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Calistoga evolves into food-and-wine epicenter

Downtown Calistoga.

DIANE PETERSON, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

There’s no barber shop, no cobbler, no dry cleaner and no movie theater. The nearest Starbucks is 14.3 miles away.

Still, a new generation is being drawn to the small-town charm of Calistoga, where everyone knows their neighbor and most everything else that you need — including world-class hiking and health spas, wine and food — is just five minutes away.

“I like being at the top of the valley, where the walls get closer,” said Jamie Anzalone, owner of the Calistoga Olive Oil Company, which opened on Lincoln Avenue three years ago. “When I moved here 15 years ago, it was a lot of retired people. Now, people like me have bought houses, and we’re all raising families.”

After a long hiatus, the 2.2-square-mile resort town founded in 1862 by Sam Brannan appears to be waking up from its sleepy, hot-springs induced languor to claim its place as one of the crown jewels of the Napa Valley.

“It’s a base camp to Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties,” said Chris Canning, mayor and executive director of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau. “We are being equated to Healdsburg and Yountville.”

During the economic downturn, the city of 5,100 had the haunted look of a ghost town, but it has come roaring back in recent years, like the geysers upon which it was founded. Calistoga now is staking its claim as a food-and-wine destination as well as a historic mineral springs retreat boasting 17 health spas.

Two new restaurants opened earlier this year: Evangeline, in the long-vacant Wappo Cafe space near the main intersection; and Sam’s Social Club, at the 27-acre Indian Springs Resort on the north end of town. There also have been a handful of renovations at such renowned restaurants as Solbar, JoLe and the Calistoga Inn.

Canning also is proud of the fact that Calistoga is a diverse, working-class community with a population that’s 49 percent Latino and 49 percent Anglo. Since an ordinance was passed in the 1980s, no chain businesses have been allowed.

“That gives the town a unique character,” he said. “You run into people who live and work here,”

In recent times, however, they have been joined by some big celebrities. Actress and model Riley Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, turned heads in February when she married musician Ben Smith-Petersen at Calistoga Ranch, a 157-acre luxury resort located off the Silverado Trail.

Last September, Calistoga threw its first annual Harvest Table dinner as a promotion for its growing food and wine scene. Inspired by a similar gathering in Park City, Utah, the town closed off Lincoln Avenue and erected a 1,000-foot-long table, where about 700 locals and tourists rubbed elbows. They enjoyed multi-course meals prepared by 14 restaurants, wine from local vintners and a stunning view of Mount St. Helena.

“Calistoga has that community vibe, and to eat out on the street and see all your neighbors was amazing,” said Nicole Jordan, a sales manager at the 33-room Mount View Hotel and Spa. “I love being here.”

This year’s Harvest Table, set for Sunday, Sept. 13, has been broadened to include 16 restaurants and 30 wineries. Tickets went on sale in mid-July, with prices ranging from $40 to $150, and quickly sold out, even though seating was boosted to 800.

Like other cities in Wine Country, the town tends to book up early during peak wedding season, from May through November. Local wedding venues include picturesque wineries such as Hans Fahden and resorts such as Solage and Indian Springs.

Many folks from nearby Sonoma County are increasingly spending “staycations” in Calistoga, a quick getaway that can take as little as 20 minutes by car. Newlyweds Shane and Jamie Keck of Santa Rosa spent a “mini-honeymoon” in mid-July at the Brannan Cottage Inn.

“We came here for the food and wine and scenery,” said Shane Keck, who works as an assistant winemaker for Hirsch Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. “We’ll go to France in the fall.”

Santa Rosa residents Matt and Sonjia Specter opened their own restaurant and bar, JoLe, next to the Mount View Hotel in 2008, just before the recession hit. “Sometimes it’s better to be young and dumb,” Specter said philosophically.

After weathering that storm, the couple considered opening a second restaurant in Santa Rosa last winter. Instead, they shut down JoLe for seven weeks and put the money into a major restaurant renovation.

