Those who envision Napa, California as a buzzy epicenter of wine culture might be surprised to see the city’s downtown area on an average night. Streets are quiet, with most residents in for the evening well before 10:00 p.m. But tucked down a side road off Franklin Street, signaled by a bright neon sign, there’s a hub of activity.
Every night, and especially on the weekends, Napa’s wine community, area locals, and in-the-know visitors gather at Cadet Wine and Beer Bar, the three-year-old hotspot at the forefront of Napa’s lively new drinks culture.
Cadet is the brainchild of Colleen Fleming and Aubrey Bailey, two former-cooks-turned-wine pros in their early 30s who met when Bailey rented a room from Fleming in 2013. At the time, Bailey was a sommelier at The French Laundry, and Fleming was working in the cellar and tasting room of her mother’s namesake Kelly Fleming Wines.
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Fleming had been ruminating on an idea for a type of establishment that she felt was missing in the Napa Valley, a place where locals could gather and drink good wine without the pretentiousness of fine dining. When Fleming’s original business partner backed out, Bailey, who had been debating moving on from The French Laundry, was eager to jump on board.
“We wanted to create a really open, inviting space,” Bailey says. “You could be a Master Sommelier, a first year winemaker, or just someone interested in wine, and this would be a really welcoming, chill spot where you could just have fun.”
“I had seen a lot of activity of winemakers and people in the hotel and restaurant businesses gathering at each other’s houses, geeking out, and learning about wine together in a really open and fun environment,” Fleming adds. “There wasn’t a place to do that beyond our friends’ backyards.”
Enter Cadet Wine and Beer Bar. It’s as if Fleming and Bailey created the spot in their own image, and regulars describe the establishment as they would its two owners: cool, youthful, unpretentious, laid back, fresh, engaging, and educational. Light spills into the bar through floor-to-ceiling windows as patrons flood in on days off or after work, and the party continues after sunset, with guests of all ages and backgrounds sharing a beer at the bar, huddled around a wine list at a communal table, or happily chatting in groups in standing-room-only space.
While wine novices might be celebrating a 25th birthday in one corner, a couple could be toasting with anniversary-year Napa Cab in another. The caliber of juice draws such forward-thinking wine professionals as Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines and Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy, as well as sommeliers and cooks from neighboring restaurants.
Cadet’s Instagram account is equal parts baller bottles in decanters and beer cans in pickup truck flatbeds, off-the-clock winemakers sipping the classics and swimsuit-clad oenophiles chugging Txakoli. Basically, Cadet is Fleming and Bailey’s backyard, and everyone’s invited to the party.
The wine list, detailed first by region and then by grape, is always changing. On any given day it includes between 400 and 500 bottles of local and international, classic and out-of-the-box wines, as well as 20-plus by-the-glass selections. The list also includes domestic and international beers and ciders, spanning the range from rotating drafts written on a mirror behind the bar to select large-format, reserve bottles.
“Cadet was really the first of its kind in town,” says Tanner Walle, hospitality manager for Scribe Winery and a recent New York transplant. “There was literally nowhere to drink good, non-California wine in Napa before they came along. There’s always any number of great winemakers at the bar drinking.”
Fleming and Bailey share wine-buying responsibilities. Bailey’s fine-dining background gave her experience with old-school California producers and Burgundy, while Fleming’s expertise encompassed new California wines and funky, natural European bottles. They collaborated on the list’s well-priced, 50-plus-bottle Champagne selection. Cadet’s success, they agree, lies in the fact that neither believed in dictating what guests should be drinking.
“We both viewed our list as a canvas that would give consumers all types of perspectives,” Bailey says. “We don’t want to put our stamp on the list. It’s not about us saying we only serve one kind of wine.”
While there’s a healthy smattering of industry favorites like Chenin Blanc and northern Rhône Syrah, Fleming and Bailey both emphasize the importance of paying tribute to the Napa Valley’s heritage, as evidenced by the solid showcase of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon dating back to the ’60s. They do this with their own fun, lighthearted, edgy vibe.
The vibe is always upbeat, and the all-vinyl soundtrack creates a surprisingly inclusive atmosphere. (Rumor has it, if you purchase a bottle of wine, you get to pick the tunes from the slew of records behind the bar.) The casual, non-judgmental environment helps Fleming and Bailey accomplish their original goal: bringing together a community of people of all walks of life to learn about wine in an approachable way.
In other food and beverage hubs, like New York and San Francisco, the high-brow-low-brow concept is common. There, wine lovers drink Champagne with pizza, expect cru Beaujolais by the glass, and uncork decades-old Barolo at 3:00 a.m. But with about 80,000 full-time residents, Napa isn’t a big city; it’s less than a tenth the size of nearby San Francisco. Napa’s fine-dining heritage is part of the reason why Cadet was the first establishment of its kind.
“Napa really has only been a sleepy town with fine-dining restaurants or kind of dumpy places,” Fleming says, adding jokingly, “There was nothing other than a couple of dive bars that you could go to — but you would get into a fistfight if you went.”
These days, Cadet Wine and Beer Bar isn’t the only Napa establishment bridging the gap between deep dive and fine dining. In the three years since Cadet opened its doors, more restaurants have joined this hybrid category, providing good food and beverage without pretension. Miminashi offers izakaya-style Japanese cuisine alongside a robust, international wine and sake list, and La Taberna takes its cue from northern Spain’s pintxo bars, offering tasty bites with Spanish and Californian wine, beer, and cider.
“The amazing thing about the Napa Valley right now is that it’s seeing a whole new generation come in,” Bailey explains.
The generational shift is happening across industries. Young vintners and winery professionals such as Christina Turley of Turley Wine Cellars are joining or taking over from their parents and putting their own spin on family wineries. Others are embarking on their own projects after training under established producers. Restaurant professionals who originally ventured to the region to work at Michelin-starred establishments are now ready to set out on their own. Industry people from New York or San Francisco are relocating to escape from city life.
“We opened the place for locals, but now it’s cool to see a lot of walk-in traffic and referrals from local wineries,” Fleming says. “Visitors have a chance to see what the local wine community does and what they like to drink when they aren’t working in the cellar.”
The reality is that while this new wave of dining and drinking is undoubtedly welcome, it’s been a long time coming. While the old Napa may tuck into bed early, the new Napa is energetic, curious, and eager to push the limits. The partners behind Cadet Wine and Beer Bar are not alone in their craving for convivial, approachable establishments in the Valley’s central city. Now that the fire has been lit, it’s up to the community to keep it fueled — that same community that Cadet set out to serve in the first place.
“It’s an exciting time,” Fleming says. “I hope Napa can sustain it.”