Harvesting style in Napa and Sonoma with the high priestess of handbags

Martyn Thompson
| Credit: Martyn Thompson

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.

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."

In fact, the Napa Valley is one of the most fiercely protected areas in the United States, and has been since 1968, when an ambitious zoning measure designated the county an agricultural preserve. New subdivisions of land must be at least 160 acres, which prevents large parcels from being broken up into tiny plots. Since the law was enacted, not one acre of the Napa Valley has been removed from the preserve or rezoned.

ONE RESULT OF THESE DETERMINED EFFORTS is that Kate and Andy can follow the Silverado Trail, a 25-mile road that skirts the foothills from the town of Napa to Calistoga, without a single billboard or architectural eyesore detracting from the view. Driving, preferably in a convertible, is one of their favorite things to do in wine country, particularly for the breathtaking scenery, with the mountain wilderness on one side and the cultivated vineyards on the other.

The cultural landscape has also been well preserved—around here, every pickup truck is a vintage model, every sign is lettered in a careful hand, every farm stand overflows with bounty. On this trip, the Spades are especially struck by the Napa town of St. Helena, with its quiet Victorian houses, impeccably maintained bungalows, and picture-perfect Main Street. Kate makes herself at home at Martin Design/Dione Carston Cosmetics Edited, a jewel of a boutique selling beauty products from around the world. OK Barbers, with its plate-glass window and peeling pale-green walls, is so authentic it could be shipped off to the Smithsonian.

Heading north past Calistoga, the Spades wind through the wooded Mayacama Mountains—past the rustic Triple S Ranch, an amusing spot for an early-evening cocktail—and drop into a lesser-known part of Sonoma County, the Alexander Valley. Jimtown, an eccentric, bright-yellow roadside shop in Healdsburg, has a sign out front promising GOOD COFFEE—REAL FOOD. Inside is a selection of old-fashioned toys, collectibles, and antiques—think Pez dispensers, books of shadow figures, and giant jawbreakers. Kate picks up gifts for her friends' children. "I didn't even know half these things were still being made," she says. "But they're not trying to be ironic about going down memory lane. It's not kitsch—it has more integrity."

From there, it's off to a perfect little farming town called Geyserville, where the biggest attraction is an honest-to-God general store, Bosworth & Son. The simple white clapboard structure was first opened by the current owner's grandfather. Norman Rockwell couldn't have asked for a more picturesque scene: the hardwood floors are faded and rough, and a tired old hound dog lies at the foot of the counter while Bosworth talks things over with a long-time customer. "So dusty and true-blue," Kate says. "It opened in 1911 and I don't think it's ever been touched. I love that they haven't tried to update it."

Outside on the street, someone passing through town rolls down a window to ask a resident for directions to the nearest service station. "You'll have to go down to Healdsburg," is the cheerful answer. "There's no gas in Geyserville!"

Such moments of authenticity and charm, combined with all the area's easy elegance, are what make the designer wild about the place. "There's a natural sophistication that doesn't seem forced," Kate explains. "It's a great balance."


Napa and Sonoma

Meadowood Napa Valley 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 800/458-8080 or 707/963-3646, fax 707/963-5863; www.meadowood.com; doubles from $460. Kate's favorite resort has 85 understated rooms and suites in cottages spread across 250 wooded acres; a serene lap pool; two croquet lawns; and custom wine tours arranged by resident oenologist John Thoreen.

Auberge du Soleil 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800/348-5406 or 707/963-1211, fax 707/963-8764; www.aubergedusoleil.com; doubles from $450. This romantic French country—style resort spills over 33 lush hillside acres studded with olive groves. The new 7,000-square-foot spa has treatment rooms for couples, and the restaurant serves nouvelle American cuisine.

Gaige House Inn 13540 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 800/935-0237 or 707/935-0237, fax 707/935-6411; www.gaige.com; doubles from $250. An elegant, 10-room creekside B&B with a sparkling pool, three new cottages, and exquisite taste throughout.

Duchamp 421 Foss St., Healdsburg; 800/431-9341 or 707/431-1300, fax 707/431-1333; www.duchamphotel.com; doubles from $225. Peter and Pat Lenz, a wine-making couple transplanted from Long Island, opened this art-themed resort last summer. It has simple Modernist villas and great breakfast pastries from the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg.

French Laundry 6640 Washington St., Yountville; 800/944-1224 or 707/944-2380; dinner for two $210. One of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the world. Thomas Keller's New American food ranges from poached Maine lobster to medallion of New Zealand venison to truffle custard. Popular in the extreme: Call for reservations exactly 60 days before your preferred date.

Domaine Chandon Restaurant 1 California Dr., Yountville; 707/944-2892; dinner for two $100. Innovative, French-inspired cuisine in a soaring, candlelit room overlooking the gardens.

Bistro Jeanty 6510 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-0103; dinner for two $75. A French country bistro from Philippe Jeanty, formerly chef at Domaine Chandon.

Bouchon 6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8037; dinner for two $80. The French Laundry's bistro sibling, with an interior by Adam Tihany. Try the vegetable gnocchi in lemon-butter sauce and the steamed mussels in mustard-saffron broth.

Taylor's Automatic Refresher 933 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-3486; lunch for two $20. The most stylized hamburger stand you could hope to find: picket fence, picnic tables, patty melts, shakes, and fries, along with such exotic offerings as ahi burger with ginger-wasabi mayonnaise.

Triple S Ranch 4600 Mountain Home Ranch Rd., Calistoga; 707/942-6730; dinner for two $60. A rustic restaurant and bar, popular with locals, hidden in the hills above Calistoga.

Ravenous Café 420 Center St., Healdsburg; 707/431-1302; dinner for two $70. Updated American bistro in a white bungalow with an orange lacquer interior. Uses only the freshest local ingredients.

Martin Design/Dione Carston Cosmetics Edited 1118 Hunt St., St. Helena; 707/968-0988. A savvy selection of beauty products, from Mason Pearson hairbrushes to rejuvenating Japanese slippers.

St. Helena Antiques 1231 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-5878. Charming antiques store in the heart of town, with plenty of wine-related goods (handblown bottles, corkscrews).

Oakville Grocery 7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 707/944-8802. A general store—cum—gourmet grocery; the place for extravagantly filled picnic baskets.

Bosworth & Son 21060 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville; 707/857-3463. A bona fide general store that hasn't changed since it opened back in 1911. Great selection of Western wear and cowboy boots.

Jimtown Store 6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707/433-1212. The country store made modern, stocked with toys, folk art, and local olive oils and jams.

Downtown Bakery 308A Center St., Healdsburg; 707/431-2719. This perfect old-fashioned bakery uses butter, cream, and eggs from Sonoma County. The sticky buns are legendary.

Robert Mondavi Winery 7801 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 800/666-3284 or 707/259-9463. After a $28 million renovation, the area's most famous winery has enriched its visitors' programs.

Cakebread Cellars 8300 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 800/588-0298. A family-run vineyard that is one of Kate's favorites.

Swanson Vineyards & Winery 1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford; 707/967-3500. The most glamorous private tasting room in Napa and Sonoma. By appointment only.