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SoMA, Meet Wine Country's St. Helena

Photos by Erin Kunkel

If the very thought of Wine Country evokes images of stretch limos teeming with feather boa-draped bachelorette parties, hordes of Midwesterners bellied up at tasting room bars, and grapevine-swathed, cork and barrel everything, you wouldn’t be totally wrong. But off the beaten path, curious city folk may find tiny civilized hubs where the art and design are contemporary, the cuisine is cutting-edge, and the shopping is more Manolo Blahnik than The North Face. In other words, not so unlike San Francisco. In fact, some of Napa and Sonoma’s burgeoning little towns feel a lot like our favorite SF neighborhoods. So bypass the tchotchke shops and tourist attractions with guides to the SoMa, Mission, Upper Haight, and Dogpatch of Wine Country. Today, we start with an urban denizen's guide to St. Helena.

The two-block downtown of tiny St. Helena may be an unlikely hub for internationally acclaimed art. Yet there 
it is, a posh little enclave with galleries that cater to a sophisticated set. Residents even include a few 
fine artists—Nancy Willis, who teaches painting and printmaking at Napa Valley College, and painter Layla Fanucci, known for her cityscapes, including one of modern-day San Francisco.

While there is a one-screen cinema that shows surprisingly provocative independent films, the art galleries are the prize of St. Helena. Ten years ago, Christopher Hill was craving something edgier than the vineyard paintings and tablescapes he was seeing elsewhere in Napa Valley, so he opened his namesake gallery. The space is now a tour through the different schools of 20th-century art—from French expressionism to pop art and urban realism. The rotating collection is always a study in contrast (and it’s right above the boutique FootCandy, should you need an emergency pair of Jimmy Choos).

In the historic St. Helena Star building across the street, Oliver Caldwell and Susan Snyder, whose San Francisco gallery, Caldwell Snyder, has been a fixture on Sutter Street since 1983, have made a spacious home for contemporary artists from California and around the world. Nearby, the I. Wolk Gallery—which changed hands in 2009 when founder Ira Wolk passed away—balances accessible and at times whimsical paintings and sculptures with more challenging works. Next door, renowned designer Erin Martin’s Showroom M is ground zero for an eclectic mix of found objects, natural materials, and a modern, industrial sensibility that appeals to designers and laymen alike.

Of course, Bay Area art buffs are also savvy eaters, and St. Helena serves it up. In addition to tourist mainstays such as Tra Vigne and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, this spring saw the openings of two much-talked about newcomers. The old Martini House just off the main drag has been transformed by Chicago restaurateur Andrew Florsheim and reopened as Goose & Gander. Thanks to Scott Beattie’s back-to-basics bar program, this is now hands down the best place for a Manhattan in Napa Valley. At French Blue, architect Howard Backen is taking the farm-to-table fad a step further by sourcing from his partner Leslie Rudd’s farm on Mt. Veeder. The restaurant, which has an open kitchen and a cafe garden space overlooking Main Street, also sells homemade condiments and jams.

This article was published in 7x7's July/August issue. Click here to subscribe.