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The Millionaire's Guide to Buying the Napa Dream

Ever fantasize about owning a piece of Napa Valley? There's more to it than just writing a (very big) check for a winery. To truly fit in, newcomers have to learn the Valley's particular set of rules and mores. (No. 1: Don't flaunt your wealth.) Here's almost everything else a napa newbie needs to know.

I. Getting to Know Who's Who

Napa's Best Architect

Howard Backen of Backen Gillam Architects has won nearly every important Napa Valley commission in the last several years. He's designed houses for Carmen Policy, the former president of the San Francisco 49ers, as well as vintner Carl Doumani of Quixote winery; wineries for Cliff Lede and Larkmead; and countless restaurants, including Press and Cyrus. He's also designed just about everything for winemaker Bill Harlan, including his house and his wineries: Harlan Estate, Napa Valley Reserve and Bond.

Many of Backen's elegantly simple structures resemble farmhouses and barns, with exposed beams and native woods. Others are contemporary designs with open kitchens connected to great rooms and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that blur the separation between indoors and out. One way he makes sure his kitchens have amazing views: He rarely uses upper cabinets and often places the main refrigerator in a closed pantry (707-967-1920 or bgarch.com).

Local Stars

Robert Redford has owned an estate here for years and just bought 10 acres in St. Helena for $3 million.

Joe Montana, the famed 49ers quarterback, works with Beringer winemaker Ed Sbragia on Montagia wines.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi owns a vineyard in St. Helena and is developing a winery.

Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher, plans to release his first vintage from his three-acre vineyard on Diamond Mountain next year.

How to Lose Friends and Infuriate People

The worst thing you can do in Napa Valley is hurt the environment. Those who do are treated as pariahs in the community.

The Price of Belonging

(or what you'll need to spend to fit in with your new neighbors)
$25,000 initiation fee to Meadowood country club $7,500 pair of tickets to Auction Napa Valley $2,500 dinner for 12 catered by Michelle Cheatham (415-922-3663 or invisiblechef.com) $4 to $5 million cost of building a winery that can handle 3,000 cases invisiblechef.com half-ton of Cabernet grapes, enough to produce a 55-gallon barrel of wine

II. Finding the Perfect House

Figure Out Your Price Range

Anyone who starts looking for a house in Napa Valley invariably experiences sticker shock. A one-bedroom cottage with a small yard can cost half a million. The most interesting houses start at around $3 million, while good estates can go for over $20 million. The price depends on many factors, of course, including whether or not the property contains or can support a vineyard.

Find Your Neighborhood

The most prestigious place to buy is around St. Helena, and mountaintop property is naturally desirable. The city of Napa is a new option for anyone with a relatively modest budget. Indeed, once a blue-collar town, Napa is now the cultural and entertainment center of the Valley, with the addition of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts and the newly restored opera house. The Victorian homes downtown are selling fast.

Hire a Top Realtor

The most experienced agents know what's going to become available almost before the sellers do. Many locals highly recommend Barry Berkowitz of St. Helena Real Estate as well as Chuck Sawday at Pacific Union, also in St. Helena, and Steve Gregory of Morgan Lane in the city of Napa.

Choose Your Wine Country

A comparison of the price per acre for buildable land:

Napa Valley $150,000 to $2 million

Paso Robles, California $150,000 to $500,000

Walla Walla, Washington $15,000 to $80,000

On the Market

The premium Napa Valley properties never get listed; they're scooped up by insiders who have developed relationships with the best realtors. But here are three properties at different price points—one of which might be the house of your dreams.

List price: $2.9 million This 3,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house is situated on 25 acres off Dry Creek Road, in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains northwest of the city of Napa. Included on the property are a guest house and a small Cabernet vineyard. Minutes from Yountville and Bistro Don Giovanni. LISTING AGENT: Grete Orsoe, Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley; 707-259-5252.

List price: $10.5 million This 7,000-square-foot estate, with four bedrooms and five full and two half baths, is perched in the Vaca Mountains high above Lake Hennessy, about 15 minutes from downtown St. Helena. Neighboring vineyards include Chappellet, Colgin and Bryant Family. The property includes a media room with a wet bar, a newly constructed wine cellar, plus terraces on each of its three levels. It lies on 40 acres with three acres of vines. LISTING AGENT: Gail Lane, St. Helena Real Estate; 707-967-9570.

List price: $22.5 million This 32-room Spanish-Mediterranean villa is on 20 spectacular acres in the foothills above St. Helena. It includes two master suites, four guest suites and 10 full baths in the main house, plus a two-bedroom guest cottage and a pool house. Built in 1941, the house was recently updated and includes extensive Mexican tile and glass walls. LISTING AGENT: Steve Gregory, Morgan Lane Real Estate; 707-252-5528.

10 Essentials For an Enviable Estate

Huge Great Room A casual living room with a fireplace on one end and an open showplace kitchen on the other.

Built-in Espresso Machine A commercial model from Faema that's plumbed to the water line (from $3,500; call 800-348-6664 for a local distributor).

Wineglass Washers A commercial model like the Hobart LXiG (from $5,800; 800-333-7447 or hobartcorp.com).

Wood Kitchen Cabinets Appliances are covered in wood—not stainless steel—to give the kitchen a rustic look.

Wine Cave An alternative to a wine cellar in the basement: wine rooms tunneled into the hillside.

Bocce Court The Italian version of lawn bowling. More popular than golf in Napa Valley.

Lap Pool or Indoor Pool In addition to a heated outdoor pool.

