If you're looking for the spirit of the Napa Valley, you’ll find it in the creative talents who power its businesses—and wineries are just the beginning. There's a diverse and dynamic community of makers at work across the Napa Valley in restaurant kitchens, design studios and wellness centers. We're bringing the destination to life through a series of video profiles on AFAR.com. You'll be fascinated by the work of these local makers and inspired to experience the Napa Valley for yourself.
Raised in the UK, Helen Brown is a relative newcomer to the Napa Valley, lured here in 2014 by an opportunity she says she couldn't resist: working with the geothermal mineral water and therapeutic mud native to Calistoga.
"The term spa comes from a Roman acronym that means health through water, and based on that definition, Calistoga is really the perfect location for a spa," she says.
At Spa Solage, Helen has built on Calistoga's longstanding wellness traditions by developing treatments that use local grape seed mud – rich in anti-oxidants – and healing plants like rosemary, sage, and lavender from the spa garden.
"We feel it's really important to remind our guests of where they are specifically and to celebrate all of the bounty that Napa Valley has to offer," Helen says. In that spirit, she even introduced a meditative wine tasting experience.
Helen describes her personal wellness philosophy as a quest for balance – and that includes enjoying both fine wines and fresh produce. It also means she prioritizes time in nature. A triathlete, Helen rises as early as 5:30 am to cycle, run, or swim.
After an intense workout, Helen finds it's deeply restorative to alternate between soaking in warm geothermal spring water and taking a cool plunge, followed by a session in the spa's eucalyptus steam room.
Whatever your fitness level, she says there are well-established benefits to such bathing rituals, from reducing muscle aches to improving circulation and skin conditions. And Helen strives to elevate her offerings further: "A spa treatment is the most profound when we're addressing each one of the senses."
Two notable treatments that set Spa Solage apart are Watsu, an aquatic-based massage therapy, and a private floating meditation experience, which involves a visualization led by an instructor under the twinkling stars, when it's very peaceful.
"We are the only property in this area doing anything like this," says Helen. "Our guests have found it to be transformative and memorable."
The Callnans work out of a home studio in Angwin, in the mountains above St. Helena. Art can't thrive without commerce, and this location puts them in close proximity to Napa Valley's most innovative restaurants and wineries – the kind that value presentation as much as food.
"We bring a lot to the table, literally," says Will, of their nature-inspired wares. "There's something so different about eating off a handmade organic plate; it warms up the whole experience," adds Nikki.
Chefs regularly drop by the studio to collaborate on designs, and the Callnan's live-work scenario makes it easy for the couple to check on their clay, which is dynamic and in need of frequent attention. It also means their two young kids are growing up involved and immersed in art, both at home and in the greater community.
When the Callnans first moved to the Napa Valley 13 years ago, they taught art while building their business and relationships with a fledgling group of painters and musicians. "Now the arts community is blossoming big time," says Will. "It's great because we create together and we have exhibits together."
The Callnans encourage visitors of all ages to get their hands dirty at the studio. "We'll sit down and throw with them, and we show them the range of work we have," says Will.
What unites all their work is a deep connection to the Napa Valley and its contours. Nikki explains how they create raw edges and rims inspired by local mountainscapes; they will even press a rock or piece of wood into the clay, translating those textures into their products.
"Napa Valley is gorgeous, and sometimes the inspiration is just in keeping your eyes open," says Will. "For us, we're makers, we're wired that way."
A former competitive gymnast, Katianna embraced cooking with a similar discipline and dedication. She worked her way up from the bottom to chef de cuisine at The Restaurant at Meadowood, becoming one of the only women to helm a three-Michelin-starred spot.
During 15-hour shifts, sparks flew between her and John Hong. "When you're cooking together, there's a lot of trust that has to happen," observes Katianna. "If I want someone's opinion about something, John was always that person – cooking together for us really works."
Now, after six years of close collaboration, they're each preparing for new roles: Katianna is tinkering with menu research and development for The Charter Oak, opening in spring 2017, as John steps into her shoes at the Restaurant at Meadowood, mentoring the staff and continuing to push the food forward.
