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St. Helena becomes a destination once again

The opening of Jean-Charles Boisset’s JCB Lounge in St. Helena on Feb. 26 highlights a number of other recent openings that have again made downtown St. Helena the prime destination...

A number of St. Helena businesses have recently launched, including Jean-Charles Boisset’s JCB Lounge which opened on Feb. 26. | Photo by Paul Franson

The opening of Jean-Charles Boisset’s JCB Lounge in St. Helena on Feb. 26 highlights a number of other recent openings that have again made downtown St. Helena the prime destination that it long was before Napa stole its thunder.

The Saint wine lounge had been the singular chic social destination downtown among popular locals-oriented restaurants like Market and Cook’s.

That started changing last fall with the openings of long-awaited Charlie’s restaurant in the former Miramonte/Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen building and of the millennial-oriented Oren Swift tasting room in October.

The uber-hip JCB Lounge opened after teases for the last few years, and the temporary C29 will open on Friday, March 1.

Local favorite Ray Ray’s Tacos opens on March 5.

On top of that, a downtown vacancy rate of 20% after COVID-19 has evolved into few empty storefronts but many art galleries and boutiques mostly aimed at female shoppers.

At the preview for the JCB Lounge, I spoke with St. Helena vice mayor Eric Hall, who sent me a summary of recent developments. I have had to edit it significantly.

In July 2018, Kosmont Companies prepared a summary of its downtown retail district. Some key points:

Downtown St. Helena’s retail vacancy rate of 8% at the time was significantly higher than the vacancy rate of Napa County (2.6%) and many neighboring markets.

Lease rates in St. Helena were at an all-time high historically, higher than those for Napa County and neighboring markets. Most local-serving merchants cannot achieve enough sales volume from the 2,000 local resident households so St. Helena has to attract visitors and other Napa Valley residents to shop there.

Also, by 2018 St. Helena residents had long adopted an anti-tourist mentality, resulting in self-inflicted economic wounds. The downtown vacancy rates during COVID climbed to 15-20%, choking off city revenues and exacerbating the community’s woes.

The community that is ground zero for America’s wine industry, with a rich history and heritage going back 150 years, was on a path to becoming economically irrelevant.

An enhanced city council and executive staff and a community-wide effort to improve financial transparency and education are yielding results. 2022 and 2023 have shown increased business investment and openings in the town’s core.

Here is a partial list of business openings in the core in the last 12 months:

In addition, some tourist-friendly developments could help local businesses and city tax revenue:

  • Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch is now fully entitled to begin its 65-room hospitality expansion.
  • A joint venture between Charles Krug Winery and Noble House Hotels & Resorts recently proposed a 50-room luxury resort.
  • Real estate investor Antonio Castellucci has proposed a downtown 75-room luxury resort just steps from St. Helena’s shopping district.

Let’s take a look at some of the new destinations, starting with the JCB Lounge.  

JCB Lounge opens in St. Helena

Jean-Charles Boisset’s long-teased JCB Lounge, a little hint of Louis XIV’s radiance in St. Helena, opened yesterday. It is a warm tasting lounge and wine store in the former Keller’s Market building featuring Boisset’s JCB wines from here, Burgundy and Champagne, including Domaine de la Vougeraie owned by Boisset.

It is Boisset’s third JCB Lounge in the United States, the others being in Yountville and at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

The lounge offers a rare chance to try elegant Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from Burgundy, the standards for the world, in the heartland of burly Cabernets.

You can try flights for $65 or $95, splashes from $10, glasses from $20 or buy a bottle to drink there at retail price. Twelve of the special wines offered by the glass will change monthly, so in a year, you could try 144 wines.  

You can also try some JCB wines from California, but not other Boisset wines like Raymond or Buena Vista. They have their own tasting rooms, after all.

The accompaniments are the upscale bites you’d expect: JCB Caviar from $100 to Ossetra for $165; smoked salmon platter, $35; warm pata negra, $65; cheese and charcuterie, $35; Les Trois duck rillette, $30 and Earth & Sky chocolates for $20.

In addition to the wines on the tasting list, the lounge is a wine shop featuring 120 wines from Boisset properties in Burgundy, including Bouchard Aine & Fils and Domaine de La Vougeraie or wines with the JC Boisset label coming from some of the most famous vineyards and sites in the world.

In addition to their being difficult to find anywhere, good luck in finding most of them in Napa Valley!

The wines range in price per bottle from $26 for an Aligoté, the “other” white grape of Burgundy, to $908 for a 2017 Bouchard Aine & Fils Charmes-Charmbertin, but most are in the range of local Cabs. You can check the list at Boisset French list.

And this is the kicker: You can buy a bottle of any of these wines at retail price and enjoy it in the lounge.

In early 2022, Boisset bought the venerable Keller’s Market building, which still sports the Keller’s sign to many people’s confusion (with Thomas Keller, the King of Yountville). The sign also mentions La Condesa, a Mexican restaurant that once occupied half the building, but I assume that’s coming down.

JCB is open Wednesday to Sunday and closed Monday and Tuesday.

JCB Lounge, 1320 Main St., St. Helena, jcbcollection.com,  707-934-8237

C29 Italian Restaurant

Bruce Marder of famed Capo Italian restaurant in Santa Monica bought and tore down the old Golden Harvest south of town to build C29 Italian restaurant.

Until that location is finished, he has opened a temporary site for C29 in the other half of the Keller Building, sharing a doorway with the JCB Lounge. The restaurant doesn’t look temporary but is quite elegant.

It will open on Friday, March 1, serving upscale Italian food like that from his restaurant in Santa Monica. The menu and wine list on the website here are pretty similar to those there.

They will be open Thursday to Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. to start.

C29, 1320 Main St., St. Helena, www.c29sthelena.com, 707-302-9978

Orin Swift tasting room cuts ribbon

Although it opened last October, the Oren Swift tasting room held a ribbon-cutting last week.

The wine brand is now owned by Gallo, but like The Prisoner from Constellation Brands, it was created by Dave Phinney. Both brands aim squarely at millennial and Z generation consumers, who have many choices in drinks beside wine.

The tasting room is very hip and built around the themes of Rock, Scissors, Paper and Vault for its tasting experiences, including a bizarre window sporting scissors handles.

Orin Swift Cellars, 1321 Main St., St. Helena, www.orinswift.com

Ray Ray’s Tacos

Rachel Williams’ Ray Ray's Tacos will open in St. Helena's historic Cornerstone Building on March 5.

The space was most recently Legit Provisions, and before that, Cook Tavern, It once housed Armadillo’s Mexican restaurant, so it’s a step back in some ways, but Williams focuses on classic Austin-style breakfast tacos with her own signature tacos, salads, salsas and side dishes.

Ray Ray’s Tacos, 1304 Main St., St. Helena, rayrays.com

In other recent news, the St. Helena Welcome Center moved down the street to 1154 Main St., St. Helena. It had been in the Keller Building now shared by JCB and C29.

707-963-4456, www.sthelena.com/listing/st-helena-welcome-center

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