One day a couple of years ago, when we were celebrating the opening of our new winery and tasting rooms, I distinctly remember breathing a sigh of relief. The 2017 fires, which had swept through our property like a tornado with 85-mile-an-hour winds—burning our 2,000-acre ranch in six hours—felt like they were finally behind us. We had been luckier than most: while the fire had destroyed many of Hudson Ranch’s buildings, utility lines, and tens of thousands of native trees—many more than 400 years old—our 200 acres of vineyards were miraculously left untouched. Still, the scene had been apocalyptic, the fire burning the whole landscape white.
On that day of the new opening, I remember my husband, Lee Hudson, telling a reporter that when he was growing up, he’d gained a sense that doing things well was important, and that having a strong community was important, too. I never could have imagined the resonance those words would have in the weeks and months to follow. First Covid-19 hit, shutting virtually everything down. Then the fires returned, bringing more hardship to local businesses—like Kongsgaard winery, which had replanted the vineyards it lost in 2017, only to lose them again. Since then, I have watched so many businesses large and small falter, struggle, pivot, or close. The wine industry in both Napa and Sonoma has been especially rocked; it’s been harder to sell fruit and get wines to market. Some wineries chose not to pick this vintage at all due to smoke taint or too much inventory. Restaurants, once a primary distribution channel for wine, are themselves facing existential threat. At times it has felt like we couldn’t take much more.
I married my husband eight years ago, which is when I moved to the Napa Valley ranch Lee has owned since the early eighties. Located on 2,000 acres just north of San Pablo Bay in the Carneros region, the winery, caves and tasting rooms form something like a village where guests taste wines and learn about our wine-making process. We’ve made our own estate wines since 2004, but grapes and other agricultural crops have been grown here for more than a century, and for decades Lee has sold grapes to other family-owned wineries. I always imagined working in a place that felt open and collaborative—something like a massive family. This pandemic has brought us home, very literally, not just to the quarantine of our physical homes, but also to the networks that support our actual survival. I’ve never been more grateful for our farm, for the food security that it and the farms in the region provide. Americans are obsessed with independence and individualism, with exceptionalism and self-reliance. But a crisis will show you the holes in this thinking.
While we are literally exhausted by the toll of the last few months, I am also invigorated by the fact that we have been nimble enough to pivot together. We saw a surge in visitors from the Bay Area and SoCal, people on road trips coming for the first time. Which is why, when indoor dining shut down in San Francisco, we extended our winery to our friends Michael and Lindsey Tusk to be an outdoor outpost for their restaurant Quince. Until outdoor dining was canceled, it was (safely) full every night, and it also brought new people to the winery—as did opening the full expanse of our wilderness to hikers, picnickers and birdwatchers. Meanwhile, I opened an underground, word-of-mouth “Garage Grocery” out of the garage of my San Francisco pied-a-terre, and sold vegetables from our farm, meat products from Fatted Calf, bread from our local bakery. We drove directly to our local flour mill in Sonoma to pick up fresh flour weekly as they couldn’t keep up with demand. There was no yeast to be found, so I reached out to our restaurant friends that were closed, bought their bulk yeast and doled it out.
This valley is the place that Lee and I chose to live. When you hike up to the top of our property on the Mayacama ridge and look down over the sloping hills to the bay, you see a patchwork of vineyards whose colors change with the seasons. More than ever, I see this place as a textile made up of so many threads: of all the people and lives and businesses and relationships and products and goods that sustain this ecosystem, and are sustained by it. I’m determined, as we wade further into this uncertain period, to never lose this rich tapestry.
Napa & Sonoma Now
We asked the effortlessly stylish Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson to share a few of her essential spots for a weekend—or make it a week!—in wine country
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For a few years now, I’ve been running Hudson Greens and Goods, a small market in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. We sell organic seasonal fruits and vegetables, many of which have been grown by us at the ranch, as well as our own olive oil, our sustainable meat, freshly-cut flowers, local honey and, of course, our wines. It’s a cook’s market!
