YOUNTVILLE — Hundreds of visitors unhurriedly strolled past the tasting rooms and fine restaurants of Washington Street. Glasses of chardonnay and pinot noir were amply poured and sipped. And some of the faces of those partaking of local wines, or of paintings and sculptures and crafts, were uncovered by masks.
It looked much like a normal Saturday afternoon in the wine country – but its seeming normality made it a conspicuous milepost in the Napa Valley’s gradual move away from the worldwide public health emergency that has upended businesses, events and much of daily life for more than a year.
The wine and art lovers who filled downtown Yountville for its ninth annual Art, Sip & Stroll festival marked perhaps the county’s largest public gathering since the arrival of the novel coronavirus in early 2020 led to sweeping stay-at-home orders that had canceled this event, and numerous others large and small across the country.
“This event just feels … normal,” said Elizabeth Mason of Napa, who arrived in Yountville with a friend and had not been to a gathering of any size since seeing relatives in Benicia for the 2019 Christmas season. “This feels normal, being out here on a beautiful day.”
The streams of visitors on Yountville streets marked the return of a familiar sight in the high-end resort town, but a sight that had abruptly vanished 15 months earlier when county and state health authorities imposed social distancing to blunt COVID-19’s spread as much as possible. Two local events, Taste of Yountville and Yountville Live, had been among the first to be canceled in the wake of the pandemic, which forced the suspension of all manner of local gatherings all the way up to the BottleRock music festival nine miles to the south.
A pair of wine tasting rooms set up for Art, Sip & Stroll together served 600 people, and the festival was organized to host between 2,500 and 3,000 total guests, according to Samantha Holland, Yountville’s parks director.
When Yountville Arts began planning the festival’s revival six months ago, Napa County was entering a wintertime spike in COVID-19 infections that led the state to re-impose business closures and restrictions after a brief thaw in the fall. New cases have since fallen sharply both in the valley and across California, leading the state to announce a nearly full economic reopening that takes effect Tuesday and relaxes most remaining rules on event size.
The somewhat confusing world of a "full reopening" from COVID-19 begins on June 15.
Nonetheless, the caution from earlier in the pandemic left its imprint on some of this year’s ground rules at Art, Sip & Stroll, where many now-familiar safety rules stayed in effect.
“We stayed the course,” Holland said Saturday morning. “We stayed with the plan we had, and we didn’t change anything. People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, June 15 is just around the corner – you should’ve waited a week!’ Well, back then, June 15 wasn’t even in the realm of thought; we started planning this six months ago.”
Tables were widely spaced at the festival’s two wine tasting venues – the Community Center gym and a banquet tent at Veterans Memorial Park – and capacity was limited to 80 guests at a time at the former, 40 at the latter. Wine tasting tickets were sold only in advance, with each party assigned a 50-minute time slot during the six-hour event.
Dave Graham, Justin Dragoo and Jason Scoggins, partners in the BottleRock producer Latitude 38 Entertainment, talked to writer David Kerns about the upcoming festival, scheduled for Sept. 3-5 in Napa, and the challenges of the past year.
All 600 wine tickets sold out 2 ½ weeks before the festival, according to Holland.
“After the 11 a.m. tastings (at the start of the scheduled) went off without a hitch, I felt perfect,” she said. “It was almost like having to schedule 600 dinner reservations at once, but the plan worked.”
Such safeguards appeared to do little to blunt the enthusiasm of four Solano County friends and fellow tax preparers who made the day trip to Art, Sip & Stroll.
Ken Stansbury and Teri Johnson of Vacaville had completed a Caribbean cruise last year and returned to Miami just as the pandemic was accelerating in the U.S., and after more than a year without group outings decided to share the day with their friends from Dixon, Lea Garrity and Fred Stein.
“It feels great, being able to social and see people, together,” said Stansbury after the group sampled wines at the Community Center. “This is great man; it really is.”
Groups performing this summer include Billy Idol, Trampled by Turtles, Widespread Panic, Death Cab for Cutie and Herbie Hancock.
The group had the rest of the festival to look forward to, followed by a summer of family visits around the country and the wedding of Garrity and Stein in October at Lake Tahoe. But amid their laughing and good humor, they were quick to ponder simpler pleasures that had gone unfilled while they and others were sheltering at home.
“We like to do outdoor music (events),” said Johnson. “There was no outdoor music last year – there was no music – and that’s what we missed the most.”
“My family’s back east,” added Stein, a New York native. “I have a son in Austin, Texas; I have a grandson who turned 2, who I didn’t see in 15 months.”
In place of a traditional Town & Country Fair, the Expo will host a separate carnival and an in-person livestock auction this summer.
Artists like Napa-based Chris Cammarata who appeared at the Yountville festival had a chance to display and sell their work before audiences again, but the return of such events was welcome for more elemental reasons as well.
“Seeing people enjoy art – the purchases are great, but for me it’s about talking about my art, explaining the process of making art; that’s the greatest part of a show,” he said in between conversations with guests perusing his paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and other film and music luminaries. “It really is great; I got excited when I heard they’d sold out all their wine tasting tickets – that’s when I thought this would be a great event.”
Proceeds from Art, Sip & Stroll will go to Yountville Arts and its public art programs.
Among the artists booths at Yountville Art, Sip & Stroll will be Scraps of Hope, selling the art they make from refugee lifejackets to raise funds for refugee camps in Greece.
With local COVID-19 infection rates at a one-year low, other public gatherings also will be returning from hiatus in the course of the summer, highlighted by BottleRock’s long-delayed eighth edition Sept. 3-5 at the Napa Valley Expo. Also set for revival is the Oxbow RiverStage concert series, which this year will comprise up to 20 concerts from August to October at downtown Napa’s Oxbow Commons park.
Starting later this month, the Expo will host a modified version of its annual Town & Country Fair. A carnival and food fair will occupy the Third Street fairground June 23-27, followed on July 10 by the Junior Livestock Auction, which was conducted online last summer as the remainder of the fair was scrapped.
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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or email@example.com