Paul Franson has been writing about Napa Valley for so long, it took two shows for us to cover all the topics on our list! (Part one of our show with Paul can be found here.) We wanted to learn his perspective on the many events and changes that have occurred across the past quarter century in Napa.
Paul’s writing has not only been seen in almost every North Bay publication over the decades, but he also self-publishes a weekly subscription newsletter, NapaLife. His work has extended to his most recent book, “The NapaLife Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley.”
In the second half of our conversation with Paul, he looked back on some of the biggest changes that had taken place in the valley:
When he moved to Napa, wine was the big deal 25 years ago. But there were few stellar restaurants. Today, food is a BIG thing in Napa Valley. Same with music events. The town previously had a small symphony orchestra and no rock ‘n’ roll events of note. Today, because of the efforts of Margrit Mondavi (in large part), there is the summer music festival (which now bears her name), bringing a variety of acts from jazz to major billboard artists who came to play at the Mondavi Winery each year. Napa’s also welcomed classical music festivals and the big one that’s brought the masses, BottleRock.
While sports entertainment has not seen substantial growth in Napa Valley, Paul has seen the performing and visual arts gain significant footholds. The Blue Note holds forth with a huge array of concerts currently being held at Charles Krug. Napa is also home to various theatre groups such as Lucky Penny Productions, which have thrived in providing (mostly) musicals along with a few straight plays. A number of wineries also offer art galleries, including HALL Winery, St. Supery, Hess, Mumm and others.
Climate change has had its hand in wine’s evolution in Napa Valley. A big change Paul Franson observed has been rising alcohol levels. He said when he first came to Napa and was making home wine himself, alcohol levels were more in the 12% range. Today they’re more often around 14%, a result, from his point of view, of not only changing tastes in flavor profiles but also a result of rising temperatures in the valley, making for riper fruit at harvest.
Another agricultural development to Napa Valley has been the change in laws regarding the growing of cannabis. Residents, tourists, growers and regulators are all still grappling with how they feel about this inevitable change in our world. The jury is still out, but it looks to be a permanent development to Napa.
Last, but certainly not least, has been the rejuvenation of the rail lines. When Paul moved to Napa Valley twenty-five years ago, the rail lines were fairly dormant except for occasional freight movement. He, along with many others (including co-host Lisa Adams Walter), wondered why the powers-that-be didn’t make use of the rail line to move people up and down valley since the main roads were often congested at peak times. Afterall, rail transportation had been central to the valley for more than one hundred years.
Rail travel first arrived in Napa Valley in 1864 when San Francisco’s first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, began to transport visitors to his spa resort in Calistoga. Passenger service didn’t begin to wane until the 1930s with the advent of auto travel. As the decades passed, freight travel also began to disappear along the line until Southern Pacific attempted to sell the land.
In the 1980s, concerned citizens worked to resurrect the train’s operation. And in 1987, Vincent DeDomenico bought the train and right-of-ways to bring it back to life in its current incarnation. The hosts and Paul agreed that it’s been nice to hear the train’s daily runs up and down valley again since the pandemic began to recede. The train had been shut down for more than a year as the world grappled with COVID-19.
During the show, we enjoyed the Priest Ranch Winery 2019 Grenache Blanc and 2019 Priest Ranch Rosé, perfect accompaniment for stimulating conversation among friends on a late-summer afternoon in Napa Valley! Both were icy cold, refreshing and ideal for a hot day.
For those interested in a subscription or more information about NapaLife, it runs 12 to 40 pages each week, including a list of almost everything happening in Napa Valley in the next week. It is e-mailed each Monday and an online version is also available. For a sample copy, call or email Paul at (707) 326-0797 or firstname.lastname@example.org.