Even commercial powerhouse Robert Mondavi, which receives 300,000 visitors a year at its vineyard outside Oakville, now focuses on more private encounters, such as one-on-one weekends with leading chefs (this year's participants were Laurent Tourondel from New York's Cello and Thomas Keller from the French Laundry).
The Swanson family, friends of the Spades, have taken the trend toward exclusivity to a new level. Their winery in Rutherford just opened a miniature tasting room for no more than eight people. As intimate as an 18th-century salon, the vivid coral-colored room has polished hardwood floors, a cathedral ceiling, marble counters, and a burnished, agate-studded wood table under an enormous Venetian chandelier. Yet the atmosphere is anything but solemn. "We're here to demystify the wine-making process," says Alexis Swanson, daughter of the proprietors and the vineyard's marketing director. "So many people are too serious about wine. I say, 'Honey, it's just fermented grape juice—get over yourself.' "
Most restaurants in Napa and Sonoma reflect that same attitude. "We feel completely at ease every place we go," says Andy Spade, "even when it's the best food in the world. You're not concerned about the surroundings, or the staff, or the other customers—you're just there to have great food."
Great food, increasingly, is what's on local menus. The culinary scene is led, of course, by the French Laundry. Chef-owner Thomas Keller, a California native, cut his teeth at La Réserve and Restaurant Raphael in New York and at Taillevent and Guy Savoy in Paris; he moved back to the state and opened his own place in the quiet town of Yountville in 1995. The restaurant, housed in a two-story stone and frame cottage that served as a laundry in the 19th century, has become known as one of the most sophisticated dining experiences in the country. The wildly self-confident American cuisine is grounded in classical French technique—think seared duck breast with endive marmalade, dried apricot compote, and sautéed foie gras; or ricotta gnocchi with grated Roquefort cheese in an emulsion of Darjeeling tea and walnut oil. The pace, with a five- or nine-course meal, is languorous. "It was long," Kate says with a laugh, describing her most recent evening there. "We were with friends, and we had so much fun. The wines are amazing. The staff is so serious about it, but they're also very friendly."
Keller has raised the bar for culinary excellence in the area, and the innovative restaurants at Meadowood and the Auberge du Soleil are keeping up standards. Haute cuisine is not the only option, and bistros are increasingly popular. Two of the best are just down the street from the French Laundry. Bouchon is a chic affair opened by Keller in 1998 and designed by Adam Tihany; the French tile floors and Art Deco light fixtures make it look as if it just blew in from Paris via New York. Then there's Bistro Jeanty, a casual French country restaurant from Philippe Jeanty, the highly acclaimed former chef from the restaurant at the Domaine Chandon vineyard. Kate enjoys the skate sautéed in lemon-caper butter, and Andy particularly likes the thick, steaming cassoulet that takes three days to prepare. "It's the kind of place you like because it's not so formal," he says. "You can just enjoy yourself."
IT'S PARTLY THE REGION'S EXTRAORDINARY farms that make all the restaurants thrive. The hippest new American bistro, the Ravenous Café in the up-and-coming Sonoma town of Healdsburg, uses only produce grown nearby—much of it organic. Healdsburg's Downtown Bakery buys only fresh-milled flours and organic fruit, as well as butter, cream, and eggs from Sonoma County. Even that hamburger stand, Taylor's, uses local halibut for its fish-and-chips.
The attention lavished on ingredients reflects a healthy respect for terroir in general, an offshoot of which is strong support for environmental protection. The area is certainly well developed: demand for land in the Napa Valley has pushed prices to $50,000 an acre or more. Still, the buildings blend into their surroundings, signage is discreet, and vineyards are abundant with trees. "They've done a really great job of preserving it, in a way that I haven't seen anywhere else," Andy notes. "You could be in parts of Europe, in Tuscany."