And, of course, come join us at Hudson Ranch & Winery for a curated tasting and walk through our magical gardens or come for a hike and bottle of wine.
Foodshed is tasty Italian to-go and prepared foods, such as pizza with house-made burrata and rosemary-spiked chicken alla cacciatore. It’s got a great Italian wine selection.
Contimo is an awesome take-away sandwich shop that’s open for breakfast too. It has the most delicious pimento cheese! They cure their own meats. Don’t miss the breakfast biscuit with sausage and gravy.
La Taberna is great little wine bar with tasty Basque pintxos, like anchovies with quail egg, chorizo with chimichurri, and empanadas made with Argentine beef or mushrooms. It’s got a fantastic selection of local Napa wines.
Cadet is a very local gathering spot with an awesome vinyl collection. They often feature tastings with the local wine makers doing the serving. They also serve great small bites like grilled cheese paninis and pork ragu with local Stone Valley Farm pork.
Compline Wine Bar is part wine bar, part restaurant and part retail space, owned and operated by local somms Matt Stamp and Ryan Stetins. It’s got an excellent local selection of wines.
Charter Oak, a project from Christopher Kostow of Meadowood, which was lost in last summer’s fire, has a delicious and seasonal family-style menu, great grilled foods and the most beautiful outdoor patio. Don’t miss the dried albacore salad!
At Arietta Winery, tastings are hosted by the gregarious owner, Fritz Hatton, and they’re very informative and educational—he has more than four decades’ worth of experience in wine. Their On The White Keys is one of my favorite whites!
Robert Sinskey Vineyards is great place to go when you don’t want to reserve ahead. It’s super friendly and they serve great snacks that they make in-house, like French pastries filled with Gruyère and tapenade toast. If Rob or Maria happen to be front of house, you are in for a treat.
Frogs Leap Winery has a very nice casual outdoor setting where you can do un-hosted tastings. During California’s stay-at-home order, they’ve been doing interactive tastings over Zoom, and they’ll send you the wines in advance.
Whetstone Wine Cellars is family-owned, super sweet, and has a strong association with the music world—pre-Covid, they had live music. Their tastings take place in a 19th century, French-style chateau.
Grab a margherita pizza at Ciccio in Yountville, and go sit in the French Laundry garden, which is open to the public and filled with vegetables that end up on the menu of the three Michelin-starred restaurant.
Take a short class at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa location, on subjects ranging from How to Taste Wine to Baking Bread. And while you’re there, check Chuck Williams’ (of Williams Sonoma) amazing private collection of kitchenware—such as a tureen shaped like a boar’s head and a duck press—amassed during his lifetime.
Rent a bike and take the Vine Trail up and down the valley with Napa Valley Bike Rentals; it’s got 47 miles of trails that run from Vallejo to Calistoga.
Valley Bar & Bottle on the Sonoma Square was recently opened by Emma Lipp, previously chef at Scribe Winery. They serve delicious meals on their intimate outdoor patio area, and they have a small market with delicious house-made foodstuffs, including jams and chutneys.
Scribe Winery has super fun and casual tastings on the grounds of a historic hacienda, and it’s run by fourth-generation farmers Andrew and Adam Mariani. Check for restaurant pop ups!
Kistler Vineyards does buttoned-up tastings of their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in a beautiful wood-framed farmhouse originally constructed in 1920.
Go to El Molino for the best Mexican in the Bay Area. Lovely Oaxacan women run the kitchen here, and I buy my fresh masa here to make homemade tortillas and tamales. They’ve got daily specials, all organic and locally sourced. Don’t miss the black mole tamales.
Walk the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area. These restored wetlands are the northern arm of the San Francisco Bay and a habitat for so many rare and endangered birds, such as the California clapper rail.
Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson is the co-owner of Hudson Ranch and Hudson Greens & Goods with her husband, Lee Hudson. A native Texan from El Paso, she has worked alongside Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Slow Food International, helped to open properties such as the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo and Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, CA, and co-founded the O Olive Oil Company. She lives with her husband and their children in Napa.