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Napa's brave new model for markets

December 12, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

NAPA, CALIF. — YOU say you want to know more about where your food comes from and how it is prepared? At Napa's new Oxbow Public Market that opens this weekend, the butcher and the baker will do their work behind windows that will allow you to observe almost every step of the preparation. And the wine will be fermented in barrels you can reach out and touch.

The brainchild of Steve Carlin, who started his career by building the pioneering chain of upscale food markets Oakville Grocery and then supervised the development of the wildly popular Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, the Oxbow market aims to do nothing less than redefine fine food shopping in the United States.

Along the way, Carlin hopes to change the lives of the artisans who create the foods, and even the town of Napa itself. And maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, bring the concept to a city near you.

Big dreams, to be sure. But take a walk with Carlin around the stunning modern building and you begin to think he might actually be able to pull it off.

Consider some of the folks he's gotten involved. The butcher shop will be run by the Bay Area charcuterie stars of the Fatted Calf. The bread baking will be done by St. Helena's beloved Model Bakery. And the winery will be run by Michael Mondavi.

Though construction will be completed this week and about half of the tenants will be open, it will be early spring before the market is fully operational.

The $11-million structure rises on the banks of the Napa River, looking like some postmodern barn, all metal roof and struts and light-filled inside. Along one exterior wall are 10 small (12- by 6-foot) "farm stands" that will be occupied by local growers on both long-term and short-term leases -- like a seven-day-a-week farmers market with a rotating cast of characters.

The interior of the main building is divided into 18 stalls, each from 250 to 400 square feet. This is where you'll find Mondavi's Folio Enoteca and Winery, which will initially sell only wines made locally and eventually only wines made at the market, as well as the Olive Press of Sonoma, which will offer six locally produced oils you can tap from giant metal cans, just like in Italy.

There will be Five Dot Ranch's sustainably raised California beef; the Oxbow Cheese Shop, run by Kate Arding, who helped start Cowgirl Creamery; Whole Spice, a direct importer of dried herbs and spices; and Tillerman Tea, which finds and imports its own specialty teas. Carlin is negotiating a lease with a fishmonger, who will specialize in locally caught seafood.

There will also be a rotisserie cooker, a Venezuelan arepa stand, a bookstore, a culinary antiques collection, a store selling plates and linens, a separate, general wine shop, and an ice cream shop. A restaurant, a coffee bar and an oyster bar are still under negotiation.

In separate buildings adjacent to the main market will be the Fatted Calf's full-service butcher shop, Model Bakery and a third outlet of St. Helena's ever-popular hamburger stand Taylor's Automatic Refresher.

The farmers market stands will be rented not just to professional farmers, but also to locals who might grow fruit or vegetables in their backyards. "Maybe he's got excess Meyer lemons one day out of the year, we'll try to work him in," says Carlin. "I see kids coming down here and selling stuff from their parents' gardens. It's just one more way to build community."

At one time, this kind of public market set-up was the norm, but most were driven out of business by the growth of supermarkets. Today, the few that survive are again thriving, treasured by the communities they serve.

The goal, Carlin says, is building another great market -- along the lines of the Ferry Building, Seattle's Pike Place and Vancouver's Granville Island -- but on a more compact scale that is more easily replicable.

"There have been lots of questions about whether a developer could start a real public market," Carlin says. "Usually these kinds of places just develop on their own. But the thing that will make this work is that we've never varied from the concept of sticking with artisanal producers, people who always put the product first."

One of those is the Fatted Calf, which until now has been operating at the extreme low economic end of the artisanal scale. Though its charcuterie products are considered among the best in the nation, it's been making them at a leased kitchen in San Francisco and selling them mostly out of the back of a truck at three Bay Area farmers markets.

Taylor Boetticher, who owns the business with his wife, Toponia Miller, and partner Chuck Traugott, says that not only are they moving all of their production facilities to the Oxbow market and opening a retail outlet there, but they've moved their families to the area as well.

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