One constant is the garden that the Hongs (and their restaurants) continue to share. It's become a great source of inspiration and seasonal products such as sunchokes, white asparagus, and salsify. "It's amazing what they do in the garden – we can just go take a walk through and get a lot of ideas," says Katianna.
The culinary power couple shares an appreciation not only for the bounty of the Napa Valley but also for its close-knit community. The Hongs have developed all sorts of collaborative relationships, from the local ceramicists who make their plates to the purveyors who supply their cheese and meats. So it's not unusual for them to run into friends while taking hikes or browsing at farmers markets. "I've really become a small-town guy from living here," jokes John.
The way Katianna describes it, in the case of the Napa Valley, this small-town vibe supports the work of remarkably talented and diverse makers. "To not be creative here would be difficult!"
The vineyard is Pam Starr's playground and a deep source of pride. With her partner, Charlie Crocker, she revitalized an estate whose history dates back to the 1870s. Unlike most Napa Valley wineries that launch with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pam followed her passions, launching with 100 cases of Cabernet Franc, and expanding into Sauvignon Blanc, also an unexpected choice.
"St. Helena is a very special appellation growing region because two mountain ranges come together here," says Pam. "I have five different soil profiles, and there are a lot of complications, so that makes exciting grape growing because soil is location, location, location."
Crocker & Starr marks its 20th season in 2016 – and the first with its own dedicated winemaking facility. "I've been unleashed from all creative impediments and feel like a kid in a candy store," says Pam.
To enable this creative winemaking, Pam enlists all five senses. She tastes and touches; looks for the changing color of the berry; evaluates the smells of fruit or French vanilla; and listens for the sound of fermentation giving off CO2 or percolating.
Pam enjoys talking visitors through her process and says it's made her more thoughtful about why she does what she does. Her eagerness to share is typical of the warm welcome you can expect from the Napa Valley community.
"People open their arms for people who come to visit Napa Valley because there's so much to show, so much to share," says Pam. "I wouldn't be here without you popping corks of my wine – I just couldn't do what I do if I didn't have you, and for that, I'm very grateful."
The vineyards and orchards of 450-acre Round Pond Estate are a labor of love for co-owner Ryan MacDonnell and her family. When they decided to expand into olive oil production, Emilio Alvarez, a veteran of the estate since the '90s, was a natural choice for mill master. He has steered the growth of the estate's award-winning oils since 2003 and still gets excited when he starts to see the color in the olives each year.
"It's a new season: you start in the morning and don't know when you're going home," says Emilio. "It's fun, it's challenging, and it's something really unique here in the Napa Valley."
Emilio enjoys sharing the process with visitors, including the benefits of using a single press to extract the oil from the paste and capture all the polyphenols and the freshness and pungency. It's a calling inspired partially by his mother, who would cook everything with olive oil. "I wanted to learn about how olive oil influences health and what makes it really special," he says.
Rutherford in the Napa Valley is certainly the place to learn, as its rich soil and mild climate make ideal growing conditions. Emilio encourages people to experience the harvest in November, when you can see the mill in action and its freshly pressed oil glows a vibrant green.
Ryan adds that, in autumn, visitors also have the opportunity to get their oil blended and bottled on demand. It's the blending that really brings in the artistry. "We have to taste, we have to decide 'do we think it's ready, do we not,'" she says.
From one harvest to the next, Ryan and Emilio have weathered those creative judgment calls along with equipment breakdowns and lost-in-translation moments when a mill master visited from Italy. The reward is in the results: a quality homegrown product that captures the essence of the Napa Valley. It's a place they describe as almost too good to be true – where everyone knows each other's kids and you're bound to encounter friends while shopping at farmer's markets or hiking along scenic trails.
"What inspires me about the Napa Valley is really the beauty, and it's not just the physical beauty, but it's building this business together with my family and working with people like Emilio who are so passionate and inspired by what they do," reflects Ryan. "Having our kids grow up here and understand that they can work the land and create something beautiful from it; I feel lucky to be here."