JoLe offers upscale American food, from simple salads to elaborate tasting menus that range from $55 to $135. For the Harvest Table, Specter plans to serve an ethnic menu of “street food” from around the world.

“I tell people we’re American, and we steal from everybody,” he said. “We do straight food, no fusion.”

Not all the locals have embraced the changes wrought by the recession and the recent influx of luxury businesses. Many of the shops vacated during the downturn — including a candy store, shoe shop and a few gift stores — have been replaced by wine-tasting rooms, with five or six now clustered in a one-block section.

T’Anne Butcher, daughter of W. H. Smith owners Bill and Joan Smith and general sales manager for the award-winning winery’s tasting room in Calistoga, said they were among the first of a handful of wineries to open tasting rooms seven years ago.

“Everybody wants diversity in the town,” she said. “But times change, and we needed a storefront to introduce our brand.”

Other downtown business people in the food-and-wine world have welcomed the tasting rooms, since they entice visitors to linger longer.

“It keeps people on the street,” Specter said. “When I used to come here, we’d be driving all over.”

Then there’s the luxury lodging issue. During the recession, bed taxes plummeted and the town was reportedly headed toward bankruptcy, with not enough money to pay for infrastructure projects such as paving roads and replacing sewer lines.

To boost the tax base, the town’s civic and business leaders recently lured two new luxury resort projects scheduled to open in the next few years: one across from Solage that will be managed by the Four Seasons, and one on Diamond Mountain that will be run by Rosewood, a lodging enterprise owned by one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest families.

In addition, Indian Springs recently completed a $23 million expansion that added 75 more rooms to its 19 cottages and 20 lodge rooms. Daily room prices range from $200 in the lodge to more than $1,000 for a house on the property.

“There’s a price point for every budget,” said Kyrsta Scully, food and beverage manager for Sam’s Social Club. It opened in February under the direction of Executive Chef Kory Stewart, a veteran of such well-known San Francisco restaurants as Postrio and Town Hall.

Stewart, who will be cooking for the Harvest Table event on two custom-made Argentinian grills, produces simple, rustic American food such as ribeye and rotisserie chicken, and sources from local farmers such as Forni-Brown of Calistoga. The newly built restaurant features an outdoor patio with fire pit, heaters and water feature.

“The menu changes every few weeks,” Stewart said. “Recently, we did a whole branzini (European seabass) and some St. Louis ribs.”

Meanwhile, Solbar restaurant at Solage resort closed for three weeks in January for a $1 million renovation that expanded the bar and added a lounge area plus an open-air dining room for parties of 6 to 10 who want a private dining space.

Solbar Executive Chef Brandon Sharp, who has won a Michelin star every year since 2008, recently branched out as a managing partner of Evangeline restaurant, a new eatery that features an outdoor patio evocative of old New Orleans and rustic Franco-American fare such as Duck Cassoulet and the “Bienville Burger,” prepared by Executive Chef Gustavo Rios.

“It’s what you’d want if you’d be weaving down the French Quarter at 2 a.m.,” Sharp said. “A big, messy, juicy burger.”

Sharp’s vision for Evangeline was a low-key, French bistro, similar to Bouchon or Bistro Jeanty of Yountville, where people could have fun and enjoy great food they don’t have to think about.

He said he is comfortable with the town’s evolution because he believes the new resorts are not going to replace beloved B&Bs such as the Craftsman Inn and Christopher’s Inn, both of which have a loyal following.

If and when Calistoga becomes an epicenter of food and wine, he said, the town will always offer a little something extra — a rich history of gold mining in the 1870s and the geothermal springs that first drew millionaire Sam Brannan, who founded Indian Springs in 1862.

“It’s always going to have a lot more depth and interest than Yountville,” Sharp said. “I don’t think the Four Seasons will take business away. They will just bring a different type of it.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.