Kate Spade is standing between two rows of vivid green vines that stretch off into the distance of the Napa Valley. Faded yellow paint is peeling off a perfect old frame farmhouse behind her, a towering oak tree shades the foreground, and the sun is just about to slip behind the mountains. She's inspecting a bunch of tiny grapes, not noticing the dark red dirt clinging to her green satin sandals. Wearing her signature bright colors and chunky bracelets, her dark hair swept up and her eyes alive with intelligence, she resembles a young Babe Paley, with the same sense of effortless—but unmistakable—chic. "Being here is about taking the time to appreciate and enjoy things," she says, inhaling the pure country air. "Everyone loves food and wine, and everyone is concerned with the environment. But no one takes any of it for granted, so it seems fresh—a fresh view of how it would be to live this way."
Like few other places in America, the wine country of northern California seems to have turned back the clock to a simpler time. With farmers' markets scattered throughout the region, barber poles on every Main Street, and most downtown businesses closed by 6 p.m., it feels pleasantly like the past. Which is exactly what the designer and her favorite new destination have in common: both have taken an old idea of American style and yanked it into the present.
Since 1993, when she produced her first canvas tote with the label stitched on the outside, Kate Spade has taken a traditional—some might say preppy—look and tweaked it with bold colors such as poppy or chartreuse, innovative materials like tweed or ponyskin, and strong, simple shapes. She has also turned her firm into one of the most dynamic fashion success stories of the last decade, with some $70 million in annual revenue. Her witty classicism has expanded to shoes, eyeglasses, loungewear, and luggage, while her husband and business partner, Andy, designs the men's wear line Jack Spade.
The Spades first visited the Napa and Sonoma valleys last year and have already returned four times. Besides vineyards that rival the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the region is home to one of the finest restaurants in America, the French Laundry; a growing number of luxury hotels; and spas whose treatments use ingredients just plucked from the ground. Blessed with rolling hills that look like Tuscany, tree-lined highways that evoke Provence, and plenty of updated Americana, this part of California has become one of the most perfectly styled destinations around. Yet it has retained a down-to-earth appeal—much like Kate herself (as an assistant editor at Mademoiselle in the mid-eighties, she tried imitating her co-workers' all-black uniform, but soon admitted defeat and went back to her bright pink trenchcoat). In Napa, the Spades get a kick out of such laid-back spots as Taylor's Automatic Refresher, a burger stand in the town of St. Helena that has a white picket fence in front and redwood picnic tables out back, as well as the nearby Oakville Grocery, a glamorous take on a general store, with rough wood floors and gigantic wicker baskets filled with artisanal foods and organic produce.
BUT IT'S NOT JUST THE RUSTIC ELEMENTS of this agricultural region that capture Kate's imagination. "There's a discreet elegance—it's spoken quietly, not yelled," she says. "I'm not interested in things that are too staged or that try too hard. I like things that are easy but at the same time beautiful." Kate's favorite resort, for example, is Meadowood in St. Helena. Built as a country club in the early sixties, it has white cottages scattered among pine-covered hills and a croquet lawn where players are still required to wear white. "I love a place that has a hint of formality," Kate explains. "Not a lot—just enough to make it seem important and special."
That sense of refinement has spread to the region's greatest attraction—wine making. Three decades ago, local vintners were more concerned with perfecting and promoting their product than with bringing tourists to the region. Now, with nearly 5 million annual visitors streaming into the Napa Valley alone, they're focusing their message. Free tasting rooms with crowds three-deep at the counter are no more. Instead, many vineyards are creating intimate experiences. "Our customers are getting more sophisticated, and they're thirsty for knowledge," says Karen Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars, one of Kate's favorites. The vineyard has renovated its visitors' center, keeps two chefs on staff, and pours wines that aren't available anywhere else. One thing it doesn't have, however, is a sign out front—an example of the importance of discretion. "Please watch carefully for our entrance, marked by a large black mailbox and colorful flowers," a recording kindly suggests.