When Alexis Swanson Traina, the creative director of Napa Valley's Swanson Vineyards, began dating technology entrepreneur Trevor Traina, they devised a competition. The rules of the contest, called Target-Off, were simple: Each had $100 to spend to create a spectacular dinner with items bought only from the popular budget retailer. The loser would take the winner to Paris for dinner. "I wholeheartedly believed I would win," says Alexis.
Although she served her dinner (dressed-up Campbell's tomato soup, fancy macaroni and cheese and butterscotch pudding) in her Oakville, California, garden at sunset under a canopy of sycamore boughs, Trevor won the contest by hanging Japanese lanterns in a persimmon tree, setting a table with candles and bamboo cutlery and making fish cooked in foil and vanilla ice cream–filled oranges. They went to Paris on their honeymoon three years later.
Alexis doesn't often meet her match in entertaining. The glamorous 37-year-old is renowned in wine country for her ability to throw great parties. She even makes occasions of wine tastings at Swanson, the 140-acre Oakville vineyards founded in 1985 by her father, Clarke, a member of the Swanson frozen-foods family. Swanson offers a range of wines, from a vibrant Pinot Grigio to a sumptuous Muscat, but it's best known for its magnificently elegant, structured Merlot (especially impressive given that, with immediate neighbors such as Opus One and Silver Oak, Swanson is surrounded by the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon grape).
To create a wine-tasting experience that was more personal than what most wineries offer, Alexis established a "salon" where small groups gather around an agate-encrusted burl table in a coral-colored room to talk, learn and taste. "We wanted to do something that really communicated the pleasures of wine, and the conversation and company, so we started a salon," she says. "The first calls we got were people wanting to know if we did hair and nails." Alexis also arranged food pairings for the wines. Her friendship with Katrina Markoff, founder of the Chicago chocolatier Vosges Haut-Chocolat, led to the creation of rich, intense bonbons flavored with Swanson's Cab blend. Most recently, Alexis began offering domestic hackleback caviar, which she serves at the salon with Pinot Grigio, a twist on the classic pairing of beluga and Champagne (she sells both the hackleback caviar and bonbons at swansonvineyards.com).
Alexis learned about hospitality early. "We were always our own show," she says of her family. To this day, her mother, Elizabeth, a New Orleanian of Cuban heritage, keeps a collection of tap-dancing shoes for anyone who feels the urge to perform an after-dinner routine. Alexis first became obsessed with entertaining when she was growing up in Naples, Florida. The community was filled with party-giving older ladies who, sensing a kindred spirit in eight-year-old Alexis, took her under their wings: "Life revolved around flowers, chocolates and sending cards—they taught me everything they knew." Naples was also the place where she got to know "club food." "I love comforting dishes like creamed spinach, corn pudding and meat loaf," she says. "I think I have tomato aspic and lump crab in my DNA."
Alexis has a name for her entertaining style: "high-low." "You need to mix things up to keep them authentic," she says. At her home in San Francisco, that might mean serving a crawfish boil at a black-tie dinner. At a recent party at the Trainas' weekend spot in Oakville, set among some of the country's great vineyards, "high-low" meant having Alexis's friend Thomas Keller, the world-famous chef, prepare a casual menu. Together, Alexis and Keller decided the main course would be the fried chicken that he serves every other Monday at his new Yountville family-style restaurant, Ad Hoc. "Family silver in an orchard with fried chicken by Thomas Keller," Alexis says. "That's high-low." "Alexis is the consummate hostess," Keller responds. "She's blessed with a Francophile's heart and an American palate."
At the white clapboard house, which has been in the Traina family for years and that Alexis and Trevor share with his brother Todd and Todd's wife, Katie, Alexis heads to her "prop closet," where she keeps everything from candleholders, napkins and place cards to Christmas accessories. She grabs antique glassware and silver candelabras for the table. "I'm serious about my prop closet," says Alexis. "Every good hostess has one. When I go to a big socialite's house, I don't want to see her shoe closet, I want to see her props."
The guests begin arriving. Trevor's father, John, who was once married to the author Danielle Steel, has driven over from his nearby home. Alexis's sister Claiborne is there, and so is Alexis's friend Stephan Jenkins, the lead singer of the hit '90s band Third Eye Blind. They snack on classic deviled eggs made by the Swanson family cook, Terry Sweetland, and sip Swanson's refreshingly dry 2006 Salon Rosato. The group then sits down to the salad Keller has prepared: iceberg lettuce wedges with chunks of bacon and an herb-flecked buttermilk dressing. Next is a platter of Keller's exquisite lemony fried chicken, served with creamy whipped potatoes and sautéed brussels sprout leaves with tender butternut squash—excellent with Swanson's velvety 2004 Merlot.
As guests finish their crispy chicken, the sun sets, making the white porch glow. The conversation turns to the Merlot they're drinking and to MerlotFightsBack.com, launched by the winery in 2005. Swanson, Napa's largest single-estate producer of Merlot, is a huge champion of the grape. But Alexis—no zealot—loves Cabernet, too. And chocolate. She sips the surprisingly fruity 2004 Alexis Cabernet blend that bears her name, then digs into the pillowy mousse Keller has made for her.
Patric Kuh, Los Angeles magazine's restaurant critic, won a James Beard Award for his book The Last Days of Haute Cuisine.