Napa Valley hosts more than 500 wineries, but one is distinct: St. Clair Brown Winery is a producing winery in downtown Napa, has a garden tasting room and café, is about to open a brewery – and plans to add a full restaurant.
The reason is simple. It’s within the city limits of Napa, where restrictions on restaurants at wineries don’t apply.
The only other wineries with restaurants are Etoile at Domaine Carneros, grandfathered in long ago and the Farmer & the Fox at Cairdean, which also exploits an old permit for its commercial zoning.
Of course, V. Sattui has a deli as it’s also on commercially zoned land, and Charles Krug is in St. Helena.
Two resorts planned — the Auberge development at Stanley Lane in Napa and the still unnamed replacement for the Silver Rose in Calistoga — will also have restaurants and wineries as well as lodging.
But even without that distinction, St. Clair Brown is an interesting operation.
Founded by winemaker Elaine St. Clair and winery marketing executive Laina Brown, the winery clearly aims at locals with its focus on food and wine from local sources; but ironically, its modest café is rated the best of 247 restaurants in Napa by Trip Advisor (Cole’s is No. 2, closed Carpe Diem third).
A slow start
Elaine St. Clair has an unusual background for a winemaker. She studied wine and beermaking at U.C. Davis, then joined Domaine Chandon’s winemaking team, but also co-founded and made beer for Napa Ale Works for 10 years, selling it in 1998. She then joined Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros to create its pinot noir program, then became winemaker at Black Station Winery as winemaker in 2008. She met Laina Brown at Domaine Carneros.
Brown had started her career in the fashion business, then moved to wine when she settled in Napa. She worked at a distributor/importer, then was as an early employee of Wine.com. She joined Domaine Carneros as director of marketing and hospitality in 2000, then was founding president of Black Stallion Winery on Silverado Trail, which opened in 2007.
As St. Clair and Brown worked together, they realized they had a similar vision to create a small, local winery that combined wine and food.
They started working in 2011, and it took a year to acquire the property and get the four permits required for the operation: winery, brewery, restaurant and garden.
They bought a bankrupt machine shop for the winery, brewery and café, but the city required 17 parking spaces, so they took a long-term lease on the land across the street that is now the garden and tasting room.
They originally planned the space as just a garden with a greenhouse nursery, but when they realized it would take longer than they intended to open the restaurant, they decided to start serving food there and using it as a tasting room.
In addition to the 1/3-acre garden, they intend to terrace the slopes around the winery building and plant edible crops and trees for landscaping, an innovative idea that took some selling to the city. Brown says, however, that the city was very accommodating and great to work with.
The year they started – 2010 – was also a challenging time to raise money for the project, so it has stretched out longer than they planned. It looks like the restaurant might be two years off, for example.
Wine was first
St. Clair started making wine in 2010 at a friend’s winery to build up inventory, and now offers pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for whites, a syrah rosé, zindandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet reds plus a sweet muscat from a Bruno Solari’s famed vineyard in Calistoga also used for Heidi Barrett’s dry Muscat Azul.
All are in lots of 200 cases or fewer.
While many Napa wineries emphasize reds, she makes a lot of white wine due to customer demand.
She buys grapes except for those from her syrah vineyard. St. Clair works closely with growers; she contracts for specific rows in vineyards and specifies management.
St. Clair’s winemaking philosophy is a bit at odds with some trendy fads like single-vineyard wines. She sources grapes from different areas, all in Napa County, to blend and create her wines. “The idea of a single-vineyard wine sounds appealing,” she admits. “But few vineyards can give you exactly what you want.”
As an example, she gets cabernet from Atlas Peak, Oak Knoll and St. Helena. “The mountain fruit has big tannins, Oak Knoll softens the blend and St. Helena contributes berry nuances.”
Just started brewing
St. Clair installed a pilot brewing line, but her first batch of beer was destroyed by the earthquake, and she says it will be a few months before they get into production.
To start, she’s trying out recipes, and plans to invite club members to beer-hall type tastings. She’s a little evasive on whether they might include sausages and sauerkraut, however.
St. Clair is making craft beer using local hops and secondary fermentation in the keg for carbonation, unlike producers who simply carbonate the beer like Coca-Cola. It will be packaged only in kegs to be served onsite.
The first beers will be wheat ale, Scottish brown and oatmeal stout, but she plans to produce many variations. “I have more ideas than time!” she complains.
Among those ideas are garden summer suppers starting next spring.
The restaurant St. Clair and Brown plan will eventually have 60 seats, some outside. Until then, the garden café and tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and offers both tastes of wine and light bites like salads, cheese and nuts, soups and cookies, from $5 for marinated olives to $12 for duck confit potato salad. Much of the produce comes from the extensive and growing garden.
A sampler of four wines costs $20, and you can buy wines by the half glass for as little as $4, glasses from $7 to $16 for the cabernet and $19 for the sweet muscat. Bottles are $18 to $65.
As the focus is direct sales, they haven’t pursued restaurants and stores, but Rutherford Grill and Jax White Mule Diner do serve some of their wines. “We don’t want to spend a lot of time traveling,” Brown admits, and St. Clair added, “There’s a special energy that comes when you’re here with customers.”
St. Clair Brown is at 816 Vallejo St. in Napa. Phone (707) 255-5591 or visit www.stclairbrownwinery.com.