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Tim Carl Photography 

Christie Dufault was one of the two dozen or so wine panelists that recently tasted, judged and ranked Cabernet Sauvignon from five mountain regions in the Napa Valley as part of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel.

Real Estate
Historic downtown Napa property to be redeveloped as a business retreat

When Marc Porat and his wife, Claire Tomkins, first saw the Thomas Earl House in downtown Napa, they were quite taken by the exterior of the historic home.

“We liked the urbanness of it” and its proximity to downtown, he said. They liked the fact that the lot, at 1221 Seminary St., was almost a third of an acre in size. And they liked the challenge of preserving the historic home while adding modern sustainable features and technology.

However, once he saw the inside, Porat admitted he had second thoughts.

Napa’s 6.0-magnitude earthquake in 2014 “broke the house’s back,” he said.

The home’s 21-inch thick walls made of an early form of concrete had crumbled into a pile of rubble, he said. The house was falling apart — the walls divided and detached from each other. It was yellow-tagged by the city.

“The project seemed economically irrational to continue,” he said.

Yet after much consideration, in March 2017 Porat and Tomkins bought the property from a longtime owner for $700,000 and began refining plans to rescue it.

Built in 1861, the Italianate “mansion” is one of Napa’s earliest estate homes and is located across the street from Blue Oak School. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built for Thomas Earl, a former Napa city marshal. Porat and Tomkins are reportedly only the home’s third owners.

Today, they’ve asked the city for permission to redevelop the home and property into a “world-class” residential business retreat and professional meeting place “for critical thinking and discovery.”

“We are driven by a vision of what could take place here” and the breakthrough ideas the users of the space may generate, said Porat.

The intention is “to create a unique residential destination for professional and executive meetings that value exclusivity, privacy and a focus on thought and work as well as comfort and wellness.”

They’re asking for a bed and breakfast use permit from the city, but instead of leisure travelers, only a single group of people will use the Thomas Earl property at a time, according to the application.

Primary users would be Silicon Valley companies and other high-tech and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) sources, according to the application.

Porat and Tomkins, who have three young children, live in San Francisco.

In online profiles, Porat is described as a tech entrepreneur and investor. Tomkins is the founder and CEO of Future Family, a startup helping women and couples navigate fertility.

When not rented – an estimated 30 to 35 percent of the time —“It will be a treasured retreat for friends and family,” said Porat.

According to the application, the home will be relocated 10 feet closer to Seminary Street and completely rehabilitated. A new addition will be built onto the rear of the house. Two new cottages will be built to flank the house and a carriage house added at the northwest corner. In total, the project would include 10 guest rooms, a large basement, five meeting rooms, a manager’s unit, parking, a pool and spa.

Some trees will be removed and replaced with as many as 40 new trees – mostly Italian Cypress – “creating a wooded oasis.” New fences would be installed around the parcel.

The couple have already assembled a team of experts to work on the project, including former Napa councilmember Juliana Inman, Napa architect and city planning commission member Paul Kelley, former city planner Scott Klingbeil, former Cultural Heritage Commission member Craig Songer, preservation professional and Cultural Heritage Commission member Sarah Van Giesen and Bruce Judd, the co-founder of Architectural Resources Group.

The project will take more than 18 months to complete, according to the application. Phase 1 work includes rehabilitating the residence in a historically accurate manner. Phase 2 would be to create the residential retreat components.

In addition to the purchase price, the entire project could cost as much as $5 million, but “hopefully less,” said Porat.

According to Napa city planner Elena Barragan, city staff will review the project as soon as the week of Jan. 14. After that, the item will be reviewed by the Cultural Heritage Commission for preliminary feedback.

The project will ultimately be reviewed by city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, Planning Commission and City Council for approvals, said Barragan.

Wine Industry
Napa County hits The Prisoner winery with code violation notice

Napa County has told the new The Prisoner winery to stop selling art, stop selling jellies and jams and stop offering food services that the county says are comparable to those found at a restaurant or café.

The county issued an “apparent code violation notice” to The Prisoner Wine Company owned by Constellation Brands. The Prisoner is located at 1178 Galleron Road near St. Helena at the former Franciscan Estate Winery property.

County Code Compliance Officer David Giudice said a notice is a first step.

“That gives them an opportunity,” he said. “They have responded to our letter already and we’ll be discussing how they’ll get into compliance.”

If violators refuse to come into compliance, the county can take such steps as fining them and taking them to court, Giudice said.

Constellation Brands issued a statement by email on Wednesday.

“While we can’t comment on ongoing private conversations relating to our business, what I can tell you is that we are in close communication with Napa County as we work to understand and resolve any issues,” Constellation spokesperson Alexandra Wagner said.

A previous Napa Valley Register story described a section of The Prisoner called The Makery.

Guests see a hall lined with shops where rotating merchants and artisans display and sell their wares. They can taste four or five wines for $125, with each tasting paired with a different course prepared by six chefs in an open kitchen. One course is A5 Wagyu Beef, the November story said.

Napa County allows art displays and food-and-wine pairings at wineries. But wineries cannot sell art and rules govern food service to keep wineries from functioning as a café or restaurant.

