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Wine Tasting (map to wine bars, wineries), History, Architecture
Napa, the city that lies at the southern tip of the lush Napa Valley in California, has been through a remarkable renaissance.
Today, Napa's town center is graced with a stunning riverfront promenade, fashionable condominiums, four-star hotels, Victorian B&Bs, up-scale eateries, and an abundance of wine bars and wine tasting rooms.
Napa Valley & Sonoma Wine Tasting Tours
Its restored Opera House and 1,000-seat art deco Uptown Theater offer up big-name entertainment. And the town honors its rich past with renovated historic buildings and colorful outside murals.
From Devastation to Rebirth
Napa wasn’t always like this. When the Napa River burst over its banks in 1986, its waters ravaged the town, destroying 250 homes and killing three people. In the years before the flood, the city was known mainly for Napa State Hospital, Kaiser Steel, and in earlier years for prune orchards. Downtown Napa was rather dead to tourism. And flooding problems kept investors away.
Out of the 1986 devastation, came a spirit of renewal that put Napa’s leaders to work. They re-envisioned their town as a tourist destination. Some 400 people and 40 agencies worked together to create The Napa River-Napa Creek Flood Protection Plan. This plan has been restoring the river and its creature habitats while setting up state-of-the-art flood controls that have received international recognition and awards. The river, once a problem for Napa, has become a calling card.
With the Flood Protection Plan in motion, investors began to build, chefs from famous up-valley restaurants opened establishments, and big-name hotels came to town.
Napa Wine Bars and Wine Tasting Rooms
With Napa's location at the southern entrance to the world famous Napa Valley there are many oportunities for wine tasting without ever leaving town. Most locations feature the products of multiple wineres while a few allow you to sample wines from a single winery.
Follow the links to the right or use our interactive Napa Wine Bars Map to find your way around.
Napa’s Boom and Bust History
It’s not surprising that the town’s renaissance began with the river. Life here has always been shaped by this waterway.
Early on, Wappo Indians, grizzly bears, mountain lions and mountain men, including Kit Carson, fished along its banks. And during California’s Rancho period, cattle drank from its cool waters.
In 1836, Nathan Coombs, a Prussian immigrant, bought a stretch of land where the river bends and then twists into an oxbow shape. Twelve years later, Coombs laid out Napa City, not realizing that in just a couple years his town would boom as a result of a California Gold Rush.
Gold miners came to the Napa Valley in 1850 to escape the harsh Sierra winter. They found work on cattle ranches, farms and in the lumber industry. The region—known for wheat, apples, pears, horses, and cattle—became known as the breadbasket of the Gold Rush era.
Fortuitously, among these immigrants were well-educated, wealthy, European entrepreneurs who knew about crafting wines. They, for the most part, established wineries in the upper valley.
However, the town of Napa—bursting with new residents—played an important role in the region. This was as far as ships could traverse upriver from the San Pablo Bay. Steamers tied up along the town’s embarcadero, where they loaded up with regional goods for transport to Benicia, San Francisco and beyond. This brought much business and wealth to Napa.
Walk a little south of the beautiful Napa River Inn (located in the historic Hatt/Old Mill building) and you’ll see old pilings jutting up from the water. Here is where steamships once docked to load up for the next shipment to take down river. Fertilizer, feed, supplies and Napa Valley wines were stored in the Hatt Building, which now houses restaurants, a bakery, a general store and the inn.
And farther downriver, on Coombs Street, stands the old Sawyer Tannery, once the largest tannery this side of Mississippi. Here Emmanuel Manassee patented a method of preparing sheepskin and buckskin that is used today. Eventually, the company would go on to create waterproof leather and patent leather.
Napa’s early wealth began to dwindle as a result of Prohibition and the Depression, and in later years the loss of industrial jobs at nearby Mare Island Shipyard, Kaiser Steel, and Basalt. And when Highway 29, the main artery through the valley, was routed around downtown Napa, the city found itself with few visitors. These changes led the people of Napa to see that tourism connected to the wine and food industries was the economy of the future.
It took the biggest Napa River deluge ever to jolt the town into action, which first meant flood control. And when they did, the river once again brought good times.
Napa’s Historic Architecture
During a 1970s urban renewal movement, Napa began demolishing its historic buildings. Quickly, a group formed to save them. So that today, a stroll around town reveals some beautiful examples of 19th Century Victorian architecture, including Italianate, Greek, Gothic, Classical revival and more. As for Victorian mansions, Napa is rivaled only by San Francisco and Petaluma in numbers of them. Luther Turton, the major architect of that time, sometimes mixed architectural styles.
Here are a few of the commercial buildings:
The First Presbyterian Church (1874), 1333 Third Street, is constructed entirely of redwood. Its upward pointing spires and arches are a perfect example of Gothic Revival. The church has been in continuous operation since it was built. Architects were R.H. Daley and Theodore Eisen.
The Pfeiffer Building (1875), 1245 Main Street, is the first stone and oldest surviving commercial building in Napa.
Built by Philip Pfeiffer as a brewery it’s also been home to a saloon, a brothel, a Chinese laundry, and a deli. Today it's a wine bar.
The Napa County Courthouse (1878), 825 Brown Street still serves as a courthouse. This beautiful Italianate building, with its Eiffel Tower shaped flagpole, has been the setting for motion pictures and is the site of California’s last public hanging in 1897. On the Southeast corner sits a large grinding rock Indians used to pulverize grains.
The Napa Valley Opera House (1880), 1030 Main Street is an Italianate style building that was damaged in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, closed in 1914 and reopened after remodeling in 2002. Ira Gilchrist designed both the Napa County Courthouse and the Opera House.
The Winship Building (1888), 948 Main Street, is a wonderful brick Italianate, commercial building with a cast iron and glass storefront and a wonderful restored Victorian tower.
The Goodman Library (1901), 1219 First Street stands out because of its rough Romanesque architecture and stone walls. Originally a library, it also served as a social gathering place and as a teahouse. Fittingly, it’s now home to the Napa Historical Society.
Fagiani’s Bar (1908), 813 Main Street, its upper facade of native stone and lower façade of Art Modern tiles, is purported to have had a secret passageway to a speakeasy. In fact, some say Napa had some 30 speakeasies within a five-block radius during prohibition.
The First National Bank (1916), 1026 First Street, with its columns is a wonderful example of Neo-Classical buildings. Today, it’s a restaurant.
Be sure to see our article on Victorian Mansions and Historic Homes in Napa CA.
For a look at historic firefighting equipment, the Napa Firefighters Museum, 1201 Main Street, exhibits a1859 Jeffers Hand Pumper and a 1906 a Knott Steamer. Admission is free. 707-259-0609
For a lively and informative guided walking tour of the town see Napa Walking Tour, 707-694-5097.
For a self-guided tour, purchase the “Historic Walking Tour Pamphlet” at the Napa County Historical Society at 1219 First Street or Napa Tourist Center at 1310 Napa Town Center (707-226-5813).
Follow the links below for details about individual Napa wine bars and tasting rooms (in alphabetical order) or click winery names on the interactive map or sidebar above.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
Sandy Sims, an award winning journalist, newspaper editor, and travel writer, also writes fiction.
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