a free, gorgeous slice of Napa County – it comes with the mines. The district before taking ownership would have to be satisfied that the mines aren’t a contamination risk and that curious hikers couldn’t fall into mine holes.
“We can’t take on unlimited liability,” Woodbury said.
Nobody saw the Corona and Twin Peak mines as liabilities at their births. Rather, they were celebrated as part of the area’s Wild West mercury mining boom in the local mountains.
“Good reports are said to be coming from the Corona mine in this county,” the Aug. 26, 1898 The Weekly Calistogan said. “A splendid body of ore is reported to have been found lately.”
The Corona mine closed in the 1970s and the Twin Peaks mine in the 1940s. Mining geologist John Livermore bought the land in 1995 to clean the mines up.
Livermore knew all about mines. He is a National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum inductee. When he died in 2013 at age 94, a Los Angeles Times story noted he had set off a Nevada gold rush by discovering small particles of what became known as “invisible gold.”
The Livermore family ranch is at Mount St. Helena near the mine. Livermore in late-1990s talked about about the Corona mine in interviews preserved on Online Archive of California.
“I knew there was an environmental problem there because there’s an acid water drainage problem there and the [mine] dumps [are] there,” he said. “So one of my ideas was to clean up this pollution problem and try to restore the area, and fix up this Scott furnace, make a kind of archaeological site out of it. That’s what my objective is.”
The Corona and Twin Peaks land is now owned by Corona/Twin Peaks Historical Association LLC, which is managed by a former Livermore employee, a 2015 Open Space District report said. The land donation option was offered to the district to help secure a state cleanup grant.
Certainly the mines have their attractions. Among them is what’s left of a towering, 50-ton capacity stone-and-brick Scott furnace built in 1901 to produce mercury vapor from cinnabar.
But these and dozens of other abandoned mines in the region pose problems. They drain iron, sulfate, nickel and mercury into the watershed. The state advises limiting the consumption of Lake Berryessa and Putah Creek fish because of mercury concentrations in their flesh.
The Woodland-based nonprofit Tuleyome took on the cause of helping to clean up the Corona and Twin Peaks mines. It secured the $2.4 million state grant and McCord in 2016 began the work.
Old-time miners dug shafts deep into the earth as they followed veins in the rock. They also dug drain tunnels for the groundwater so they could remain dry, among them the Corona Drain Tunnel that empties into Kidd Creek.
Cleanup strategies included improving trenches from mine entrances and cleaning the drainage water with sand filters. Two wells allow the injection of bacteria, nutrients and chemicals into the ore bodies far underground to reduce the concentrations of acids and metals draining from the mines.
McCord recently learned the grant will be terminated in December instead of April. He had wanted to do such things as collect bugs and fish from the creeks and compare mercury concentrations in tissues with a baseline.
“That’s one component we’re not going to be able to do now,” he said.
Areas around the mines with mine waste rock have been revegetated. A fence keeps the curious away from the big furnace. Gates are being put on holes that keep people out, but allow bats to enter.
But long-term maintenance of the injection wells and other features remain an issue.
Woodbury said the site is clearly cleaner than it was.
“Whether it’s sufficient for us to take title to it, probably not, but I have to take a look at it,” he said.
Another option is for the district to decline to take ownership of the land, but use an easement to extend the Oat Hill Mine Trail hiking-and-biking experience to and past the mine area.
Oat Hill Mine Road was built between 1873 and 1893 to serve mercury mines. The Open Space District manages an 8-mile public trail on the road that starts near Calistoga. The goal is to someday have the trail open all the way to Lake County – if trail users can safely pass the mines.
“It’s premature to say what we would do,” Woodbury said.
McCord Environmental is also working with the Westside Brownfields Coalition Assessment Project. One goal is to prioritize abandoned mines for cleanup in Napa, Solano, Yolo, Lake and Colusa counties.
It’s been hard to contact the private landowners who have mines on their properties, McCord said. He is hoping the work done at the Corona and Twin Peaks mines stirs up interest.
“I’ve been using it as an example of, ‘Look, this is how it can work,’” McCord said.
A vision to overhaul the long-sleepy Brown Street walkway in downtown Napa is taking shape, featuring new plantings, pavement and seating – all in an attempt to create an easily walkable corridor that also can host outdoor events in the city’s heart.
Landscape architects from the San Francisco design firm WRT on Wednesday provided city parks commissioners a glimpse at a possible makeover of the north-to-south promenade, which in the 1970s replaced three blocks of Brown Street from Second to Pearl streets but has languished even as hotels, restaurants and wine tasting rooms have energized the city around it.
The design concept, shown to Napa’s Parks, Recreation and Trees Advisory Commission, would replace a dated design heavy on brick-like pavers with a curving walkway, light-colored pavement and new trees, as well as shade structures and seating.
In addition to encouraging more people to explore a modernized downtown route on foot or bicycle, the new layout is meant to accommodate some of the street fairs and outdoor events currently taking place at Veterans Memorial Park and other busier downtown hubs.
Opening up a more inviting pedestrian route downtown would create not only a convenience for Napans, but eventually could enliven the area for the growing number of vacationers, according to John Gibbs, a principal in the WRT firm.
“We’re trying to make it a meaningful place for residents, because tourists tend to follow where the locals know where to go,” he told the parks commission.
The presentation gives shape to a concept park advisers first tackled in July, when city staff suggested dividing a renovation into three sections. The northern section would extend from Pearl Street down to Dwight Murray Plaza, the central section would flow to the Second Street garage entrance, and the southern section would extend down to Third Street, which remains open to cars.
