All of us at SommSelect are thrilled to welcome back our buddy Matt Stamp, MS, who’s not only a great sommelier but a great writer. We asked Matt, a longtime Napa resident, to share some of his favorite spots with our subscribers—read what he has to say below:
Some autumn days, Napa Valley feels like adult Disneyland. Bachelorette parties topple out of stretch limos, Highway 29 is a clogged artery, red wine is sipped and slurped at all hours, on every veranda, and tourists who forget to spit (occasionally!) and nap (often!) become their own worst versions of themselves. In years such as the one we just crawled out of, with the destruction of the fires still visible, that revelry has been in shorter supply—so come back, the water’s fine! (It is fine.)
When spring awakens and rains leave a wake of green, it’s a perfect time to discover Napa Valley. To go to the wineries where the winemakers actually get their hands dirty; to visit the under-the-radar restaurants outperforming overpriced celebrity chefs. For restaurants and bars, the most exciting place to visit right now is actually downtown Napa—formerly a flyover country for tourists eager to head north. (I’ve lived in downtown for almost a decade, and it’s been a joy to watch it finally hum to life.) Stay at the swanky new Archer Hotel on First Street, cruise up-valley during the day, and head back downtown at night to eat, drink, revel, and relax.
Here are five downtown spots and four wineries I send out-of-town wine industry friends to over and over again. Perfect for maxing out a weekend getaway to Napa:
EAT & DRINK
Miminashi: Very cool izakaya-style restaurant helmed by Chef/Owner Curtis DiFede. Look, it’s pretty authentic yakitori joint, so a deep love of fried chicken parts—all the parts—is key here. That said, they offer soul-stirring ramen, fried rice, and okonomiyaki, a pancake-like thing adorned with shimmery bonito and an evolving cast of other savory ingredients. The wine program has a European bent, and the cocktails, courtesy of head barman Andrew Salazar, are the best in Napa. (Downtown Napa)
Torc: Sean and Cynthia O’Toole’s fine-dining spot in downtown Napa has catapulted in a few short years from the that place used to be a yoga studio and still kind of looks like it vibe to the best food in Napa Valley, period. Sean works wonders with crudo, house-made pastas, whole chickens, and the rest. The service is spot-on, and the bar is always lively. (Downtown Napa)
Compline: Ok, shameless plug: this is my place. Compline is equal parts restaurant, wine bar, retail shop, and wine education space. We host classes for tourists and the trade, we have a small retail selection mostly priced under $30, and we have 300+ wines on our restaurant bottle list. Chef Yancy Windsperger is producing unfussy, exciting, delicious food at prices that are down to earth. Explore 50+ thoughtfully chosen Napa wines if you want to stay local, or check out our deep bench of international selections when you feel the need to branch out. Pro tip: it rhymes with Compton. Straight outta Compline? (Downtown Napa)
Cadet: This is where you end the night. Post-midnight, when the rest of downtown screeches to a halt, Cadet is where you find everyone: winemakers, tourists, friends, rabble-rousers. All sorts. It’s the watering hole. Great beer and wine list + neon + turntable + sassy bar staff. You get to pick the next LP if you buy a bottle. Life is good. (Downtown Napa)
Southside Café: Start your day right: Morgan, Evan, and Co. have the best breakfast/brunch spot in town (in two towns, actually, since opening a second location in Yountville). The stylish original, set against a backdrop of eastern Carneros hillsides, is the only place in the valley that can rival Bouchon Bakery’s Saturday AM line out the door. Great coffee and an affordable, delicious menu of elevated California home cooking. (Napa and Yountville)
Matthiasson Wines: They’re working on an actual winery, but tasting with Steve and Jill Matthiasson on a backyard picnic table, surrounded by vines, dogs, and family, really hammers home the idea of Napa Valley as an OG farming community. That origin story is sometimes lost under layers of luxe, and the Matthiassons bring it back to the forefront: thoughtful farming (grapes, grapefruits, peaches, plums), delicious wines, and good people.
Smith-Madrone: Way up Spring Mountain Road, the grey-bearded brothers Smith run their winery today much as they have for several decades, turning out rugged Cabernet and Deutsch-accented, brilliantly off-dry Riesling from 2,000 feet above the valley floor. Smith-Madrone, surrounded by mountain wilderness, feels remote—a time-stamp from an earlier, wilder era. (But you can still make it to Cook’s in St. Helena for lunch in 20 minutes!)
Young Inglewood: Scott Young helms his family’s estate on the southern side of St. Helena AVA, just south of town (and adjacent to Corison, another favorite). No bells, whistles, castles, or other tourist artifice—just really thoughtful Cabernet Sauvignon, made in a gravelly, savory, herbal style with enough fruit to keep Napa lovers happy. The “VENN” Cabernet Sauvignon is a great gateway drug if you don’t want to break the bank.
Frog’s Leap: John Williams and Co. have one of the most serene stops in Rutherford. Frog’s Leap Winery is a consciously organic, dry-farmed estate committed to a sustainable livelihood for the staff and a sustainable future for the soil—and they make affordable wines of medium weight and grace. Take a stroll through the culinary gardens, “think like a grapevine” along with the crew, and lose yourself for an hour or two amidst a pleasant, pastoral backdrop of vines.
— MATT STAMP, MS