A caveat with Napa County winery rules is that they were created over decades. Some older wineries have rights grandfathered in to do things that newer wineries are denied.

Descriptions of The Makery section of The Prisoner caught the attention of some residents who worry that the county’s agricultural nature could be overshadowed by event center wineries.

Resident George Caloyannidis told the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 4 that wineries are serving food at cost – which is allowed – but profit from the sale of wine. He spoke during the public comments section of the meeting.

“They treat it as a corporate marketing expense—need I mention the six chefs and the two commercial kitchens at The Prisoner?” Caloyannidis said. “How can restaurants compete in this uneven playing field you created?”

Resident Eve Kahn has followed news reports on The Prisoner winery and has talked to county officials about her concerns. It’s embarrassing that a new winery with a lot of hype has already received a violation notice, she told supervisors on Tuesday.

Supervisor Diane Dillon has not been to The Prisoner. While not specifically addressing the alleged The Prisoner violations, she said if a winery does something such as serve five courses with one tasting, that could be an abuse.

“It’s most definitely outside of what is envisioned,” Dillon said on Wednesday. “It is a concern. Wineries are not supposed to be competition for restaurants in our cities and towns.”

Giudice said The Prisoner is the only active winery code enforcement case of its type. But that doesn’t mean more won’t be forthcoming.

“I think what we’re seeing a lot more of with the current economy and the competition and direct marketing sales, everybody is trying different things to bring people into their wineries,” he said. “We’re seeing people pushing their use permits more often these days.”

Law Enforcement
Napa Police: Second teenager arrested for trying to thwart investigation into school shooting plot

Detectives with the Napa Police Department say they arrested a 13-year-old River Middle School student Thursday morning after they say he tried to interfere with their investigation into a fellow student’s school shooting plot.

On Tuesday, Napa police released information about the Jan. 2 arrest of a 14-year-old River Middle School student who police say was in the early planning stages of a Columbine High School-style attack, possibly at River Middle or Vintage High School.

A fellow student tipped police off to the student’s plans. Police say the plotter threatened the life of the tipster, who had said they would tell police and parents.

Police will not name any of the students because they are minors.

Those threats prompted police to arrest the teenager plotting the potential attack on suspicion of making criminal threats and dissuading a witness. The arrest occurred while students were on break for the winter holiday season, and after officers executed a search warrant at his home. Police said they did not find weapons but searched his computers, social media history, cellphone texts, internet history and digital notes.

Napa police said in a statement Thursday that there was no evidence the 13-year-old Napa teenager arrested earlier that morning was involved in the planning of a possible attack, but detectives believe he was trying to thwart their investigation by hiding evidence and interfering with witnesses.

Napa police Capt. Pat Manzer told the Register that the plotter and the student arrested Thursday were friends. Officers reviewed text and other digital communications between the two friends, which did not happen over social media and occurred before the first student’s arrest on Jan. 2, he said. Police would not elaborate how the students communicated because of the ongoing investigation.

Messages revealed the student arrested Thursday communicated with the student arrested Jan. 2 regarding threats made toward the tipster.

The 13-year-old was arrested at 7:30 a.m. Thursday on suspicion of two felony counts related to being an accessory to a crime that has already happened.

The incident is still under investigation, but Napa police said they had not found any additional evidence of active threats toward a school or any individual.

Police and school officials say it’s unusual for a Napa Valley school shooting threat to be deemed credible. Napa Police Chief Robert Plummer, who was sworn in on July 30, said he was aware of two other threats related to school shootings since he assumed his role. Both of those turned out to be hoaxes, he said.

The only shooting in the district’s history occurred during a science class at Silverado Middle School in May 1992, according to Emmett. One student’s arm was wounded and another student was grazed by a bullet that passed through his shirt, near his chest. The eighth grader had complained of being bullied.

In the 1992 incident, the shooter had told several fellow students that he intended to kill somebody, but they didn’t believe him and did not notify authorities.

Napa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti wrote in a Thursday press release that the district will work on plans to address school security, and students’ emotional needs including teaching them how to be safe and respectful online.

Those plans were already in place, said district spokesperson Elizabeth Emmett, but Tuesday’s announcement added a sense of urgency to their implementation. The district is reviewing curriculum designed to help students know what to do if they hear or see something troubling.

Emmett said Wednesday that students practice drills to prepare for attacks.

Napa Valley voters passed Measure H in June 2016 and approved the district’s request to increase its debt by issuing $270 million in bonds. The school board approved in August 2016 plans to put about $5 million of that amount toward school safety purchases such as fencing, alarms and cameras during the first phase of improvements between 2016 and 2019.

Counselors will continue to remain on campuses for as long as they are needed, she said.

“We felt supported and confident in the P.D.’s assessment that this student did not constitute a threat to any campus this week,” Mucetti said of Thursday’s arrest of a second student.

“We are deeply grateful to the student who reported concerns to an adult, the adult who reported it to police, and to our staff and parents who are supporting our students and focusing on their mental and emotional health,” the superintendent said.

Anyone with information about the incident can contact the lead detective, Jason Barrera, at 707-258-7880, ext. 5325 or at

The public can also submit confidential tips by texting “707NPD” to Tip411, or 847411. This case’s reference number is 18-7156.