Positioning of trees and shade canopies would form the promenade’s walking corridor into a gently curving path, a step that WRT principal Jacob Tobias said is meant to keep bike speeds low for safety reasons, especially for families.
Current plans call for removing 18 existing trees along the walkway while planting 34 Chinese pistaches, although commissioner Brian Bordona suggested additional plantings of native trees near the promenade’s north end along Napa Creek.
Outdoor events likely to be staged on the promenade could be middle-size gatherings including booths, music and food carts or trucks, but with lower attendance than the Napa Farmers Market at South Napa Century Center or the Blues, Brews & BBQ on downtown streets, according to Tobias.
The City Council is expected to review the overhaul plan at its Dec. 18 meeting, according to Robin Schabes, economic development manager.
Modernizing the Brown Street pedestrian way is one of two projects that would bring a fresh look to downtown public spaces born of Napa’s mid-1970s urban renewal.
On the promenade’s west side near First Street is Dwight Murray Plaza, which opened in 1974 but has increasingly been bypassed for outdoor events in favor of Veterans Memorial Park to the east. The city has approved a major renovation that would level the sunken plaza, add new plantings and equip it with café-style tables and seating, as well as make room for a Ned Kahn art piece “Veil of Water” in which a canopy of several thousand aluminum tiles on wires would create a wave effect when stirred by the wind.
Soaring construction costs in the Bay Area, however, have forced Napa to push back the start of the update, which originally was budgeted at $1.5 million. The city also must set a construction schedule that lessens the disruption to businesses neighboring the square, including at least four restaurants.
When Clay Gregory became president/CEO of Visit Napa Valley nine years ago, the Napa Valley tourism industry was in recession, with lodging revenues falling 17 percent from the year before.
“These were difficult times, financially and organizationally,” said George Goeggel, managing partner of Auberge du Soleil who has been involved in Visit Napa since its beginning. “But we were united in one thought – we are going to have to find a team and we need somebody to lead that effort.”
That somebody was Gregory, who helped with the creation of Tourism Business Improvement District which has raised $51 million from the lodging industry from 2010 to 2017 to promote the Napa Valley.
As one measure of its success, during that period, room revenue from Napa Valley lodging properties rose from $207 million to $396 million annually.
Without the TBID, “none of this would have happened,” Gregory said. “We just didn’t have the funds” to promote the valley.
Members of Visit Napa Valley credit the improvement district, which imposes a 2 percent assessment on hotel room rates for countywide marketing, and Gregory’s leadership for the turnabout.
Now Gregory is changing roles. He will drop the president part of his title, but remain CEO.
When he first took the job, “We had three people (on staff) and a budget of $400,000,” Gregory said. “Now we have 24 people and a budget of $7.5 million.”
“It became a great job,” he said.
At Gregory’s advice, back in June 2016, Visit Napa Valley developed long-range plans for the agency, including a succession plan for leadership, said a Visit Napa Valley statement.
“Like any organization, it has grown in scope and staff and I think it’s smart of him to introduce this role as president,” said Goeggel.
Visit Napa Valley was originally called the Napa Valley Destination Council. Back then, the agency was underfunded and faced skepticism from some members of the visitor and lodging community.
The most significant change Gregory championed was the creation of the Tourism Business Improvement District.
Beginning in 2010, the TBID added a 2 percent assessment to hotel room rates for countywide marketing efforts. Additional funding is provided through partnerships with visitor-serving businesses throughout Napa County, and through Napa County Special Projects Funding.
Before he took on that challenge, “I didn’t even know what a Tourism Business Improvement District was,” Gregory said with a laugh.
After the TBID plan was sanctioned, “From then on it was just work as hard as we could and try and put that model into place,” he said.
Seventy-five percent of the money raised by the TBID is managed by Visit Napa Valley. The remaining 25 percent is collected by the individual city jurisdictions and the county TBIDs.
Gregory has not been without his detractors. Some criticize his salary—$280,500 a year plus a potential bonus of $110,000 – as excessive.
Others question whether or not the TBID is making as much of a difference as Visit Napa Valley claims. Some have voiced concern that the funds collected should be spent on social services instead of marketing the Napa Valley.
This past June, Visit Napa Valley’s board of directors began outreach for potential candidates to fill a president position, said Angela Jackson, director of media relations for Visit Napa Valley.
“Several very qualified candidates have been presented and a decision is expected to be made before the end of the year and announced in early 2019,” said Jackson.
“Clay will remain at Visit Napa Valley as CEO to provide guidance and mentorship to the new president. He plans to celebrate his 10-year anniversary with Visit Napa Valley in June 2019,” said Jackson.
Both the president and CEO roles “will be more fully defined once the final candidate has accepted and onboarding needs are determined,” said Lisa Poppen, vice president marketing and communications at Visit Napa Valley.
Gregory spoke of many “great experiences” attending conferences around the U.S. and speaking on behalf of VNV. “Many of the these were produced by important partners such as U.S. Travel, Brand USA, Destinations International Visit California, S.F. Travel, CalTravel and dozens more,” he said.
“We have also been humbled to be invited to events that pay VNV expenses to speak about our ‘strategically managed tourism’ approach.”
No surprise, it’s a job of travel. Gregory estimated he’s flown 450,000 miles as a representative of Visit Napa Valley.
“I look forward to many miles to come,” he said.