The California wine country fires are contained. Napa and Sonoma skies are clear and blue. Recovery from the devastating fires will take years—8000 homes and businesses lost, a hundred thousand people displaced, 42 died. If you want to help the victims of these devastating fires, especially small businesses and their employees, you can do something delightful as well as impactful: visit Napa and Sonoma. Go soon.
It’s the tail end of harvest time in Napa Valley—what locals call “the crush.” It’s normally the height of tourist season. In the aftermath of the fires, tourism has declined, and businesses are struggling.
“Harvest is a very pretty time in the Valley,” said Sean Capiaux, President and Winemaker of O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery. “California doesn’t really get Fall colors, but there’s a whole spectrum of colors within the vineyards during harvest. The fires didn’t affect the vineyards on the Valley floor.”
“The hotels, restaurants, and wineries are usually full,” Capiaux continued. “But right now, because people have made other plans due to the fires, times have opened up in all those places.” Visits to O’Shaughnessy are by appointment.
When you visit Napa Valley—now or in the future—don’t leave without buying at least one bottle of a very special liquid. You can enjoy it even if you don’t drink alcohol.
It’s a bottle of olive oil from the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufactory in Saint Helena, California, one of the oldest, most beloved small businesses in all of California wine country. Up and down Napa Valley, it’s the olive oil locals use.
The authentic, old-world store is located in a white barn down a small street in Saint Helena, the heart of Napa Valley. Visiting it is a step back in time. You’ll likely find Narcisa Lucchesi—a delightful, spunky Italian matriarch—running the tiny shop, a 70-year old Napa Valley institution, owned by the Lucchesi and Particelli family.
The origins of the store go back to 1919 when Gugliermo Guidi came to San Francisco, later opening an Italian deli there.
“In 1931, he came to St. Helena to retire,” Lucchesi said. “The area reminded him of Lucca, his home town…Guidi saw the olives going to waste. He thought it was in his DNA to make a good oil…I remember him telling me when he saw the big olives, ‘Oh my goodness, the bigger the better.’ But the first few batches he did were really not good. It took him a couple years or so.”
Beginning in the 1940’s, the olive oil was custom-made for them in the Sacramento Valley because there was no longer enough olives in Napa Valley for the quantity Guidi needed.
“It’s a special blend of California olives,” said Lucchesi. “All first press, cold press, extra virgin, unfiltered. Four things that are really good for olive oil… What we’re trying to do with our blend—it should be pleasant for bread dipping, salads, and vegetables. But you also want a good oil that’s not overwhelming—too strong or too mild—to use for all the cooking.”
In addition to the original olive oil, cheese, salami, and pasta, the store makes over 20 different types of infused olive oils and 20 flavored balsamic vinegars.
Lucchesi’s filing system would send chills down most small business owners. It’s literally a cardboard box where she stacks her bills. She tallies customers’ tabs on brown paper bags, and the “cash register” is an old roll-top desk.
The recent fires didn’t damage the store, but the lack of tourists may hurt the bottom line.
“We were closed a couple days,” said Lucchesi. “We didn’t have electricity. We put out some lanterns. We don’t have a computer—all we needed was a bit of light.”
If you can’t get to Napa Valley, you can order by phoning 707-265-6866. “Call me. I’ll give you the price,” says Lucchesi. “You tell me what you want olive oil for. What’s your cupboard space. What’s your nationality? I’ll tell you what to get. Some time I just throw something in because I know they’ll like it. I feel passionately about some of our products.” You can also visit the website for their new store in the city of Napa, http://www.nvoliveoilmfg.com/.
“The whole valley is ready for tourists and customers. We’re all anxious to get everybody back here.”
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017
This article originally ran in USA Today on October 25, 2017