Pool Cabana Daytime temperatures in Napa Valley can be fiercely hot; cabanas have become de rigueur. Plus, everyone entertains outdoors.

Outdoor Fireplace & Heaters A necessity for year-round outdoor living, because temperatures can easily drop 40 degrees in the evening from daytime highs.

Pizza Oven Mugnaini ovens are the most popular (from $5,000; 831-761-1767 or mugnaini.com).

Driving the Right Car

SUVs are the cars of choice in Napa Valley, especially the BMW X5, Lexus LX 470 and Mercedes ML 500. Also popular are expensive, usually German, sedans such as a BMW 745 or 750 or a number of comparable Mercedes sedans (E 500, S 430 and S 500). Plus, most locals have a serious American pickup truck for when they need to do real work, like hauling wood or delivering cases of wine to a restaurant.

III. Making Wine Like a Local

An important part of the Napa Valley Dream is making your own wine. To do so, you'll need to hire consultants like Cary Gott, who founded Monteviña Winery at the age of 24 and served as head of winemaking at Sterling Vineyards before forming Vineyard & Winery Estates (707-942-1110). He assists with everything from locating property to dealing with government agencies.

Next, you'll need to find a winemaker. Heidi Peterson Barrett (707-942-1105) is the consulting winemaker. Helen Turley (707-258-3608) and Mia Klein (707-258-8119) are also sought-after. The new guy in town is Philippe Melka (707-963-6008). A consulting winemaker charges $3,000 to $10,000 a month, with the big names earning more than $200,000 a year per client.

You'll also need to hire a vineyard manager, who is in charge of planting vines and directing workers on what and when to prune. The most famous one is David Abreu (707-963-7487), but he sometimes cuts environmental regulations a bit close and has gotten people (and himself) in trouble with the county. Other popular managers include Jim Barbour (707-963-0540) and Davie Piña (707-944-2229). Replanting vineyards can cost $20,000 to $35,000 per acre; $40,000 for new vineyards. Yearly management costs at least $5,000 per acre.

After the grapes are picked, you'll need a place to crush the fruit, put the juice into oak and bottle the wine. Though of course it's most prestigious to have your own winery, Napa County requires a minimum of 10 acres to grant a winery permit. (Cities such as Napa and St. Helena sometimes allow building on a smaller plot.) Gott estimates it costs about $4 to $5 million, depending on the site, for a nice winery that can handle 3,000 cases annually. Building a winery in a cave has recently become popular: Hiding the machinery in a mountain has less environmental impact, which can help gain county approval.

People who don't own a winery can make wine at a custom crusher like Judd's Hill, a well-regarded winery with a "microcrush" facility. It will process as little as one barrel, which produces 24 cases of wine, for $2,800. On top of that, you need to buy your own oak barrels, bottles and labels (which, depending on design, can get pricey). Overall, you'll end up spending $25 to $35 a bottle—and that's before factoring in the price of the land and the winemaker.

Vineyard Time-Share

An alternative to owning a vineyard is belonging to the Napa Valley Reserve, winemaker Bill Harlan's new club. A $150,000 deposit buys the right to purchase from one-half to three barrels of wine. You can do as much of the work as you want, from grape picking to barrel tasting. About 275 people have joined so far, half from outside California, and Harlan expects to cut off membership at 400 (707-968-3190 or thenapavalleyreserve.com).

IV. Going Out to the Right Places

Eating Like an Insider

Restaurant culture in Napa Valley is all about reverse snobbery: Showing off your VIP status is considered bad taste. In general, even regulars don't have tables held for them, though smart maître d's treat them well.

WEEKNIGHT STANDBYS
Angèle 540 Main St., Napa; 707-252-8115.
Bistro Don Giovanni 4110 Howard Ln., Napa; 707-224-3300.
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen 1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707-963-1200.
FlatIron Grill 1440 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707-942-1220.
Market 1347 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-3799.

CORKAGE-FREE ZONES
Most restaurants forgive one corkage for every bottle purchased, so many locals order a white or sparkler (which requires chilling anyway) and bring a red.
Rutherford Grill 1180 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford; 707-963-1792.
Silverado Brewing Co. 3020 N. St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; 707-967-9876.
Zinsvalley 3253 Browns Valley Rd., Napa; 707-224-0695.

HOT NEW SCENES
Press 587 S. St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; 707-967-0550.
Redd 6480 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2222.

Shopping & Entertaining

SHOES Footcandy, a shoe store owned by Lord and Lady Butler of Juslyn Vineyards, offers wine to suffering husbands while their wives buy $400 flip-flops and Jimmy Choos (1239 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-2040).

BASICS Everyone in mid-Valley shops at Sunshine Foods (1115 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-7070), though they may buy cat food and paper towels at the new Safeway. Steves Hardware & Homeware has been in the same family for more than 50 years, and it's even expanding (1370 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-3423).

FURNITURE Erin Martin, in business only eight years, is already the top interior designer in Napa Valley. Now she's opened a furniture store and showroom in St. Helena. A former sculptor, she leans toward rustic yet refined pieces (1350 Main St.; 707-967-8787).

CATERER People in Napa Valley tend to entertain at home, particularly on weekends, when tourists are around. Chefs are the latest status caterer. With luck (and if the price is right), you can even attract the likes of Thomas Keller of French Laundry (707-944-2380).

FLOWERS Paul and Tom Stokey of Tesoro seem to work for nearly every hotel and restaurant in the St. Helena area, including Auberge du Soleil and Tra Vigne, and many locals receive weekly deliveries. One of Tesoro's specialties is incorporating unconventional objects like kumquats (649 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-3316).

Published April 2006
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